Careers with History of Art: AAH Careers Day 2014

It is probably fair to say that a feeling of disquieted apprehension about the future is a feeling all University students share. In a bid to lull this feeling for myself, on Saturday 25th October I headed down to The Barber Institute of Fine Arts at The University of Birmingham for the annual AAH (Association of Art Historians) annual Careers Day conference. Admittedly I did not leave at the end of the day with a sudden epiphany as to what I should do once graduating from Nottingham; but I did get an idea of some fields that weren’t right for me, the broad range of career prospects open to a History of Art graduate, and also top tips to ensure I get to where is right for me.

fig 1The day consisted of mini lectures from a series of seven speakers, all of which adopted a particular niche within the world of History of Art, after their degree. Here are some brief summaries of the speakers I found most informative, with their jobs and top tips:

The first speaker was Reyahn King (Head of Heritage Lottery Fund West Midlands), although Reyahn admits her current role takes her further away from Art History than she originally cared to be, she gave us a list of all the different jobs she has been in over the years. Her extensive and impressive CV highlighted that you must be willing to put yourself out there and try jobs you wouldn’t in the past consider in order to get to where you deserve to be. She also completed her MA at Boston University in which she had to undertake 10 hours weekly of volunteering in their Gallery. Reyahn described this to be the hardest, most informative but fun year of her life. This encouraged me to actively consider a Masters degree, but one that also creates volunteer and study abroad opportunities.

The second speaker was Alex Jolly (Learning and Access Assistant, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts). Her position involves making art more accessible to everyone, not just the History of Art students and what she described as a “stereotypical white middle class demographic”. Alex describes her job as rare in the art sector as being permanent and secure, as many other jobs such as curating require change and flexibility. Her PGCE Masters degree she said to be the hardest year of her life, and she admits an unnecessary credential for the job she is now in, however it was in this year that she discovered she loved working with people and mirroring her interest in art onto them. Her job entails thinking of new initiatives to involve people in the Barber Institute; whether they are specialised tours for the death and blind, evening classes for adult learners or art therapy workshops for recovering mental illness patients. This characterises how involved her job is in the public running of a Gallery, but it also made me acutely aware of everything that goes on behind the scenes at galleries, that I as a History of Art student, and general member of the public could get involved with. That leads on to Alex Jolly’s top tip – be aware and be informed of things going on that you can get involved in to develop your interest and knowledge of the arts.

fig 1After a delicious buffet styled lunch (provided by the AAH – bear that in mind when considering attending next year), the talks were started up again by Dr Connie Wan (Pop Art Curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery). Connie confessed how she accidently fell upon her love of Art History after completing a degree in Graphic Design. This emphasised an important message I learnt that day, is that there is no one set route to the career you want, and that sometimes you have to learn what’s not right for you in order to discover what is. Dr Wan said that to be a curator you “need a good eye” and be keen to talk about what you’re working on. Since many exhibitions are temporary, you need to be adaptable, flexible, and willing to put yourself out there so that you keep getting the work. She used herself as an example for this point, noting that she went from specialising in nineteenth-century landscape in her History of Art MA, to currently curating a Pop Art exhibition. This leads to some of her top tips; i) it’s okay not to know something, ii) show initiative.

A number of undergraduates in our department here at Nottingham may well be thinking ahead and considering a PhD; you may even have an area in mind for research of it. Carly Hegenbarth is in her final year of Doctoral research at the University of Birmingham, researching ‘The Visual Cultures of Catholic Emancipation in Great Britain and Ireland, 1821-9’. Straight away, the soon-to-be-Dr Hegenbarth admitted that as an undergraduate student she never saw herself  being interested in this area, let alone doing her doctoral dissertation on it. This taught me that with History of Art, as with any area of study, you have to keep an open mind. A PhD involves a sustained investigation of a research area; this allows you to go off on a tangent which isn’t as possible as an undergraduate. However Carly didn’t sugar coat it, admitting it was “Not. Easy” as it is mentally draining with Carly describing it as “hard to switch off” and your laptop becomes your best friend. When asked by a member of the audience what was the best part of a PhD she answered “the best part is also the most challenging part, which is the research…you have to really love it!”

Towards the end of the day Jane Thompson Webb gave a talk on her job as a Conservator for Birmingham Museums Trust. Like me (or maybe not, in which case ignore), you may have first thought this was to do saving whales and tying yourself to trees, it’s not. Jane’s job is as she put it “poking at things with sticks” and “getting up close and personal with stuff”. Unlike everyone else who spoke at the AAH careers day 2014, Jane did not do a BA degree in History of Art, but believe it or not she did a Conservation BSc. She advised if anyone were to consider doing a conservation postgraduate course, look for courses with a small intake number, because that ensures you have more time with the actual objects. What Jane currently does is preservative conservation, which involves looking after objects and giving them specific care to prevent them from deteriorating. This could include a variety of activities from dusting, to being in a lab testing elements to rebuild a broken part of an old frame, or quite often mixing colour palettes to recreate a section of painting. What Jane did say that if you were to consider a career in conservation you would need “endless patience”, going on to describe how her and a small team spent over 8,000 hours restoring a seventeenth century silver leafed mirror in Aston Hall recently. However I think the most notable point Jane mentioned after all her years of experience in the field, was specify how “if you have an aptitude for art…this is perhaps the career for you”. So for all you Art Historians craving getting down and dirty with the objects you look at in textbooks day after day; you may want to consider conservation.

A possible solution...

A possible solution…

Above is a brief summary of some of the people from the History of Art world who shared their knowledge and experiences with me on Saturday. The main think I took away with me is to be open minded; try and volunteer every opportunity you get, because you may stumble across something you love! Every speaker reinforced the notion that the arts industry is an extremely competitive one and you won’t get the job unless you put yourself out there and go the extra mile. Chris Packham who is the Careers Consultant for the Arts at The University of Birmingham said that sometimes you “need to make them realise they need you…present yourself as a solution”.

I would highly recommend attending the next AAH Careers Day, or any other such events, as it will provide you with insight for your role in the industry. For me, the day was extremely beneficial: not only did it reaffirm to me that History of Art is 100% the future for me; it created an appetent excitement about getting out there in the job market, which scarily enough is closer than we think.

Zorcha Dean (BA Art History student, second year)


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