Last night I went to a panel hosted by the Career and Academic Resource Center at Harvard about "Exploring Museum Careers." They put together a wonderful panel of museum professionals from diverse backgrounds to speak about their jobs as well as the career path they took to get there. The panelists were:
Purvi Patwari Beck: HR Manager, ICA Boston
Herbert S. Jones: Volunteer and Interns Coordinator, MFA
Penley Knipe: Conservator of Works of Art on Paper, Harvard Art Museum
Laura Muir: Acting Curator, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard Art Museum
Leah Walczak: Regional Site Manager, Historic New England
Siobhan Wheeler: Assistant Registrar, MFA Boston
As someone about to graduate with a master's degree in Museum Studies, I'm always fascinated to hear people speak about their role within a particular museum and how they got there. I, for one, didn't think I'd be pursuing a career in museums when I graduated from MassArt, but here I am. While they each spoke about issues particular to their field or institution, one thing rang loud and clear from the presentation: do your research. If you're looking to work at a museum, clearly understand what you want to do and find an institution that is a good fit. Every person on the panel, ranging from curatorial to HR, said they are inundated with resumes and cover letters from job and internship seeking applicants that are obviously pre-packaged form letters and show no proof that the applicant has researched the institution. Several of them said that they read the cover letter first, and if it's "standard" and devoid of any personal touches or evidence of research, they don't even look at the resume. Further, they said to find an institution that fits with who you are and where you would fit into the culture. Show a potential employer in your cover letter what you have to offer and why you specifically want to work for them.
I find it fascinating that this advice is identical to what I hear from galleries in regards to submitting work. Many artists send their work to every gallery in a city, or to every museum on a list, as opposed to identifying where their work would fit in and then trying to forge a relationship with that particular gallery, museum, or curator. In my experience, the cold call approach rarely works.
One other big suggestion from the panelists: personal connections and getting involved. Every one of them advocated strongly for getting involved in any way you can, whether through volunteering or interning or simply attending openings and exhibitions. Being involved in the community you want to work/exhibit in leads to networking, and networking and personal connections lead to tangible results. Many panelists confirmed the popular belief that a trusted personal recommendation goes farther than any resume or cover letter.
What I took away from this panel was to do your research and forge connections with people that are a good fit for you, for both a career as a museum professional or a career as an artist. The world is inundated with people looking for jobs and artists looking for galleries, and you have to find a way to distinguish yourself from the crowd.