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Spotlight On … Nina Pelaez ’11

Nina Pelaez ’11, assistant curator of public programs at the Williams College Museum of Art, runs People’s Library, an archive in response to “What book is helping you understand the world right now?”

What do you love most about what you do?

I love being able to shift people’s expectations of what an art museum can be and should do. I also love working with socially engaged artists who critique institutions—they keep me extra sharp. 

How has Swarthmore shaped your career—and your life?

I remember reading Shakespeare alongside queer theory in Nora Johnson’s Renaissance Sexualities class and seeing, for the first time, that 16th-century literature could be relevant to my life. That type of experience showed me, as someone recently said, that “there are no dead objects, only living ideas.” Seeing the incredible potential of opening up interpretation to be multiple, layered, and unfixed transformed the role I see museums playing in how we understand and engage with art and material culture. 

What advice would you give current Swarthmoreans hoping to follow in your path?

Don’t shy away from history, even if you are interested in contemporary objects and ideas. Be aware of history and the ways it shapes us in order to critique, reimagine, and change it. 

Anything else you’d like to say?

Don’t be afraid to quit or say no. Be rigorous and understand why it isn’t working for you, but then move on. I quit the first job I had out of Swarthmore—a well-paying job at a high-end gallery in New York City. I was terrified—I had never quit anything in my life—but it turned out to be the best decision I ever made.