'Dyslexia made me work harder'

Beverly Louise Brown, 52, is the curator of "The Genius of Rome 1592-1623" at the Royal Academy of Arts. She has taught at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and Brown, Princeton and Harvard Universities. She has served as a curator at the National Gallery in Washington, and as assistant director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. She currently lives in Belsize Park, north London.
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The Independent Online

Education and background

Education and background

I was born in Wisconsin but my father was employed in the travel industry and because of that we moved house about every two years. I lived in lots of different places including Indiana, Chicago, Kansas City, St Louis, San Francisco and New York.

I'm dyslexic and didn't learn to read until I was 13 years old. At school I couldn't read and I knew everyone thought I was stupid. It's a horrible feeling thinking 'I know I can do this if only people would give me the chance'. Suddenly one day I realised I had read something and burst into tears because I was so happy. This experience made me determined to push myself extra hard.

One of the things I've realised from my teaching experience is what you decide to study on your first day at college may not be what you end up doing for the rest of your life. When I went to college as an undergraduate, I wanted to study theatre. I had big ideas about becoming God's gift to Broadway. So I chose to do my diploma at North Western University in Chicago because it had a very famous school of theatre.

In the first year at college I had to take a fine arts course and decided to take an introduction to the history of art. I thought it would be useful, if I had to be in an 18th-century play, because I would be able to look at a painting by Vatteau and see the costumes and how the figures stood and moved. I thought it would be great background for my fabulous theatrical career I was going to achieve.

But I didn't realise what a magical experience sitting in a black room looking at slides with someone standing up there talking about them would be. Then for the exam, all you had to do was describe them. It was like water off a duck's back - it was the easiest thing I could imagine. I started taking all my extra courses in art history. I took so many that the art history department thought I was a major in their department. About half way through my course, I realised that I wanted to go on to graduate school to study for a PHD in art history.

The big idea

If you studied art in those days you didn't think about having a museum career, you were either going to be an artist or a teacher. So I went off to teach. After spending five years teaching at Harvard University I was offered the chance to work for a year at The National Gallery of Art in Washington because one of the curators had gone on leave.

I'd put on a few small exhibitions for students in the past and had really enjoyed it. I thought it was a bit like interior decorating. But I was still nervous about leaving teaching. The first year at the gallery was hard, it's not like teaching in the States where you get three months off in the summer for holidays, but I really enjoyed it. I realised I really wanted to work in a museum. It was similar to teaching in some ways, the visitors were like a large student body, but I also really enjoyed the research and spending time in the library.

Worst moment

One of the most embarrassing moments of my career was when I first went to work at the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth in 1990. I had been there about three weeks when the director asked what I thought of the plinths the sculptures were on. I said I thought they looked like packing crates, they were all beat up and really horrible and suggested we should redesign them in a more elegant way. He very politely listened. I went away only to discover a day later, that he had personally designed these plinths and of course we weren't going to change them.

Greatest achievement

I know it sounds trite and horrible to say "The Genius of Rome" is my greatest achievement, but I am very proud of this exhibition. You work so hard and long on these things and for so many years (since 1994 for "The Genius of Rome") that you get an amazing feeling of exhilaration when they finally open. It's not just a personal thing you've made happen, but something you've made happen for maybe a quarter of a million people. That's the high.

Secret of my success

You have to believe in yourself and believe you can do it. Because of dyslexia I have always had to push myself hard and be determined not to give up.

Need to know

Getting your foot in the door is very important but not necessarily that easy. Everything is a learning curve, no matter how many exhibitions or museums you work for there is always something new that you can learn. You can learn from other colleagues and their way of looking at things.

'The Genius of Rome' 1592-1623 is at The Royal Academy of Arts from 20 Jan-16 April

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