THE BLOG

Museums: Art History (Not for Profit) or Business (for Profit)?

Jul 10, 2012 | Updated Sep 09, 2012

In my sophomore year at Queens College, CUNY, I remember going for an appointment to meet with my college adviser, Dr. Ellen Davis. The words she said to me that day are etched in my memory forever. She looked at me straight in the eyes and said, "Christina, you should major in art history as an undergraduate, but after that you should go get an MBA and make some money!"

It turns out this advice was something that she said to all her undergraduate students, as she was well aware that jobs in the Museum World are not plentiful, and you don't make a great deal of money. I was young and didn't heed her advice, feeling that I would be one who landed a coveted museum job. Being young and naive at the time, money did not seem important! A year later, as a junior, I came in to talk with Dr. Davis again about my next step after college. I had a speech prepared, and headed into her office aware that she would most likely try to discourage me from applying for a master's degree in art history. I began my speech and she turned to me with her sparkling blue eyes and smiled, giving me her blessing! Her advice to me at that point was to immerse myself in the museum world so that I could be sure that this was what I wanted. Internships at the Brooklyn Museum and the Art Commission at City Hall followed, and I was delighted to be accepted to graduate school to earn a master's degree in art history at the same time as being accepted into the highly competitive Metropolitan Museum of Art Internship Program.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Internship program gave me direction and an understanding of all the various positions working in a museum. It also gave me access to curators, administrators and directors of departments, opening up a whole new set of opportunities. The day we were to meet with then Metropolitan director, Phillipe de Montebello, was so very exciting. Years later, when I interviewed for a position in his office, I remember him sitting behind his ornate desk, and the arched window streaming the light from the sky above Fifth Avenue into his office. He was as charming in a one-to-one interview as he appeared narrating the numerous audio guides people loved. He made me feel at ease when he asked for my opinions on various programs that he had recently instituted at the Metropolitan. Even though I didn't get that job I felt that other great opportunities would come my way, and they did.

In the museum world actual experience is truly key, but to get a professional position in a museum your minimum education degree will most likely have to be a master's degree. Should it be a degree in art history, museum studies, museum education or business? After 30 years in the museum world I feel that art history was the right choice because the study of art history speaks to museums' purest goals: to preserve, protect, and educate our society about art. Art embodies our cultural spirit, and museums are Art's Archangels! My concentration was on ancient art, but I have always worked in contemporary art, which was my minor. I feel that a background in art is central to working in a museum because you need to understand its mission.

Most museums have educational charters, defining their incorporated responsibility to educate the public about art. Some museums today have lost sight of this charter. Instead they want to entertain the public, and bring notoriety and profit to few, but I'll save writing about that for my next post. It is extremely important that museums constantly re-evaluate all of their programming, and open, honest, lines of communication are part of their infrastructure so that their community members, administrations, staffs, and boards get to speak frankly with each other. Only by staying true to their missions and communicating openly can we make sure museums succeed and thrive again as institutions that benefit everyone.

The day to day work of being a museum director is not as glamorous as most might think. You do get to visit artists' studios and in most cases are surrounded by creative, innovative people, but there is endless paperwork, budget issues and grant writing, which do take up a great deal of time, and you certainly do not make a lot of money. Would I do it again? I must admit there are days when I have sworn that I wouldn't, but in my heart I know that I would!