Recently Alex Christopher, from Australia, presented a paper as part of a panel at the Museums Australasia conference. The panel was called “Just doing it” and Alex presented about her ph.D. research “Tomorrow’s Art Museum and Gallery Professionals”, which posited that “The wilderness years” – between study and landing a role in the sector, should be better considered.
Some follow up questions to the presentation are answered below and we will be publishing thoughts from the other panellists in the weeks to come.
How have you spent your own “wilderness years”?
I have spent them all over the place, really. I was lucky to get two really good positions even before I’d graduated with my Masters. I worked as a curator/manager at a house museum and also as a Gallery Assistant in a commercial gallery. I found both to be very stressful given the pressures in the sector. They were both in Sydney. I moved myself to a regional place in North Queensland, to a position in a regional gallery, but again, I found the pressures of the industry to rub off negatively on the staff and operations of the space, and it made for a difficult relationship with the community.
So I took a job as a grant officer where I learnt all about being a Grant maker, liaising with people from across the board on how to write applications and wade through the grants process. That was a great experience and perhaps was a turning point for me.
I also took on teaching and research duties at the local Creative Arts department at a university. And I started a small business and Ph.D. I’ve become a co-director of a not for profit arts organisation who creates live art events, and I’ve managed my own arts projects and been project coordinator for other people’s arts projects.
Basically, I’ve done everything to stay connected to the field, and I do admit at one point there I ran myself into the ground a bit. I think at the start I was doing these things to be more employable in the museum and gallery field, but as I’ve gone on, I have become more and more disillusioned and concerned with being employed in that space (sorry) but also more and more excited for a life as a freelancer… and for now I am really happy to be in the independent space.
What's the key thing you've done that you've felt has helped you find your footing in the sector?
Teaching for six years has really helped me feel like I know my stuff, but I’d probably say starting a Ph.D. has helped me the most to connect with the sector. My skills have always been in research and writing and so I feel like I am in the right zone now. It’s allowing me to meet some really amazing people, and I can see that I can affect some small changes here.
The other key thing has been to just do my own thing and not wait to be stamped with approval by anyone. I’ve gone for my own grants for my own project ideas, which have been successful, I have partnered and worked with amazing people on other projects and I’ve started my own Writing, Editing and Proofreading business to keep me going.
I guess I’m saying it hasn’t been one thing. It’s a been a cacophony of things that I’m just starting to see weren’t necessarily all wild and wonderful. They’ve brought me to this point and I’m starting to see a focus in what I do and offer.
What support have you received? What have you offered to others?
Support I have received has been through my Ph.D. supervisors and some colleagues in a casual, friendship type arrangement. I have received some support from a not for profit gallery on a few projects. I have not received much support from the local gallery at all, I must say.
I’ve met and chatted with some really fabulous people in the interviews I’ve done for my Ph.D. Those who have interviewed have all been really supportive of what I’m trying to achieve with my research.
Supporting others is what I do like to do, and being a teacher of third year students I have had direct access with those who are trying to transition into the industry – but they’re more so in the commercial arts areas. I have been the reference for many students, I have employed many students in a number of my own projects – mostly in a paid capacity - and one of the best things I think I did was to arrange for an alumni exhibition/show to be developed – to give graduates an opportunity to exhibit after they’d finished study. But unfortunately, this was short lived as the partner stakeholders weren’t interested in keeping that going. So graduates in our region are going into the abyss there too.
I’m looking to start a mentorship program for people who are graduating and recognise they require support to make their first to five years smoother and happier.
I see a strong emphasis on curatorial and collections topics, but as you’ve noted, the areas of growth are actually elsewhere: project managers and facilitators, comms and fundraising, facilities management. Post-grad courses aren’t turning out people with the combo of skill set plus conceptual understanding of museums. Do we need to rethink these courses?
I think constant review is always a good thing and from the gallery and education professionals I’ve spoken with, they would be amenable to it, I feel. To be honest, I haven’t been able to do a subject and skills audit on all the degrees that are on offer, but from my own experience and the conversations I’ve had, it does seem to be the case that these areas aren’t getting too much attention paid to them.
One of the lightning bulb moments for me in the discussions I’ve had so far, was what a director of a state gallery, who’s been working in the sector for 30 years, said to me. I asked him, “Has a Masters Course Coordinator ever come to you and asked what kinds of subjects they could offer to build the skills your gallery needs?”, The participant said, “You know what, no one has ever actually asked me that question…It might be the second similar conversation I’ve had about that in my career.” I thought that was telling.
I’d love to have the time to see what other sectors might employ this approach of co-creating degrees with industry – I know there are some very successful degrees like it in Australia, but not all of them operate like this.
One important element is the number of graduates that are filling the entry level space. When I first started the research I calculated very roughly 350 graduates per year entering the wilderness and job application zone. That same year I noted roughly 115 job advertisements, of which only about 15% might have been deemed entry level. So that suggests there’s too many skilled people for jobs available. These degrees have grown since I started and so I can only imagine we’re seeing more graduates, and with the funding cuts, perhaps a reduction in jobs too. So the question of whether we should even be offering these degrees at this capacity is a real one.
Can you see a point coming when you won't feel like you're "emerging"? What does "emerged" look like?
Haha! This is a good question. You know, I had someone say to me that I wasn’t a curator or a writer because I wasn’t employed in a gallery and I hadn’t been published here there and everywhere. I guess that kind of recognition of not being “emerged” anymore is nice, but at the same time, being an emergent being is in the fresh, budding space where the good stuff - to me – can be found. So if I’m always called an emerging arts worker ‘cause I haven’t done/achieved XYZ, and with organisations ABC, then I’m cool with that. I hope it’ll push me to be ever innovative and spirited.
I think the terms emerged and established aren’t very helpful. They set up a hierarchy, which can be useful in some instances, but hard to shake in others. I’m all about partnerships and sharing skills and resources. No matter what people’s backgrounds or “standing” I will work with them if it aligns with the outcomes for the project.
You’ve identified that there's a strong expectation that emerging professionals will do more than "just" get a degree and entry-level work experience or positions. What's the sustainability of this model for emerging professionals?
I think the sustainability is not great at all. People’s wellbeings are jeopardised and this is not okay – for individuals and also the sector. We will see keen spirits working themselves into the ground to make their mark and reach burn out quickly, and then highly skilled, passionate people may abandon engagement with the sector. This has happened to me (for a time), people I studied with, and I’ve seen it in others I’ve met along the way.
One person I interviewed for the Ph.D. said they knew someone who studied and worked so hard to get into the sector over a few years, but didn’t make it – and now they can’t even bring themselves to go into a museum or gallery – at all. This is heart breaking to me. I can’t see how if this happened to even 1/100 people that this is good for the sector, its reputation, its regard, and also its audience.
Like I said in my presentation, we need to see some kind of future where this liminal space is better understood and better supported. With funding cuts, I’m not sure how this is possible except via entrepreneurial models. I see a need for entrepreneurship, sector and education support, and graduate energy to come together.
If you could nominate one change institutions could make to be more sustainable for or relevant to emerging professionals, what would it be?
To explore ways to partner with independent arts workers on a professional-professional level. With the pressures on the sector and the abundant enthusiasm from graduates and emerging professionals, I’m sure we can kick goals for both parties. For me though, we have to kill the diatribe about it being “the establishment” and the “protégés”. We are simply two types of people who have something to offer one another. Partnerships and mutual respect are a must.