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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


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    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.

  • Postcards from the Field: The Future of Science at the Lindau Meeting

    What is the future of science? How can scientists better impact society? These are just two examples of the many profound questions that I had the opportunity to ponder and discuss at the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting that took place in July. The annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is a gathering of Nobel Laureates and young scientists (undergrads, grads, and postdocs) from around the world with the purpose of engaging in an international and intergenerational science dialogue. 

    Every year, the meeting cycles through the following themes: chemistry, medicine, physics, and interdisciplinarity. Physics was the theme of the 69th Meeting, with key science topics on cosmology, laser physics, and gravitational waves. The mission of the Lindau Meetings can be described with the following motto: educate, inspire, connect. At the 69th Meeting, 580 young scientists from 89 countries met with 39 Nobel Laureates to engage in this mission and dialogue.Preetha Sarkar, Alex An, and I had the great honor of being selected to represent the University of Illinois as part of the 580 young scientists at this prestigious meeting. 

    The island of Lindau was very much suited for this event. One would be able to completely walk around the island within 30 minutes and would easily cross paths with either a fellow young scientist or Nobel Laureate. Lectures and more-in depth discussions with Nobel Laureates provided young scientists with a sense of what the future of science may be and what we as the future generation of scientists may look forward to. Nobel Laureates and young scientists were also quite excited and motivated to discuss how scientists better impact society with their scientific research and expertise. From this meeting, I myself have learned how I can better educate broader audiences, inspire future generations of scientists, and connect with fellow scientists. 

    Want your work featured on the Grad Life Blog? We are looking for "Postcards from the Field" submissions! Whether you are doing field work at home or abroad, attending an exciting conference, or doing captivating research or scholarship here at Illinois, we want to hear from you! Send a single photo and a short description of your work to with the subject line “Postcards from the Field.” If accepted, your image and description will be featured on the Grad Life Blog and on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram feeds. Questions? Don’t hesitate to ask – we’d love to hear from you! 


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    A. Miguel Holgado is a PhD student in the Astronomy Department and a DOE NNSA Stewardship Science Graduate Fellow. He researches gravitational waves and how they can be used to learn about how compact binaries form and merge. When out of the office, you may find him either at the rec center, traveling, or with his cat.
  • Day in the Life: Illinois Summer Research Symposium

    Anna Flood is an incoming graduate student in the Department of English. This summer she participated in the Summer Predoctoral Institute (SPI) and conducted independent research with Dr. Candice Jenkins as her mentor. Her summer work revolved around speculative fictions of slavery, particularly the novel "Kindred "by Octavia Butler. Anna and 38 other SPI fellows, as well as undergraduates from a variety of programs,  had the opportunity to present at the Illinois Summer Research Symposium (ISRS). In this post, see a “Day in the Life” during the second day of ISRS, when the roundtables and oral presentations take place.

    8 a.m.: Waking up bright and early. I had to support some of my friends who had presentations at 9:30, so I got ready and went downstairs for breakfast then headed to the iHotel for a research packed day!

    9:30 - 10:30 a.m.: This was an easy hour. All of the people that I wanted to see were on the same panel in the quad room. There were four presenters who spoke on a multitude of topics. The title of the panel was “Critical Analysis in Media and Literature”. One project was on speculative fiction, another was discussing photography as a therapeutic method, another was on the depiction of North Koreans in South Korean films (fascinating!) and the final project was discussing fanbases and their relationship to the movies and television shows that they engage with. The panel was enlightening and I learned so much. It changed some false perceptions I had previously, which can be one of the beautiful aspects of symposiums—you learn and engage with new ideas.


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    10:45 - 11:45 a.m.: Here is where the day began to get a bit tricky. The hard part about conferences is that there are a plethora of presentations happening all at once and often times there are two presentations that a person wants to see, but the panels are at the same time. I was presented with that challenge during this hour. I had two very close friends going during the same hour, but I was fortunate that one friend went first and the other was third. So, it was a matter of swift movements and quiet exit and entry into the room. It also helped that the convention center is not terribly large which makes moving from room to room fairly easy. This was definitely a mission that I saw most people on because it is important to support your friends and/or see the presentations that you are interested in. The two panels that I attended during this session were “Structural and Acoustical Mechanics and Materials” and “Issues of Class in Occupations, Transportation, and Housing”. Another beauty of symposiums is the variety of interesting and relevant topics that are talked about.


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    12:00 - 12:50 p.m.: Ah, lunchtime. A meal and it’s free. Since it was the Faculty Appreciation Luncheon, many faculty from various departments attended the conference itself and the luncheon. While my mentor was unable to attend, it was enlightening to be around my peers and some of their mentors. And the food was fantastic to me because it featured my favorite pasta - tortellini. I definitely let out a shriek of excitement when I saw what it was. We also were briefly addressed by Dr. Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, the Associate Dean of the Graduate College. She offered us many words of wisdom and enlightenment.

    1 - 2 p.m.:  Roundtable presentations. For one hour at sixteen different tables, three or four presenters sat and discussed their research.  here was anywhere from three to six “audience” members besides the presenters and the moderators also at the table who were all able to participate in the discussion. I did a roundtable presentation and along with me were two other presenters, one presenting on speculative fiction and the other presenting on what it means to belong in relation to racial identity. We had a group of people at our table for thirty minutes and at that mark, the audience members were given the chance to switch tables. So, for the second half, we engaged in a new discussion with different people.

    2:15 - 3:15 p.m.: Immediately after the roundtable presentations, the oral presentations begin again! During each oral presentation time slot, there are eight panels all happening at once with three or four presenters on each panel. During this session, I attended the “Navigating Educational Structures Panel”. At the same time, there were panels titled “Mapping the Brain through Neurons”, “Stimulations of Polymers” and “Navigating Structures of State Power and Inequality”. It was hard to pick one to go to!

    3:15 - 3:40 p.m.: Coffee and cookie break! Yes!

    3:45 - 4:45 p.m.: After a long day of waiting and watching others, it was my turn to present. I was on a panel titled “Race and Identity” with two other people. All of our presentations were unique from one another yet the three projects were all crucial and relevant work. ISRS is a supportive and safe environment to present research, so I was pleased to receive feedback and encouragement from my peers and to give it to others as well.

    5 - 6 p.m.: The last oral presentation session finally arrives. Everyone is tired, but the presenters are pushing through and so is everyone who is there to support them. It has been a long day, but it is not over yet! During this session, some of the panels were “Machine Learning for Innovation in Science”, “Toxins and Genetic Mutations”, and “Impacts of Violence among Marginalized Groups”. I sat in on a panel titled “Survival and Resistance in the Academy”, where the presenters addressed how identity affects the experiences of underrepresented students and how they create a space of success for themselves.


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    6:15 p.m.: Dinnertime has arrived. Everyone is relieved that their presentations are over, they are feeling proud! Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, Dean of the Graduate College, offers more words of encouragement and the 2019 SPI Fellows prove to be the loudest and most excited group at ISRS.

    7 p.m.: We were presented with a series of awards for our presentations. Honorable Mention and Best Poster Presentations, Roundtable Presentations and Oral Presentations. While everyone at the symposium did well, it is important to recognize those who stood out the most. There were a good number of SPI fellows who received an award as well—Alex Baldeon, Destiny Williams, Joel Roberts, Rayven Morrow, and Victor Gonzalez! This was also the best time to take a group photo, Illinois has a lot of bright incoming graduate students who are ready to work!


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    Anna is a Master's student in the English department. Her research interests revolve around the function of the Gothic in 19th century slave narratives and 21st century films and graphic novels. She recommends singing loudly in the car for stress relief.