By Lissette Martinez, with contributions from Taykhoom Biviji

Sheetal Prajapati is an educator, curator, organizer, and artist, whose practices intersect and inform one another. Like many cultural workers in the arts, Prajapati wears several hats. At the time of this interview, she is: Assistant Director of the Learning and Artists Initiatives at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); the Expansion Specialist for an annual international conference on art and social practice, called Open Engagement; an adjunct professor in the Department of Social Engagement at Moore College for Art and Design; and a 2015-2016 SHIFT Resident at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts. Sheetal has held speaking engagements for the Creative Time Summit, Northwestern University, and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is also a 2007 alumni of the Arts Administration and Policy Graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (you can find examples of her early work, the “Chicago Ravioli Project,” in the school’s Joan Flasch Library). Most recently, Sheetal participated in an artist research residency at Arquetopia Foundation in Puebla, Mexico. She is co-curator of GAME NIGHT, a series of free public events featuring artist-made games for play, funded by a grant from the Awesome Foundation. 

I, an Art Education graduate student, along with Taykhoom Biviji, a graduate student in Arts Administration and Policy, interviewed Ms. Prajapati on her intersecting practices. Here, we share her trajectory into the museum field, and how her practices and pedagogies influence each other in work and life.

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Sheetal Prajapati found her start in museum work through an internship at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, at Northwestern University, while still a History and Gender Studies major at the school. Sheetal first realized her interest in museum programming when she interviewed Fazal Sheikh in 2002 for his exhibition at the Block Museum, Fazal Sheikh: The Victor Weeps – Ramadan Moon – A Camel for the Son – Simpatia. She states:

“Fazal was really inspiring, and then being able to talk to my peers about it too, and help them find access points into his photographs in the galleries…it was a new experience I didn’t realize that I was capable of doing, and that this was a career that you could actually have. I really hadn’t been exposed to museum work in that way.”

Since her internship, Sheetal has worked in the Education Department at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Block Museum, and in 2010, began in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. However, in 2014 during a teaching residency in the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore, she began reflecting on her work as intersecting lines something of a larger practice.

“I traveled to India for six weeks and I taught a class, a project-based class to undergraduate students at the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore. I had been thinking about starting to make work again, and while I was there I was in an intensive class. I taught every day for about five hours. So I was totally removed from my life, so my free time was all about developing my own work.”

“The teaching that I did in India came directly out of a collaboration with the artist Allison Smith who I’d been working with at MoMA. She had been to the school in Bangalore that I taught at, and then said to me, ‘You have to teach here.’ She made the connection for me and recommended to the faculty there that I go for their one-month interim period, along with artists and educators from around the world that come to do that.”

During the interview, Sheetal reflected on what her practice means, and how it is so affected by her role as educator, organizer, and artist.


“I was thinking about this interview kind of at the same time because my presentation [at UNC Greensboro] is actually going to be about how artists and other cultural workers in the arts often have multiple roles that […] require them lending parts of their creativity to the work. And what does that mean in terms of spreading your creative energy across projects, but also what is the potential for them to intersect with each other in terms of developing them? So when I say my other work, I mean my work as an artist, I mean my work as a programmer for Open Engagement which is a conference, I mean my work as an adjunct professor teaching at Moore College, I mean my work as an artist-in-residence at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts. So all of these things are happening simultaneously in my life, and although it is kind of crazy, it has also been really fascinating for me to have conversations that are helping me start to find really interesting intersections between these seemingly distinct practices, but very connected theoretically and creatively for me. I found a lot of intersections and influence between the things that I’m doing.”

“My work at MoMA sparked my interest in getting involved with Open Engagement, and now being involved in Open Engagement for the past three years, there are lots of people and intersections. Like who goes to Open Engagement, and the artists that it’s for, and the work that I’m doing at MoMA, and the people that I’m trying to serve here. So it’s kind of come back around where now the work that I’m doing in Open Engagement is speaking to my work at MoMA. I’m meeting a lot of artists and hearing about new projects. The research I do for the conference is kind of funneling back into my work at the museum. So that is a very clear example of the intersections and I would also say that my artistic practice that I currently have […] emerged really out of an instinctive and urgent need for me to explore ideas that came out of conversations with artists that I’m working with.”

