By Lorrie Flom
Sarah Nichols knew from the age of 15 that she wanted
to work in a museum. What she didn’t know was that
her museum career would blossom in the United States,
a country that held little interest for her as a student.
Now retiring from her position as full-time curator of
decorative arts after two stints and 17 years with Carnegie
Museum of Art, Nichols can look back at an array of exceptional
exhibitions she has curated, most notably Aluminum by
Design: Jewelry to Jets, which toured internationally,
and Contemporary Directions: Glass from the Maxine and
William Block Collection. She’s also still looking
forward to an ongoing relationship with the museum as
guest curator of a glass exhibition in 2007, and to an
ongoing relationship with an arts community and a city
that she still plans to call home.
How did a British girl end up with a career in the United States?
I came to the U.S. in 1979 for my cousin’s wedding
in New Hampshire and made a vacation of it. When I visited
museums in Washington and New York, I
was bowled over by the way they presented things. British museums were very
shabby at that time. I knew if
I wanted to get into a museum I needed a graduate degree, so I applied for
the Winterthur Program in early American Culture in Delaware. When I finished
the program, one of my teachers told me about an opening for an assistant curator
of decorative arts here in Pittsburgh.
What was your reaction to Pittsburgh?
I liked Pittsburgh right away. I rang my parents up to
say I was moving here and there was silence at the end
of the phone. My father went to his golf club—the
font of all knowledge—and he called me back and
said he heard all kinds of terrible things about Pittsburgh.
He asked, “Are you sure you want to move there?” Of
course, his information was decades out of date. My parents
have since been to Pittsburgh numerous times and love
What were some of the challenges you faced after joining
In graduate school, I focused on the 18th century. When
I came here, I found there was a real interest in 19th-
and 20th-century decorative arts. I had to learn all
that stuff and that was great. So my first challenge
escape from the 18th century and broaden my perspective.
One of the ways I did that was to do a lot of teaching,
both for the docents here and at the university level.
If I wanted to teach the subject, I needed to study it.
Did working at Carnegie Museum live up to your expectations?
When I first came to visit, I was very impressed with the
museum and the decorative arts department and its curator,
Phillip Johnston. It was Phillip who reenergized the department
and began expanding the collection with 19th- and 20th-century
pieces. He gave me many opportunities to learn—which
When I came back the second time in ’92 as
the curator (after a brief stint working in Yorkshire,
had become the museum director. Decorative arts was important
to the museum, and I was given an incredible amount of
After Richard Armstrong became the director in
1996, the department had another period of renewal. It
who gave the green light for major shows such as the
Aluminum and Light! exhibitions.
What is your most memorable accomplishment here?
The biggest thing I’ve done here is the Aluminum exhibition. It was an incredible opportunity. The show
traveled around the world, and it was fascinating to see
it in its different guises and venues.
you be involved with Pittsburgh’s
upcoming glass exhibition?
I’ve become very involved in contem-porary glass.
I’m involved in the Pittsburgh Glass Center, and
I’ll be curating a glass exhibition at Carnegie
Museum of Art in 2007 that looks at the relationship
American glass and Venetian glass from the mid 20th-century
to the present day.
As an arts community, we’re looking
at 2007 as the “Summer
of Glass” in Pittsburgh. One of the prime leaders
is Phipps Conservatory, which is bringing in Dale Chihuly—a
name in contemporary glass—who has done lots of gardens
of glass in conservatories. And Pittsburgh recently received
word that it will host
International Glass Arts Society conference in 2007.
Pittsburgh already has a history in glass, but I think
glass has the potential to become an even more significant
and influential aspect of
life in Pittsburgh, with great potential for economic
What’s next for you?
I’m thinking of buying an industrial type building
in Pittsburgh and creating a studio where I can work in
glass, perhaps stained glass, and maybe have other artists
there as well. This is totally for me; I’m not into
becoming a famous artist!
Besides that, I have a huge laundry
list of things I want to do. I’d like to travel and
spend more time in England with my family. I want to do
more with the Pittsburgh Glass Center, and I’m
also very interested in studying the art and artifacts
related to the history of dining and learning to speak
French properly. But Pittsburgh is going to stay home for
What will you miss most when you leave Carnegie Museum
The collection—particularly the chairs. My colleagues.
The socialization. The structure and camaraderie. And being
part of the mainstream of what’s going on in the
Pittsburgh art world.
But it’s time for a different stage in life. I’m
very lucky. I can do it.