Four alumni from Cornell’s Department of History of Art & Visual Studies returned to campus Sept. 23 to share their careers and advice with students interested in working at a museum. The event was held in the Johnson Museum and organized by Professor Claudia Lazzaro, director of graduate studies in history of art, with funds from the Graduate School.
From building projects to investing in new pieces, the alumni talked about their day-to-day projects, how they moved into a museum career and the ways their experiences at Cornell helped shape their interests.
“Embrace what is quirky about your interests and your background,” said Diane Butler Ph.D. ’04, director of the University Art Museum at Binghamton University. “That’s what makes you interesting to an employer.”
Butler studied music as an undergrad, then went to work in politics and taught U.S. history before returning to Cornell for her Ph.D., originally in Africana studies. After one class on African art with Salah Hassan, she discovered a strong interest in art.
As director of the Binghamton museum, she curates exhibits and works with students who curate some of the smaller exhibits. She also teaches a course in which students decide how to spend $5,000 to acquire a new piece for the museum. They study areas where the museum is lacking in its collections, then travel to choose the new piece. Last year, the class visited a print fair in New York City.
“It was hilarious to see the students running around and approaching dealers to say ‘Do you have any 15th century German woodcuts?’” she said. “How many 20 year olds are seeking that?”
Yasufumi Nakamori, who currently serves as the curator of photography and new media for the Minneapolis Institute of Art, also talked about finding his way to art despite starting on a different path.
Prior to receiving his doctoral degree from Cornell in 2011, Nakamori received a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School and practiced law for seven years as a corporate lawyer in New York and Tokyo.
During that time, he was able to see that his passion lay elsewhere. “I realized that I wasn’t pursuing what I really wanted in life,” he said. “I would go to art museums during my lunch breaks, and those trips were my source of joy and intellectual enrichment.”
Nakamori then sought a job as a research assistant for an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, confirmed that he wanted to pursue a career in art history, and began taking night classes at Hunter College. “I had a clear conviction that I would like to be a museum curator,” he said.
Despite his nontraditional path, he found his true passion and came to Cornell in 2005 to complete his doctoral studies in the history of art. Prior to arriving at his current position, Nakamori taught at Rice University and was an associate curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston; there, he organized an acclaimed exhibition “For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979.”
Several of the alumni talked about the importance of technology in museums today, with Butler describing an ipad system that allows visitors to find their way to objects they want to learn about.
Jennifer Foley Ph.D. ’06, the director of education and community engagement for the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, said all of the information about an object — from labels to interactive technology — should give visitors the information they need to connect to a piece.
Foley joined the Buffalo museum in March after working at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Cleveland Museum of Art, where she helped develop Gallery One, an interactive gallery with hands-on technology and Art Lens, an app that gives visitors audio tour segments, videos, additional contextual information and an interactive map.
Andrew Weislogel, Ph.D. ’00, said working at a university museum offers many advantages.
“You can take on more specialized and risky topics that might not fly at a bigger museum,” said Weislogel, the Seymour R. Askin, Jr. '47 Curator of Earlier European and American Art at Cornell’s Johnson Museum. He also spoke of numerous faculty collaborations for classes and projects, including Richard Johnson, a professor of computer and electrical engineering, who has studied Rembrandt’s paintings using high-resolution X-ray images.
“A university museum is one of the greatest places for collaborative work,” said Stephanie Wiles, the Richard J. Schwartz Director at the Johnson Museum.
Photo: Claudia Lazzaro, professor in the Department of History of Art and Visual Studies, introduces a panel of alumni who are successful in non-academic visual art careers. Photo Credit: Kate Klein