needle in a haystack

Have you noticed the euphemisms created to describe the economy? Phrases like “recent economic downturn”, “rough patch”, “slow economic growth” and “credit crunch” are tossed about like confetti, all in an effort to keep from telling us what we already know–the economy sucks.  The fact that 14.6 million people in the United States alone are unemployed is frightening.   Does that stat make anyone else want to run screaming through the streets?  Either we’re really great at policing ourselves, or we’ve collectively bought into the hype that everything is okay.  I don’t know about you, but something don’t feel right out here.  And the aforementioned figure doesn’t even take into account those who haven’t filed for unemployment benefits, have just given up on ever finding work or are retired.

As evidenced by the preceeding paragraph, the current economy is on my mind, and I’m noticing how it’s playing out amongst the recently graduated.  In the past couple of months, I’ve been asked “How did you get your job?” with increasing frequency and urgency as newly-minted art, art history, museology and art education grads find themselves scrapping for specialized museum jobs alongside displaced museum employees and/or sector switchers.   Finding entry-level work in the museum field was tough before the economy went south.  Now, I’m being told, it is nearly impossible.

Interning used to be a golden ticket into the field.  But with the Department of Labor investigating the potential illegality of that unpaid labor force, expect many of those positions to dry up if  the Feds insist that minimum wage and/or benefits are required.   And even if cash-strapped museums are able to slip through the unpaid loophole, whom but the most affluent among us can afford to work long-term for free?

Some feel an advanced degree will make you stand out from the pack.  With most full-time entry-level positions at museums  now requiring an undergraduate degree, this seems like a sensible course of action.   But Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 wonders if museum studies graduate programs are worth the effort, contributing to unnecessary barriers being placed before potential museum employees, while Center for the Future of Museums suggests that museums skip the college crowd altogether in their staffing searches.

So how did I find my job?  When I was in AmeriCorps, I emailed my sister (a recently-graduated art major) info about a position at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.     She scored that gig (’cause she’s awesome).  Several months later, as she prepared to move out of state, she informed me that the Museum was trying to fill a program assistant position in the Education Department.  For sure, the fact that she referred me helped, but everything after that was up to the fates.   I can’t say for sure what combination of experience, education, moxie or bargaining with a higher power gave me the edge, but it wasn’t an easy process.  I had a total of four interviews: two via phone, a one-on-one in person, and a group in-person.  After all that, I was so grateful to get it, I never thought about asking why they hired me!   *adding that to my to-do list* 

Apparently, my entry into the museum field was a bit nontraditional (no art, art history, education or museology background), so I decided to ask  May Evans, a degreed museologist, about her recent experiences with museum employment prospects (or the lack thereof.) Her responses definitely provided much-needed insight into this issue.  A poet, blogger, artist, museum-lover and self-described “weirdo with a big heart”, you can also follow Ms. Evans on Twitter @readheadgirl.

Why did you decide to pursue a museum-related degree?

I was searching for a grad school to put me on a career path after earning a degree in English: Creative Writing. I’d done that largely for personal development. I have been writing poetry since I was twelve and I loved working with words. Unfortunately, the only career paths I could see with that degree weren’t anything I was interested in at the time: marketing, specifically, but working for a corporation generally.  I was looking for something that was in the non-profit world when I ran across the University of Washington’s Interdisciplinary Museology Master’s program.  Instantly this made sense for me. I have been in more museums than I can name over my life! Most of my family vacations were arranged around museums and historical sites to visit and I have always been in love with art and the art museums that house it.  That’s the long answer. The short answer is that I couldn’t image myself in any other career path at the time.

Where did you study?

I studied at the University of Washington, Seattle. While I was there I worked for two years in on-campus Henry Art Gallery.  I also had internships at three other museums, one of which turned into my final project for the program.

How many attempts at securing museum-related work have you made?

I can’t say how many in total I’ve made since before I graduated from UW 3 years ago, but since February 2010, I’ve made 35 attempts.

Has the experience been positive or negative?

Overwhelmingly negative. Most museums will never get back with me. The ones that do normally respond that while my skills are impressive, they went with a candidate who more closely matched their needs.  I have not gotten a single interview from a museum in all this time.

What are the common barriers you have experienced in pursuing museum work?

My hugest barrier is that I do not have much more than two years worth of museum experience, and only two years of PAID museum experience.  Most museum job postings I’ve seen asks for 3+ years of experience at the least. Sometimes this keeps me from applying and sometimes it doesn’t.   Either way, it isn’t helpful and it makes me concerned I might never get the type of work I want to do.  My other barrier is that many museums want a curator to have a Ph.D. in some type of art.   Since I don’t have a B.A. in art, it’s basically impossible for me to get a Ph.D. in it as most universities require that. So I feel I can’t even further my education any more in order to get over my inexperience barrier, which is doubly frustrating.

What should museums do to encourage and develop the next generation of museum workers?

Be willing to consider applicants with less than “ideal” education or experience.  Provide a broader range of volunteer activities that prospective employees could take part in.

Are you frustrated by your search for museum-related work? Check  out the resources below and feel free to add your suggestions, tips or responses in the comments.

How to Get a Job in Museums Part 1

How to Get a Job in Museums Part 2

Deb’s Unofficial Guide to Getting a Job in the Museum World

So You Want to Work in a Museum? Confessions of an Art History Major