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Carolina alumna’s ‘second career’ takes her to the Met

Finance professional turned art historian Denise Murrell has curated an important exhibit on the Harlem Renaissance.

Denise Murrell headshot next to Carolina Blue artwork of the U.S. with points indicating where Denise Murrell has gone.
Denise Murrell's life has taken her all across the East Coast and through two radically different career paths. (Graphic by Zack Hall/UNC Creative)

In just four years, Carolina alumna Denise Murrell ’76 has made quite an impact as an associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Her most recent exhibition, “,” opened to the public in February and runs through July. Her experience with art history and curation has had many high points, including a well-received exhibition on the evolution of Black models’ representation called “Posing Modernity” for Columbia University in 2018. But the “Harlem Renaissance” has garnered such stellar reviews that Murrell feels it’s a seminal moment in her career. The business and culture news website Observer called it “thoughtful” and “refreshing.”

“We’ve been thrilled by the reception,” Murrell said. “It’s far exceeded anything that we were expecting.”

Murrell’s path to the Met was unconventional. She didn’t take a single art or art history course at Carolina. In fact, Murrell spent her time earning a bachelor’s degree in economics. She thrived in the field, later receiving a Master of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and working as a marketing officer and banker in New York.

But while in Chapel Hill, Murrell also developed a love for the arts, beginning with a passion for literature. She had her first brush with the Harlem Renaissance in a Carolina course about the literature of the era.

“I loved it,” Murrell said. “I still have a number of the books from that course.”

As a finance professional, she still found herself drawn to museums and cultural events taking place around the city. In 2007 — nearly 30 years after receiving her master’s degree — Murrell chose to take the leap from the world of finance to the world of the arts, beginning her doctoral studies in art history at Columbia University.

“This is what I call a late second career,” Murrell said. “I tell people all the time now, if there’s a subject that is of interest to you and you want to work in that field, go for it. No matter your age.”

Murrell took her enthusiasm for art and literature and, like she did in her business career, thrived professionally with this newfound passion. When the chance came to curate a Harlem Renaissance exhibition for the Met, Murrell thought back to her college classes and the Met’s rocky history with presenting the subject.

“In 1969, the Met had an exhibit called ‘Harlem on My Mind,’” Murrell said. “The problem is that it was a show about Harlem told by people outside the community.”

Murrell says the current exhibit is more diverse, with paintings, sculptures and photography representing many artistic voices. It tells the story of “emerging Black modernity” from 1918 to the mid-1940s, through the work of African American artists from different cultural backgrounds.

Murrell found much success in her second career, but when looking back she still gives a lot of credit to the University.

“Going to concerts, going to cultural events, that became a part of my routine during my time at Carolina,” Murrell said. “It’s still a place that means the world to me.”