Why I left my job at the National Gallery of Art

Today is my last day working at the National Gallery of Art. This has been a wonderful chapter in my life for so many reasons and I have met and worked with some of the loveliest, intellectual and dedicated individuals. I am thankful for the opportunity to have walked into this wonderful building every day over the last few years and be surrounded by so many invaluable national treasures...

I am leaving my job at the National Gallery for one main important reason, which I would not have understood had I not spent the last two years working in this institution…

I began working in the NGA as a volunteer in the Gallery Archives department. It was my first “in” outside of grad school that a friend’s friend connected me to because she heard they needed volunteers. I leapt at the opportunity. It was a no-brainer since I did have previous collections management and archiving experience, but also because I figured being “in” in any department at the NGA was better than being on the outside. Also, because my contract for work in Barcelona, Spain (my location during and after my MA program) fell through due to the European economic crisis.

Although grateful for this experience, I did not realize at that time how divided museum departments are (lesson #1 for next time..)…

My work in the Gallery Archives only lasted for a few months as a volunteer before I was quickly offered a contractor position for a particular project. Lesson #2 of gratitude: volunteering always gets you in so pay your dues but also be selective with where you volunteer as that’s most likely where your path will build.

While I was a contractor, the 2013 furlough happened. I did not ever get back pay during that time since I wan’t a government employee. Needless to say, I also had no benefits. Thankfully, I had enough money saved from side jobs to support myself and it was during this time I began to build my website and set-intentions for the type of curatorial profession I wanted to create for myself.

I was quickly promoted to the Samuel H. Kress Archivist position: a position funded by the Kress Collection. I talk about this position in more detail here.

During my 2.5 years working in the Gallery Archives, I utilized my time wisely to make connections throughout the museum. I met other curators and curatorial assistants, registrars, conservators, event planners and even people working in the development and law departments. I did as much networking as I could - particularly digging to hear about job openings in Curatorial Departments (as that was my focus in my MA: Curatorial Studies). I knew I wanted to work as a curator and wasn’t really sure what else I needed to do to grow my qualifications.

I applied to a few internal jobs: one in the Registrar’s Department, one in the Gift Shop, and one in a Curatorial Department. (I also applied to like 20 other DC museum jobs spanning multiple departments with multiple skillsets). The first two I applied to more so for the experience of applying and meeting people. I think I was also a little desperate to get out of the Archives: I was beginning to worry that the longer I was an Archivist on paper, the less I’d be seen as a Curator who could handle artwork, be some-what public facing and have a toe in academia...

The Curatorial position I applied to was the one I was truly invested in and it broke my heart when I wasn’t selected but the race was tight and all of us who interviewed were internal employees with similar qualifications.

A few things clicked for me the day I learned I didn’t get that job:

1) I spent about an hour scrolling through all of the Curatorial Departments on the internal staff site and saw how many volunteers were in each department. Everyone was applying to the same jobs I was, but most of them were already in Curatorial Departments whereas I felt one-step removed. I realized I’d need to make a clean break from the Archives and “start over” if I ever wanted to grow similarly in a Curatorial Department.

2) After meeting with multiple Curatorial Assistants, I realized their jobs entailed booking travel arrangements for Curators and assisting with research for catalogues they weren’t always given credit for (not always the case, just a few horror stories). This demonstrated to me that my risk to grow laterally in such departments would take me 10+ years at very little pay and I may or may not be doing work that I’m actually interested in. And in addition, I may never be promoted to Curator from that role, because I’d still need a PhD. And also, would I been seen as more of a secretary than a curator? Some departments had great reputations for allowing the Curatorial Assistants the opportunity to grow professionally, others seemed to stunt such growth.

3) The facts are written for me: I need a PhD to curate at an institutional level. And/or a heavy resume of Independent Curatorial Experience. This insight came from very helpful conversations with Harry Cooper, Charlie Ritchie, Judith Brodie, Jonathan Bober and Lynne Cooke. Harry promoted the PhD, while Judith, Charlie and Lynne discussed the importance of building through the curatorial experiences I carefully curate for myself, and Jonathan was very specific that learning how to garner donors was now one of the most important responsibilities of an institution’s curator. How does one work on all of that at once?

I realized after these insightful conversations that the smarter decision - even if much harder and less comfortable - would be to spend 10 years building this for myself in a niche way. It became quite obvious that staying in my position would be like standing still and watching my professional goals float by.

My decision to leave my comfortable day-job at the National Gallery of Art has stemmed from those three reasons alone. I don’t want to be an Archivist. I don’t want to spend 10 years maybe working in a curatorial role, but at some point also straddling a PhD.

Right now, I want to be hands on and dive in…

I’m not fully sure what that looks like. And I’m not dismissing the art institution workplace: I actually have the goal to build something for myself to be able to re-enter at mid-to-high career level one day, if I still have those goals in the future. But I do know that something inside me needs to find my own curatorial voice and figure out what kinds of projects I want to work on. I’m not against the PhD idea - but I also know right now that I’m not tied to one specialty or another (in the history of art) to commit to 5+ more years of academia. When I enroll in a PhD program, I want to be sure of my commitment. Right now, I want to be entrepreneurial for awhile. So I’m deciding to jump.

The scary part is not about losing my regular pay & minimal (trust employee) benefits. I guess I don’t know what the 401k life looks like, so making some of these “adult decisions” doesn’t seem so drastic. I teach yoga regularly, which I can up the dosage on and a new opportunity has fallen into my lap that I would not be able to take on with a full time job: Smithsonian has hired me to lecture for them as an Art Historian on various trips back in Europe multiple times a year. In many ways, I see this as my toe dip back into academia until I figure out the PhD.

For now, I plan to hodge-podge my way into starting Latela Curatorial and I’m not planning to look back.