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After graduation, she returned to New York City in 1971 to take a secretarial job at the Museum of Modern Art, followed by part-time assistant jobs to Judd in the early 1970s, and Paula Cooper for the first three years that she had her gallery, beginning in 1972. While at the Paula Cooper Gallery she wrote exhibition reviews for Artforum, and subsequently for Art in America, the Village Voice and other publications as well. Smith has written and spokes about Judd on numerous occasions throughout her career, and upon his death in 1995, Smith penned the New York Times obituary for Judd.
Smith began writing for The New York Times in 1986, and became the newspaper's co-chief art critic in 2011.
Smith is a longtime advocate for museums to be free and open to the public.
In 2012, Smith received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2017, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago awarded Smith her second honorary Doctorate.
Smith married Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York Magazine, in 1992. The couple lives in an apartment in Greenwich Village in New York City, that both also use as a writing studio.