my 5 favorite art museums (for now)

Asking me to choose my favorite art museums is like asking someone to pick their favorite child.

Actually, that might be easier.

But as part of the 31 Days to a Brand New Blog Challenge, we’ve been tasked with writing a list post, so I thought I would go with a subject that is near and dear to my heart:

My 5 Favorite Art Museums (for now)*

 Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art


As if being literally a stone’s throw away from my job wasn’t great enough, this cozy museum presents thought-provoking exhibitions while effectively highlighting its permanent collection.  Crowd-sourcing an exhibition of its volunteers’ favorite works and highlighting local artists earns this museum high marks.

Dallas Museum of Art

My first visit to this museum took place during an AmeriCorps Habitat for Humanity Build-a-Thon.  After spending five days constructing houses in the spring heat, it was a welcome respite.  I was totally won over by Late Nights, my first up-close viewing of work by Edgar Degas and the museum’s support of young visual artists.

Art Institute of Chicago

This is the place where my pop culture references collide.   Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic.    Ivan Albright’s masterfully grotesque Picture of Dorian Gray (which gave me nightmares as a kid after watching the movie.)   Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.   My beloved  A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat.

Spencer Museum of Art

For some reason, university art museums seem to get lost in the shuffle.  Located on the main  University of Kansas campus, I spent a lot of time in the galleries as a woefully shell-shocked (and broke) freshman.   Even though it’s close to home,  I don’t visit nearly as much as I would like.  Thankfully, the Spencer Art Minute keeps me connected to the collection.

Walker Art Center

Much more than “just” an art museum, the Walker presents  a steady stream of dynamic exhibitions, lectures, films and performances.  Innovative programs like Open Field and Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) solidify its place as an industry leader.

*excluding my place of employment due to conflict of interest 🙂

Tyler Green (Modern Art Notes) is hosting a favorite museum deathmatch contest.  What place makes your inner art geek swoon? Please share your favorite art museums in the comments.

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

public service lessons

Apologies for the delay in posts – I’ve gone underground to complete my last semester of graduate school. *cue the Hallelujah! chorus.*

During a chat with a co-worker recently, she mentioned that she planned to volunteer with a nonprofit organization working to improve the quality of housing on Native American reservations.   She is a strong advocate, so I wasn’t surprised to learn of her support, but I was taken aback when she mentioned that she actually wanted to build the housing.  I greatly admire this woman, but she often refers to her love of finery and fancy notions and is always impeccably pulled together in both manner and dress, so the idea of her perched on a rooftop in the blazing heat of the South Dakota summer was difficult to fathom.

But then I remembered:  isn’t that what people thought of me when I told them I was signing up for an AmeriCorps term of service with Habitat for Humanity?

I certainly adore my creature comforts, so at the time it was a bold move.  I was cohabitating in downtown Kansas City, Missouri (before it became cool & subsequently expensive) with The Roommate  and our income was severely anemic.   I had recently returned to college and was working soul-sucking fairly profitable temporary gigs and there I was, asking him to allow our finances to dwindle down to practically nothing, as my base pay would be somewhere around $3 per hour.  The conversation went something like this:

The Roommate: You want to do WHAT?

Aspiring Public Servant:  Join AmeriCorps.  I know it doesn’t pay diddly, but think of what I’m getting–medical and dental insurance, money for my education that we’re going into debt for, job skills, networking, plus I get to help people.   I’m trying to switch careers, ya know.

The Roommate: Yeah, but we’re broke!

Aspiring Public Servant: Short term pain, long term gain.

The Roommate: I don’t know, man.  What the heck is AmeriCorps anyway?

Aspiring Public Servant:  It’s like the domestic Peace Corps.  This is a good thing, I swear.

The Roommate: *sigh* You’re lucky you’re cute.

I couldn’t afford to move, so I searched for local opportunities.  I applied and selected Kaw Valley Habitat for Humanity in Kansas City, Kansas (now Heartland Habitat) as my service organization.  There were several positions available and after much consideration, I settled on Assistant Volunteer Manager.  I was studying nonprofit leadership and preparing for American Humanics certification (my service counts toward the 300-hour internship? Sweet!) , so I desperately wanted the experience of nonprofit administration.  Plus I was guaranteed at least one day a week building on-site, and as a DIY-er at heart, I was thrilled about that.

My year-long term of service was one of the most amazing and challenging things I’ve ever done!

So What Did I Learn?

  • If you’re completing a term of federal public service, you qualify for tons of assistance from food to cut-rate home phone service.  You don’t have to live on Top Ramen and hot dogs and “borrow” your friends’ phones!
  • Select an organization that you are interested in, but that offers assistance with housing and/or transportation.  Luckily, I didn’t need these options, but access to free housing and a mini-van were invaluable to my fellow AmeriCorps members who were far away from home.  The affiliate also  provided us with free work boots, toolbelts and utility knives.  I may not have known what I was doing at first, but I certainly looked the part!
  • I gained such an intense admiration for Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County (AKA “The Dot”) that I plan to make my home there.
  • It is possible to schedule over 20,000 volunteers in a year and not lose your mind.
  • When people use the phrase “hell on earth” they must mean Southern Georgia (where our training occurred) and Central Texas (site of our build-a-thon) in the summer.
  • Construction skills are super-handy when you’re looking to buy or build a house.   Start throwing around terms like “flashing” and “hand-blown insulation” and they’ll know you mean business.
  • Never turn down free training! You’ll appreciate it when you have to pay out-of-pocket for professional development.
  • Carpenter pencils are recommended for a reason.   Being on a 20-foot roof, dropping your regular round #2 and watching it roll helplessly down to the ground truly sucks.
  • The experience of living with less is something that has stuck with me.  I certainly don’t consume as much or in the same way as I used to.
  • I am much more capable of weathering financial storms than before.  When The Roommate was briefly unemployed and the Great Recession was bearing upon us, we reflexively went back to our term-of-service economic habits.
  • I  mastered the fine arts of budgeting, coupons and thrift store shopping.
  • Public service will change your life.

AmeriCorps Week is May 8 – 15, 2010.  It’s a great opportunity to learn about service & support those who are serving in your area.  AmeriCorps Alums is also in the running for a Pepsi Refresh grant.  Check it out and cast your daily vote to help build 25 healthy communities through AmeriCorps Alums leadership!