By Tamsin Hong, current MSt student, on the Association for Art History Careers Day held in Oxford in November
It is week five of Michaelmas term and as I approach the Association for Art History Careers Day for Arts, Culture and Heritage, this year held in Oxford, I am considering whether the full day of talks is a good investment of my time when there are essays to write, readings to wrestle with, and a deeply neglected dissertation limping around the back corners of my mind. Having worked in the museum and gallery sector for over 10 years and attended numerous career forums, I find myself somewhat sceptical about how useful this event will be for me.
But the AAH Careers Day may have been one of the best investments I have made since landing in Oxford. Oxford DPhil candidate Emily Knight is to be congratulated for organising the event and carefully choosing eight speakers in disparate and not always well-known arts professions who all addressed the often-thought question for History of Art students: How do I become a successful arts-professional in this ultra-competitive era?
Each speaker clearly articulated how people are entering their profession. Emerging professionals drew from their recent experience of breaking into the field and more senior professionals reflected on what they are looking for when they are hiring. Each gave practical advice and concrete examples on how to obtain your dream job, whilst also providing honest and sometimes brutal realities of working in the sector. This was far from the usual glittery eyed if-you-work-hard-you-can-do-it approach that many similar events provide, but it is precisely this kind of knowledge that anyone entering or attempting to progress in the sector needs.
Speaker Helen Hillyard © Tamsin Hong
The morning session addressed some of the more traditional roles in museums and galleries and started with the much-coveted Assistant Curator experience. Helen Hillyard is now working at the Dulwich Picture Gallery after steadily working her way through a variety of voluntary positions and paid internships in the sector. Jo Rice was next and explained what skills and experiences she looks for when employing staff in her role as Head of Education at the Ashmolean Museum. Her colleague Jevon Thistlewood then suggested 10 useful qualities of a good conservator while explaining in detail how his profession operates.
The middle session started with Alice Purkiss from the National Trust and University of Oxford explaining her convoluted but fascinating career path to her unique role as Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate. I am not sure how to explain this position but it is somewhere between digital content organiser, curator, public programmer and knowledge ninja. She was followed by Ros Holmes who finally illuminated to me the mysterious process of life after obtaining a PhD: the post doc. We all know they are difficult to get, but Ros Holmes explained the step-by-step process of gaining such positions and provided some excellent suggestions.
Speaker Ros Holmes © Tamsin Hong
The final three speakers spoke on freelancing and the art market. Tarini Malik has worked diligently on a rich assortment of curatorial projects and now works as a freelancing Exhibition Consultant where she is able to channel her enthusiasm for time based art and marginalised culture through her work. The next talk was on an area I have only ever wondered at, which is freelance journalism, and Lily Le Brun revealed her secrets on how she juggles multiple projects while establishing herself as a reputable arts writer. Lastly, Alexis Ashot spoke about selling art with Christie’s and provided anecdotes of this intense part of the sector, including his being tested on table manners at his second interview.
Each speaker had about 10 minutes or so after their presentations to answer some of the many questions we enthusiastic attendees had. I valued the frankness of many of the arts professionals who explained the importance of perseverance through their shared experiences of feeling repeatedly rejected, whether it be experienced when applying for jobs or attempting to publish articles.
Speaker Alexis Ashot © Tamsin Hong
My experience at the beginning of my career was similar and after speaking to several other students trying to land their first paid position in the industry, it is perhaps something that we need to be more aware of to prepare ourselves and develop coping strategies when dealing with this unfair side of the arts industry.
The message that all these speakers reiterated was to be resolute in your goals and work towards fleshing out your skills so you can eventually develop a career you are happy with. There were also a few examples of people who had tried a few different positions and eventually ended up in role they thoroughly enjoy even if it was not where they thought they would end up.
Some of the suggestions I will be working on since attending the day include improving my online presence and approaching volunteering for an organisation in a more focused manner. I already knew about the central role networking has in the sector but it was useful to have the speakers show how they have effectively utilised this skill in their careers. I met some attendees with fascinating experiences and aspirations throughout the day and I am looking forward to reconnecting with them at future events organised by the Association for Art History.
Tamsin Hong is currently a student on the Oxford Master’s Degree in the History of Art and Visual Culture, focusing on post-modern and contemporary art.
For more information about the History of Art MSt, please see the Department’s Master’s Degree page