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
This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner, who is the Associate Director for Student Experience 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 boxing, reading, and knitting and crochet.