“Open Engagement is taking an interesting turn right now in terms of content and trying to bridge […] social practice as an umbrella to think about art practice and also activism and other kinds of social justice work, how all of those fit under the larger narrative of social practice, and what we can learn from each other. That transition and those conversations about Open Engagement, for this year, have directly influenced the readings that I put together for my class [Theory of Engagement and Applied Research at Moore College].”


As Assistant Director, Learning and Artists Initiatives at MoMA, Sheetal listed four key goals for the Education Department: accessibility, engagement, creativity, and experimentation. Recounting one experience, Sheetal describes how collaboration is key to creating programming which captures their goals.


“I started to really think about intersections between art and other disciplines as a way to approach art enthusiasts and people who are interested in other fields. How to bring them into dialogue about art or with art through other disciplines. Last fall I organized a series of Friday night social events, when the museum is free, that were collaborations with three science and technology institutions: Eyebeam Art & Technology Center, Pioneer Works, and the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator. And we had a show here called This Is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good. I had artists and people that were related to that show, in dialogue with artists-in-residence or programmers from these other places. The idea was to talk about art and design together, fashion and design together, and technology and art together. We had people coming to the museum that had never come to an education program before. I’m interested in that. I’m interested in how art is relevant to our larger practice of life.”


In a speaking engagement for the Creative Leadership Series hosted by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Sheetal stated that the goal of education to “foster creativity and lifelong learning.” I asked Sheetal if she could explain how that reflected in her practice.


“To me, it’s really critical to work at a modern and contemporary art museum. Contemporary art gives me that access point in a really natural way that makes sense. Also because we’re working with living artists and that has been another focus of my interest—in developing this notion of fostering curiosity and lifelong learning, that has direct interactions and engagements with artists and the public. Having that can bring new ways of thinking about the museum, but also new ways for approaching one’s own life. Me working with Nina [Katchadourian] this past year and a half, I have found myself noticing things that I have never noticed before and that’s through having that experience with her. No, I’m not gonna make the same artwork as her, but I feel like she’s helped me like see the world in a slightly different way and those little things can make a big difference in our experience of our own life and the way that we engage with new information and new environments.”

“The other thing that I think a lot about in relation to creating lifelong learning is visual literacy. The fact that we live in an overly visual culture of people reading information through images, both moving and still…everywhere we go, every surface that we lay our eyes on. So thinking about how museum programming and pedagogy within informal learning environments can help people build skills and tools to have […] the visual literacy that allows them to see past the surface of an image. Because that becomes really important in how we read images. That leads directly to how we understand the world around us. And so I like thinking about that potential. Like, wow if I could just tweak the way you look at this or if you’re prompted to look at this image for two seconds longer, that can make a huge difference. Those are the kinds of things I’m interested in.”


While Sheetal Prajapati’s career is not what she imagined for herself on her first day as an intern at the Block, she expresses a passion and innate gratitude for the work she does. She welcomes the positive influence her work has had in the way she thinks about education.


“I think for me, it has totally opened up the ways that I now imagine the role that museums can have in society and the essential function of education both in museums and in the world around us, not just in schools, but in other kinds of spaces. I’ve become really excited not just about museums, working here, but about other kinds of institutions. I think that has been extremely inspiring to me that I can find connecting points between what I do here and in other fields and that it’s an opportunity for me to learn how other fields intersect with the work that we do through programming. I get to use programming as my research platform…which is awesome.”


During the end of our interview we began discussing what “work” really means and how passion can manifest into reality.


“As I’ve moved through my career, I realized the word ‘work’ doesn’t just mean hours in the office…but actually it means the level of engagement you have with the thing that you’re doing, and how invested you are in it, not just professionally but personally. And I found that as I moved through my career.”


“I would say that for me, one thing I tell people a lot is ‘find your passion in the work that you do.’ That can drive you further than any degree. That can drive you further than any mentor. Although I definitely advise people to have mentors, I do think that a lot of people don’t take time to find what they’re passionate about. Even if you’re working in a field you’re not passionate about, there might be something in your work that you’re passionate about. So it’s not about loving every single thing you do, because I do things at my job that I don’t like at all. But they’re part of a larger goal for me towards a bigger idea that I feel really invested in. I think it’s not just about following your passion, it’s actually about finding it and articulating it so that it can actually manifest throughout your life, both in your career and in other places in your life practice.”