KUWomenofDistinction

Barbara A. O'Brien, M.F.A. (Right)

Barbara A. O'Brien, M.F.A. (Right)

Honors, achievements, and special recognition:

  • Named Executive Director of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in June 2012
  • Joined the Kemper Museum staff in 2009 as Curator
  • Rhode Island School of Design, National Alumni Award for Professional Achievement, 2006
  • Brandeis University, Women’s Studies Research Center, Visiting Scholar, 2005-06
  • Elected member of the International Association of Art Critics
  • Editor in chief of Art New England magazine (2003–06)
  • Director of the Gallery and Visiting Artist Program at Montserrat College of Art, Beverly, MA (1990-2001)

How I became interested in my area of study:

My freshman and sophomore years of college I was selected to be part of the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program. This small group, seminar approach (only 100 students were selected each year) allowed me to feel comfortable and challenged by the academic opportunities at KU. That program awarded me a scholarship both years to travel internationally (for the first time) and broaden my horizons, both geographically and intellectually. These experiences led me to pursue a BS in Journalism and BA in women’s studies. In journalism, my focus was photojournalism. I was the photographer for Women’s Sports on campus, as well as on the staff of the Daily Kansan and the yearbook. My advisor (and advocate) was Professor Gary Mason.

A few honors, achievements or accomplishments that are meaningful to me:

  • I was the first student to petition for, defend in front of a committee, and receive permission to earn a Bachelors Degree in Women’s Studies. Prior to that only an Associate of Arts was allowed. My most inspiring instructor was Janet Sharistanian.
  • Roger Shimomura, a professor emeritus of art at KU, negotiated to have me be the first performance artist to create a public work at the Spencer Museum of Art. This year-long meditation on the families of men who were buried (along with my father) in the Veteran’s Circle in the Bonner Springs, KS cemetery, was a springboard for what became my thesis work at Rhode Island School of Design, where I earned my M.F.A. in Photography.
  • I have spent my life asking the question, “What constitutes a community of artists?” This emerged out of my undergraduate study of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. The central question continues to inspire and drive my life decision. Most of my career was spent in academia (Simmons College in Boston and Montserrat College of Art), but coming back to the Midwest to first serve as Curator and now as Executive Director of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art brings all of the strands of my life together.

My favorite KU memory:

KU has been the longest standing source of surprising and life altering aspects of my family life. My husband, Burleigh “Bo” Smith and I met at KU, where he earned his Masters in HDFL. Our daughter, Pearl O’Brien, is currently a third-year M.F.A. candidate. My aunt, Dr. Rae Sedgwick, who earned both a PhD and a JD from at KU, introduced me to Dr. Emily Taylor. Rae always told me that KU would be a great place for me. It was and it is!