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  • Where Are They Now?: Sarah Eckhardt

    Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.

    Whether going to museums, taking classes, or creating her own pieces, Sarah Eckhardt was always fascinated with art. While working at the Krannert Art Museum as a graduate student in Art History (MA in 2003 and PhD in 2012) she discovered that art curation was the right career path for her. Now, she works at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as an Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. Working in a team, she chooses and interprets the works of art displayed at the museum.

    Tell us a little bit about the museum you work in.

    The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is an encyclopedic state art museum with global collections that span from ancient to contemporary art. Within that, the Modern and Contemporary department covers 20th and 21st Century art. The museum has about 40,000 objects, of which Modern & Contemporary is responsible for about 4,000, include painting, sculpture, photography, and installation art. We are a rapidly growing institution rooted in a diverse community, so we are also actively expanding and rethinking what we add to the collection and how we display it.

    Was it always your goal to be an art curator?

    I don’t think I even knew what a curator was until I worked at the Krannert Art Museum (KAM). I loved art museums as a kid and took a year-long AP Art History class at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a senior in high school. It was an incredible experience, but even though the class took complete advantage of studying the art in the museum’s galleries, I don’t recall learning about the people at the museum who chose and interpreted the art, let alone their career paths. In high school and then in college, where I was a double major in English and Fine Art, I was focused more on making art and less on how and where it gets shown and who interprets it. I also worked at the Brauer Museum of Art for all four years of my time at Valparaiso University. It was a small, flexible, and dedicated staff where I witnessed everyone pitching in to make an exhibition happen. However, in part because the director, Richard Brauer, was so kind and humble, I don’t think I paused to think clearly about the various roles each person played and the training and experience they must have needed to get there.

    I didn’t connect those dots until I was taking graduate art history classes at Illinois with Jordana Mendelson and Jonathan Fineberg while working as a curatorial assistant for Josef Helfenstein at KAM. In total, I think I was a curatorial assistant for more than three years. In our art history seminars we were encouraged to ask questions about the role of art in shaping culture, as well as to explore and interrogate the power hierarchies involved in the interpretation and use of art. Working simultaneously in an art museum and in a grad program provided a rich space to observe how theoretical questions played out with the display and interpretation of real objects.

    Josef Helfenstein had just arrived from Switzerland as a new director the year I started at the museum so he was in the process of exploring the museum’s storage. He found a painting by Hedda Sterne, Machine 5, which he connected with a famous group photograph of the Abstract Expressionists where she appears as the only woman in the group. At that point, it was hard to find examples of Sterne’s work reproduced in books and catalogues on Abstract Expressionism. Josef found Hedda Sterne alive and well in New York and began interviewing her. He asked me to begin working on the project. After I met her and found dozens of her paintings in her home studio—many of them with their original gallery stickers from the 1940s and 50s— I was hooked. Sterne’s work led me into the storage facilities for the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Hirshorn in Washington D.C. The overlooked stories literally just under the surface of art museums and institutions still fascinate me. The Sterne retrospective for the KAM turned into my dissertation, but it also became a model for the kinds of projects I most value as a curator: exhibitions and acquisitions that use the museum to provide a platform for overlooked artists whose work has the power to shift or reframe entire narratives.

    How did your degrees in Art History and your work at the KAM prepare you for your job at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts?

    The Art History seminars at Illinois offered a really strong academic foundation while professors (especially Jonathan Fineberg) also ensured that students made a lot of connections with experts in the field. In addition, my Curatorial Assistantship at the KAM allowed me to work with every aspect of an exhibition project from initial research to editing the catalogue; from working with education to develop programs to working with the art handlers to install the works. I don't think anything can ever replace that kind of hands-on experience (and the space to learn from making mistakes). I am still grateful for the patience of so many of the staff members when I worked there.

    Is there a particular course, professor, or experience at the University of Illinois that has impacted your way of thinking?

    I think of Jordana Mendelson often when I show an original photograph next to a case with a magazine article or book where the photograph was reproduced. While Gordon Park's portrait of Malcolm X might be shown in a fine art context now, what was its cultural reach and function when it was reproduced in May of 1963 in a fourteen-page photo-essay and article in Life magazine on the Nation of Islam? In Professor Mendelson's seminars on art between the World Wars and Surrealism, she encouraged us to trace how avant-garde artistic movements shaped the aesthetics of political propaganda and/or advertising campaigns in the 1920s and 1930s. Her own research modeled for us the importance of primary resources and archival material. That training continues to inform the kinds of questions I ask about objects and the way I install them in the galleries.

