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10/12/2012 at 6:27:39 PM GMT
Posts: 3
Moderators' Welcome to Forum Members

Hello, and welcome to the AAMC’s new student forum! We’re glad that you’ve stopped by the site. The purpose of this message board is for students to have the opportunity to ask curators questions about the field.

 

The message board will be moderated by two or three different curators at a time, so that we can offer a range of perspectives (various historical and geographical specialties, working at larger museums vs. smaller museums, different stages of careers, etc.) on curatorial work. Today we’re kicking it off with William Breazeale, Curator at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, and me, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ.

 

We’re looking forward to hearing your particular questions, and encourage you to feel free to post about what is on your minds. Since this is message board’s debut, William and I thought we would begin by telling you a little bit about our personal career paths. Many of you seem to be most curious about how to become a museum curator—we were when we were students.

 

Alexandra Schwartz

Growing up I always loved making art, and I was fortunate that my family took me to a lot of museums. When I started college, I thought I’d be an English major, but my first year, I took a fantastic art history survey course that changed everything. I loved the way art history reflected so many different fields—social, economic, and political history, philosophy and religion, aesthetics—as well as the simple (or really not so simple) act of creativity. I was hooked, and promptly became an art history major.

 

Meanwhile, the idea of becoming a museum curator was vaguely percolating in my head. It seemed like working in a museum and getting to organizing exhibitions would be an incredibly fun job. (And it is!) So, I started trying for internships. Even then, around 1993, internships were hard to get, but my best advice about that is to keep trying, and apply to a range of museums—large and small, in a variety of cities. My first internship was at The Phillips Collection in Washington. My job was technically in the Human Resources department, but the docent program fell under that department, so I spent a lot of time learning to give tours and researching the collection in preparation for them, as well as learning about other aspects of museum work. It was a great introduction to the filed, within the context of a smaller museum where I could see a bit of everything.

 

The next academic year I did another internship, one day a week in the Department of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, doing research and learning the ropes of curatorial work. I got that by writing a cold letter to the curators, and was thrilled when they need some help. Then, that summer, I did an internship (paid, for the first time!) in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art, which was also a great experience, especially because their internship program offers a comprehensive overview of how every museum department works. After I graduated I moved to New York and took a job at The Museum of Modern Art, as an assistant in the Development Department. While working in fundraising was not initially my first choice, it was a great education—curators have to understand fundraising and have to do some themselves, and it was invaluable preparation for my future career.

 

I knew by that point that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., and I applied to programs while working at MoMA. I eventually decided on the University of Michigan, which was a wonderful choice. Although, at the time, the art history department there did not have many official opportunities for graduate students to work at the university museum, that has now changed dramatically. (Like many other art history departments, Michigan has recently developed a museum studies certificate program; these programs are great opportunities to learn about museum work within the context of an art history doctoral program.) However, I found that I could still be involved at the museum, and I was. While I was in graduate school I also, at the suggestion of my doctoral adviser, edited a book of artist interviews, which ended up opening a lot of doors. Upon moving back to New York to write my dissertation, I began working as a Teaching Fellow through the Education Department at the Whitney, giving tours of and lectures on exhibitions. (I was hired by one of my old MFA supervisors, who by that time worked at the Whitney. The people you meet as an intern will be your lifelong colleagues.) This was wonderful training for the public aspects of curatorial work, providing excellent training in how to make art accessible to broad audiences, as well as in public speaking.

 

When I was nearing completion of my dissertation, I began networking and doing informational interviews with curators. I took a chance and wrote, again out of the blue, to a curator at MoMA who was a fellow alum of one of my schools. She agreed to meet with me, and three weeks later offered me a job. I didn’t know there was even a job available, but she was planning a series of interviews with artists for an exhibition catalogue, and my experience with my artist interview book made me stand out. I stayed at MoMA for almost 7 years, working on a number of exhibitions and permanent collection installations, as well as a special, long-term project on women artists in the permanent collection, which culminated in a large book, a series of exhibitions, and numerous education programs. I went to the Montclair Art Museum a year and a half ago, where I am the first curator of contemporary art, building an exhibition program, working extensively with artists, and honing my management skills within a small museum.

