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MoMA Asst. Director to MSLCE Students: ‘Be Ambitious, Be Eager’

By Jacob Nelson

Sheetal Prajapati began Northwestern as an engineering major. The pursuit was short-lived.

“That ended pretty quickly,” Prajapati said, “and I found liberal arts.”

Prajapati, who currently works as the assistant director of learning and artists initiatives at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, spoke at last week’s speaker series event for the Master of Science in Leadership and Creative Enterprises program. She described her career path from Northwestern to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), then to Northwestern’s Block Museum, and finally to MoMA.

While doing so, she was quick to point out that much of what she knows now she learned through along the way. “I was 22 and really had no idea what I was doing,” Prajapati said about beginning her job at the MCA. While working there, she took courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to learn more about the business of working in museums.

She said she knew she loved the educational aspect of the arts. “What I needed someone to teach me at 23 years old was how to manage.” A consistent trend throughout Prajapati’s career has been to shake things up by moving to jobs where she’s uncomfortable, so that she pushes herself to learn more. She said that method has provided her with the best education she could get. For example, even after working in art museums for a decade, she still found herself intimidated by the curators at MoMA. “It was kind of a big beast to slay,” she said.

Prajapati got her jobs at Block and then at MoMA because she had previously worked with the people who hired her. She encouraged attendees of the event to get internships in the field that interests them. “Find people in the field and start getting to know them, people whose jobs you’d love to have,” she said. “You need to be ambitious and you need to be eager. That goes a long way.” She also encouraged attendees to be actively learning outside of their jobs. “I’ve always found ways to learn to do the thing I needed to get me to the next job,” Prajapati said. As a result, she added, “Things I didn’t expect to happen have started to happen.”

Currently, Prajapati is working on a project with conceptual artist and Northwestern art professor Michael Rakowitz, who often focuses his work on his Iraqi-Jewish cultural background. “My job is not just to facilitate that research but collaborate,” Prajapati said. Another project Prajapati is working on involves looking into guerilla art installations in the MoMA, where artists come in and tack their work on the museum walls or place a sculpture in a corner.

Prajapati is working with museum security to look at incident reports so they can gather a whole series of attempts by others to get their work into the MoMA. It’s a new experience for Prajapati, who seems most excited by her work when it’s something she hasn’t done before. “Part of my job is always learning, and that’s probably why I do what I do.”