    Diane Harris's seminar, "Race and Space,"—which explored the ways in which built environments construct race—provided a really important opportunity to think very specifically about the ways museums and other art institutions have operated historically as exclusive spaces of privilege. Over ten years later, the readings and discussions from that course still inform the kinds of questions I ask about my own institution and city as we work to make the museum as inclusive as possible.

    Can you give us a behind-the-scenes description of what it takes to curate an art exhibit? Is there anything that most people outside your field do not realize or unexpected skills you use?

    A curator's job varies so much from day to day. We are usually juggling a huge array of projects from small gallery rotations and permanent collection acquisitions to large scale exhibitions and public art commissions. Curators have surprisingly little time for research and writing, even though the public might think that is the majority of what we do. A lot of that has to fit into the margins of the day. It is a very team-oriented job in which we meet constantly with departments across the museum from conservators and registrars to educators, editors, and marketers. We also have a lot of interaction with the public, giving tours, talks, and lectures. The job also requires a fair amount of travel to find works of art for acquisition that might be on display at a gallery or (my favorite kind) buried in a drawer in an artist's studio. We have to rely on basic people skills more than anything else.

    What do you think are the most interesting, rewarding, and/or surprising aspects of your job?

    I live for the moments when an object or exhibition at the museum becomes relevant to a community conversation. Over the past eight years that I have worked at VMFA, the museum has made a serious commitment to increasing the diversity of the museum’s leadership, collections, and audience. Because of this effort, I have had the privilege of partnering with our educators and director of community engagement to build relationships with diverse organizations throughout the city. This has led to really rich and productive exchanges at public programs. Likewise, as a state museum, our statewide program circulates our art and education resources throughout Virginia and our educators work with public school teachers to incorporate our objects into all kinds of lesson plans in subjects from history to science. It is exciting to work with a collection and a team that has that kind of reach.

    What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?

    Go to the library. It is a really good one.

    Photograph copyright, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by Travis Fullerton


    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner who is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.

  • What's It Like to Compete in Research Live? Hear from a few pros.

    Each year, the Graduate College hosts the event Research Live!, which gives graduate students a chance to share their work with the campus and community and to practice their communication skills. The catch? Contestants only have 3 minutes to describe their work and it needs to be accessible to a generalist audience. Last year, a number of students took the challenge. We interviewed four about their experience and got some of their tips for public speaking. 

    1. Why did you choose to participate in Research Live!?

    Gabriel Piqué (Music): Last fall I took the course “Music in Higher Education,” where we learned about the importance of being able to talk about what we do as musicians. As a final project, the professor required everyone give a presentation geared toward a general audience explaining our own projects and research. He also told us that the music program has been historically underrepresented in Research Live! and encouraged everyone in the class to apply.

    Parinaz Fathi (Bioengineering): I wanted to participate for two reasons: 1) I thought it would be a fun challenge to try to summarize many years of research in such a short time, and 2) I think it's important to make research accessible to a general audience.

    Junghwan Kim (Geography): I always enjoy communicating my thoughts and research with other people, and I thought Research Live would be a good chance for me to share my master's thesis research with other members of the campus. Moreover, as an ESL person, I thought participating would be a good opportunity for me to polish my English-speaking skills.

    Kelly Clary (Social Work): I chose to participate after attending a summer workshop on talking about your research. After learning about the competition, I set a goal to compete and place! I absolutely love public speaking and always enjoy a challenge, so it seemed like a great opportunity.


    2. What did you enjoy the most about preparing for Research Live!? What did you find challenging (and how did you overcome it)?

    Gabriel: I enjoyed how similar it was to practicing my instrument. The whole process felt incredibly familiar and comfortable, just with speaking instead of playing. I find the moments immediately preceding being on stage to be the most terrifying. When you’re sitting there in the audience, watching the people go before you, it’s important to not compare yourself to others. Deep, relaxed breaths can help slow your heartrate, and reminding yourself that the competition isn’t between you and the people on stage, but rather with you and your previous self is something that always helps me realize how much I have progressed.

    Parinaz: It was really fun to hear other students' presentations—I got to learn a lot about research in other fields that I never would have learned about otherwise. Putting together my presentation was a bit challenging. I usually incorporate animations into my presentations to allow the audience to see information piece by piece, so it was a bit difficult to put together such a short presentation without any animations. I ended up reducing the contents of my slides so it wouldn't be overwhelming for the audience. 