 

 

William Breazeale
I came to curatorial work along a path that may be a little unusual.  I had studied the history of art as an undergraduate, with a focus on the interaction of literature and painting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  It became clear that for any further study of art, languages were essential, so I took a master’s degree in Italian to supplement French and German.  What brought me to museums was a humble position on staff in a curatorial department at the National Gallery of Art—mainly administrative, but it gave me a front-row seat on the museum world and how it works.  I found that, at least for me, the chance to work with the objects was essential, something I could not imagine doing without in a career.  But there was still one thing missing, an advanced research degree.  My purpose in pursuing the Ph.D. at the University of Maryland was not to write my magnum opus, or to utterly change the field with my brilliance (that can come later, maybe!), it was simply to get the thing done that was between me and the chance to work with the objects.  This pragmatic approach actually served me well and improved the final product, as it allowed focus in a time that can often be full of detours and dead ends.  I was lucky enough to work with a professor and a department who encouraged not only my ideas that leaned towards the artist’s process of thought, but also a newer focus on direct knowledge of the objects.  One of my courses on Rubens was taught mostly at the National Gallery's paintings collection and print study room, which last made me think about a specialization in works on paper.  I came to drawings because that is where artists’ thoughts are most clearly expressed, and change over time.  Eventually this intersection of objects and thought became my dissertation focus.  Along the way, however, I was lucky enough to receive internships and fellowships—the Graduate Summer Internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a year-long University of Maryland Museum Fellowship at the National Gallery of Art, and the two-year Philadelphia Museum of Art Margaret M. Mainwaring Curatorial Fellowship in Prints, Drawings, and Photographs—that allowed me direct experience of how a works-on-paper department is structured, and many of the unglamorous but necessary things that go into collection maintenance, conservation, and exhibition organization.  This experience is what is not taught in a classroom, and internships and fellowships are the best way to get it—nothing would be sadder than to want to be a curator and find out too late how unglamorous much of the work is!  Being a pragmatic person though, I was hooked on the life of the objects and research on them.  When a position working with a drawings collection known to specialists but less by the general public came open, I was taken by the chance to advance knowledge of it, and I have been at the Crocker Art Museum since, first as associate curator and now curator.  There is a lifetime of work here, and I only hope to be able to continue to bring the collection to the attention of the public.  There are many other things besides drawings that I deal with in my position, from Meissen porcelain to 19th-century German painting, which gives me the chance to vary my pursuits, and learn about a variety of things, a curiosity that is a necessity in a small museum.


10/26/2012 at 7:36:40 PM GMT
Posts: 1
Thank you for Sharing

Thank you for sharing your stories. It is wonderful to hear how you both found a career you love. Even better, you are helping others, like me, discover the curatorial field.  As an American Studies Major, I love exploring the United States' history through cultural artifacts. Sometimes, however, I worry that my major might impede internship opportunities because it pertains to a specific country and does not exclusively relate to art. How can I best leverage my degree in a way that appeals to internship coordinators and employers in the museum field? On a separate note, what role is emerging technology and digital archiving having on the curatorial field. In other words, are curators required to know increasingly more about sharing a museum's collection on-line in a dynamic, interactive, yet user-friendly way?  

 

Michael McMenamin

Fordham University

American Studies Major

Class of 2014




Last edited Friday, October 26, 2012
11/7/2012 at 3:36:39 PM GMT
Posts: 3
RE: Thank you for Sharing
M. McMenamin said:

Thank you for sharing your stories. It is wonderful to hear how you both found a career you love. Even better, you are helping others, like me, discover the curatorial field.  As an American Studies Major, I love exploring the United States' history through cultural artifacts. Sometimes, however, I worry that my major might impede internship opportunities because it pertains to a specific country and does not exclusively relate to art. How can I best leverage my degree in a way that appeals to internship coordinators and employers in the museum field? On a separate note, what role is emerging technology and digital archiving having on the curatorial field. In other words, are curators required to know increasingly more about sharing a museum's collection on-line in a dynamic, interactive, yet user-friendly way?  

 

Michael McMenamin

Fordham University

American Studies Major

Class of 2014

 

 

Hi Michael,

 

Thanks for your post and apologies for my delay in replying (I've been traveling).

I don't think that your major should be a big impediment to getting internships, if you frame your interests in objects the way you did here. It's true that you might focus at least initially on museums with a strong emphasis on American art, as your speciality would help you here. Also you might consider taking an art history class or 2 if you haven't already, to help you become more fluent in how objects are dealt with in museums.

And yes, digital technologies are increasingly important in museums, which constantly increasing online presence. There is a big push to put collections online, and to have exhibition websites and interactive educational programming. Curators should understand this, though most museums also have digital learning specialists or even departments to lead the way. 

 





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