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A TED Curator’s Approach To Collecting Colorful People

Who curates those TED talks? Juliet Blake is fascinated by people, a passion that informs both her work and her portrait collection.

When I ask TED’s Juliet Blake how she came to have a wall full of portraits in her Brooklyn home, she responds wonderfully, with asides embedded in digressions: “I grew up in the north of England, and my sister was 17 years older (she’s an Academy Award-winning costume designer)–and I was convinced for the longest time she was my mother, which really screwed me up, but it turned out I just had very old parents and was a late mistake. But anyway, my sister was a really good painter, and I now have a lot of her work in my house, and so I sort of grew up in a quite artistic environment, and my earliest memories are of her painting, or of her work on the walls.” Following an early family trip to the National Portrait Gallery in London, a special love of portraiture was born.

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But it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that Blake began to collect portraits. She was producing a TV series in London, and there was an artist-in-residence at the hotel where she was staying. The painting was hyperrealistic and unflattering, she says, and when she showed the portrait she bought to her then 10-year-old daughter, her daughter burst into tears. “But it was a very good painting,” she recalls.

Juliet BlakePhoto: Dian Lofton

Though she didn’t know it then, she had caught a portrait-collecting bug. Soon, she’d bought a pencil drawing of the English comedian Eric Sykes; later, a portrait of two boxers. As the years passed, she amassed more and more. “Other women might buy themselves a piece of jewelry. I would never buy a piece of jewelry. I only buy pieces of art.” She now has over 30 paintings.

One wall of her home is the portrait wall, with some dozen hanging there. Some cost her $50; others as much as $3,000. “I mix them up. I’m egalitarian about them. I don’t think things have to be expensive to be beautiful,” she says. The paintings are hardly of a piece, and that’s deliberate. She likes the range of face, ages, eras, and styles represented on the wall. “Some of the people on the wall look completely crazy. Others look like nice human beings,” she says.

Sometimes, when visitors come over, they assume Blake must know the people on the wall; why else would they have such pride of place? She’ll take them for a ride, making up stories: “’Yeah, this is Uncle Art. He was gay, and couldn’t walk very well . . . ” There is no Uncle Art, of course, and most of the people on her wall are not people she will ever meet or know. “I look at them often and think, ‘I wonder what your story is . . . ’ I have such an inquiring mind about people.”

This love of diverse, colorful people–symbolized on her wall of portraiture–serves her well as curator for special projects for TED. Her job–like her hobby–is to collect people, in the best sense. And with TED, as with her wall, she likes the oddball choice, the quirky juxtaposition. In 2013, while curating a TED/PBS special on the theme of education, there was a requisite list of prominent white men like Bill Gates. Looking to mix things up a little, she went on a Google/Facebook/YouTube search, and came across an African-American educator from Houston named Rita Pierson. When Blake reached her on the phone, Pierson asked, “Who’s TED?” Blake knew she had found just the voice she needed. (Her funny talk has been viewed 5 million times.)

Blake is currently hard at work for the next, imminent TED event, TED Talks Live, which will take place in Manhattan’s theater district over the first six days of November. Baratunde Thurston hosts, and presenters will include Adam Driver, Sebastian Junger, and Rufus Wainwright presenting on topics like “War and Peace” and “Science and Wonder.”

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For the “War and Peace” segment, Blake became enamored of the idea–“a whim,” she calls it–of having a choreographer present a dance piece. There was a certain choreographer whose work she saw online and loved, but it was cost-prohibitive to fly her to New York, put her up in a hotel, and pay a per diem, all for a five-minute dance piece.

“So I said, ‘Well, she’s not going to be an ax-murderer, and I suspect she’s an interesting human being.” She and her husband invited the choreographer to stay with them, “and we got on like a house on fire.” She often stays in touch with people she brought on for a TED talk; just as often, she’ll fall out of touch for years, but then reunite warmly, as happened recently. “I think because I’m the daughter of immigrants”–her parents were German Jews who lost their families in Auschwitz–“I don’t see friendship as something where you have to keep in touch. We’ve moved around too much for that.”

“I like to be surrounded by interesting people,” she sums up. And she married someone who feels the same. Her husband, the organic gardener and cook Mark Shepherd, will step out for the mail, and won’t return for an hour. She’ll peer out the window to find that a crowd has gathered around her garrulous husband, who also cooks and hosts a weekly dinner party.

Before we hang up, she makes me promise I’ll attend one of the next ones. To judge from her walls, I’m bound to end up sitting next to someone interesting.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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