    Junghwan: Experiencing the wholehearted support from my department was the most exciting thing while preparing for Research Live. The challenging thing is to condense my thoughts to a 3 minute talk, which is much shorter than I expected. Another challenging thing was to try not to use jargon that is widely used only in my field.

    Kelly: I enjoyed receiving feedback from a lot of people! Since I was constantly practicing and sharing my research with others, it was fun to connect with people who did not know about my research plans. They offered great feedback about my speaking style and the information I should focus on.


    3. What is one piece of advice you would give to other students who are preparing research talks or thinking about participating in Research Live!?

    Gabriel: PRACTICE. Don’t think you can walk on stage and wing it. Practice in front of people too. You don’t want your first time giving a speech to be in front of a crowd holding a microphone. Recording yourself is also one of the most helpful ways to realize how many filler words you use, how dumb your facial expressions are, and how awkward your hands look.

    Parinaz: I would advise students to always consider their audience when preparing research talks. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in explaining the details of our work and we miss out on telling people why our research is important. Research Live! is a great opportunity for us to think about why we're doing what we're doing, and how we can convey the importance of our work to others. 

    Junghwan: I think that properly situating your presentation is the most important thing. Unlike many situations in academia when you typically present your research to people in your field, in Research Live!, audiences come from various backgrounds. Therefore, you will want to try not to use jargon and to focus on showing audiences that your research topic matters to them.

    Kelly: One piece of advice I would give to others is to practice your talk as much as you can! I recorded myself, did it in front of the mirror, and rehearsed with my dogs and husband probably a million times!


    4. What was the most important thing you learned from participating in Research Live!? Moving forward, how do you plan to use the skills you developed?

    Gabriel: The most important thing I learned from Research Live! is how difficult it is to talk about what we do. We spend all day surrounded by people who understand us and our research, but in order to explain what we do to someone who never even knew our field existed is a whole other ballpark.

    Parinaz: One thing I learned is the importance of explaining concepts and tools, even if you think they're very simple. I remember one of the judges from the preliminary round commented positively about my explanation of 3D printing. That's something I wouldn't have explained if I were presenting to an audience of engineers, but I needed to explain it for a more diverse audience. I'm involved in STEM outreach (specifically through ENVISION, a graduate RSO), and I think the experience from Research Live! has made me more aware of how to present to general audiences, which can help me make science and engineering more accessible to kids.  

    Junghwan: I learned that I should keep thinking about how I can effectively communicate my research with broader audiences who are outside of my department. I plan to keep polishing the skills that I learned while participating in Research Live! by actively presenting my work to other people. 

    Kelly: The most important thing I learned from Research Live! is to be confident. I sometimes struggle with the Imposter Syndrome as a PhD student, but I try to remind myself that I know my specific research area the best! If I want others to know how meaningful my work is, I must be confident when sharing.


    5. You’ve completed a research talk in three minutes or less, which is an impressive feat! What is something equally impressive that you can do in three minutes?

    Gabriel: I can make a mean quesadilla in 3 minutes.

    Parinaz: Some of the nano/micro-particles I make for my research can be made pretty quickly, so I guess I can make a batch of particles in three minutes. I also used to do Tae Kwon Do, and many of our forms could be done in three minutes or less.

    Junghwan: I like playing the piano in my spare time. Since fall 2016, I have been playing jazz piano in the Piano Laboratory Program on campus. Every semester, I prepare a jazz piano piece, which is about 3 minutes long, and play it in a recital.

    Kelly: I can fall asleep in 3 minutes or less just about anywhere including the beach, the pool, and airplanes!


    Are you interested in participating in Research Live!? Check out our website for more information and visit Media Space for videos of past competitors.

    Are you interested in developing your communication skills? Visit our Communications Skills page for resources to help you and the Graduate College calendar will have upcoming workshops and events you might be interested in.



    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner who is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.

  • Meet the 2019 - 2020 SAGE Board Members

    Students Advising on Graduate Education (SAGE) is a student advisory board and leadership opportunity for graduate students at Illinois that fosters active engagement with Graduate College programs and initiatives. SAGE board members enrich graduate student community, build leadership and administrative skills, and strengthen Graduate College services and programs.

    This board contributes to the graduate student community at Illinois by providing varied perspectives that enhance the academic, professional, and social experience of graduate students at the university and collaborating with Graduate College staff on a project related to a program, initiative, or the broader goals of the college.

    As we embark on a new academic year, we are excited to introduce our 2019 - 2020 SAGE board: