On the Road

Mirken Trip to Washington, DC

Each fall, seniors in the art department travel with faculty on a trip meant to immerse them in the art world of a particular city, an opportunity made possible by the Mirken Foundation. Last month, seniors explored the museums, galleries, and alternative art spaces of Washington, DC. As art history major Wilder Davies ’17 reflects below, the trip provided the chance not only to explore a thriving art community and spend time with peers but also to reflect on life after Colby.

Colby students and faculty in front of the National Gallery of Art

The minds of college seniors are fraught with a generalized anxiety for the future. For the first time in our lives, we are departing from the calendar of academic study we have grown accustomed to and are trying to discover what exactly our first journey into adulthood will be. For those studying art, that anxiety is especially present, due to our contemporary culture’s utilitarian approach to higher education. Look at any listicle titled “least-useful majors” and art history is always in the mix. Fortunately, a recent trip to Washington, DC, provided an opportunity to assuage these concerns for the future.

During Colby’s fall break, I traveled to Washington, DC, alongside eight other students studying studio art or art history; Tanya Sheehan, associate professor of art and department chair; and Bevin Engman, professor of art, for a preprofessional exploration of various career paths in fine art. The trip was endowed by the Mirken Foundation and organized by Francisca Moraga López, the Mirken family postbaccalaureate fellow in museum practice at the Colby Museum of Art, who also accompanied us. In four days we were taken on a whirlwind tour that introduced us to professionals working in museums, galleries, arts organizations, and governmental institutions involved in scholarship and research.  Through the experience, we gained insight into where we might apply an education in art history in the professional world, and learned some lessons and truths about finding our place in the world post-Colby.

Mirken trip participants contemplating the Vietnam War Nurses Memorial

Our first day we woke up early and walked to the Vietnam War Memorial to meet with Reema Ghazi, the education specialist at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), a nonprofit organization that handles the preservation of the legacy of The Wall and the continued maintenance of the memorial site on the National Mall. Reema went into detail about The Wall’s contentious history as she guided us through. Erected in 1982, it was designed by artist and architect Maya Lin. Despite the fact that the members of the VVMF unanimously selected Lin’s design from over fourteen hundred submissions, her concept of starkly sober granite slabs drew ire from some of the public who saw the design as insulting. Yet The Wall was built nonetheless and has since garnered praise from visitors for its emotional and arresting quality.

In addition to preserving the memorial, the VVMF conserves an archive of the personal effects and mementos that have been left at The Wall. These items can be viewed on the VVMF’s digital database, and are also available for temporary loans.  While the VVMF isn’t necessarily concerned with the arts, Reema told us that much of what she has done with the group—whether it be archival activity or exhibition management—is similar to museum work. She also imparted a little career advice after our tour: look for experience in unexpected places, she advised, and don’t narrow the job search early on, as diversifying experience can be a better way to equip oneself with skills for future job prospects.

On Sunday we visited Craig Cook, director of arts programming, at Dupont Underground, a new mixed-use cultural destination in an abandoned subterranean trolley station located beneath Dupont Circle, a bustling traffic circle and hub of commerce in downtown DC.  The center is a sprawling tunnel that snakes around and extends several hundred feet at opposite ends. At the time of our visit, the staff of the Dupont Underground were in the midst of disassembling their inaugural installation, Raise/Raze, a shifting, deconstructable space made by thousands of plastic balls joined together into stackable cubes. Craig shed some light on the difficulties of running a nonprofit exhibition venue, but was optimistic about the potential of the Dupont Underground. With unused industrial spaces becoming the new standard for exhibiting contemporary art, it was illuminating to hear what goes on at Dupont Underground.

In the underbelly of the Freer|Sackler

The following day we had lunch with the National Gallery of Art’s Alexandra Libby ’03, assistant curator of Northern Baroque paintings, and Sarah Cash, curator of American art. Sarah and Alex told us about their careers and postgraduate education before taking us to the National Gallery’s conservation lab. There we met conservator Joanna Dunn, who told us what she does on a daily basis, and how she got into conservation work. We were all enchanted by the lab, with unframed old master paintings resting on easels and a gigantic X-ray setup used specifically for examining paintings. While many of us lacked the science background for conservation work, it was still interesting to listen to Joanna explain how to remove old varnish and breathe life into a faded painting. Following that, we rushed over to the Freer|Sackler to gain more insight into what goes on in the underbelly of a museum. There we met Lee Glazer, curator of American art; Brian Abrams, collections manager; and Teak Lynner, production manager, who showed us the storage facilities and preparator’s studio.

Before returning to Maine, we visited William “Bro” Adams, Colby’s former president and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Most of us didn’t know what to expect when we visited the NEH;  however, after talking with Bro and his team, we quickly learned what a vital and important institution it is for museums and historical societies around the country. More than just providing funding, the staff at the NEH actively engage and contribute research and resources to the projects and institutions they support. The NEH deals with projects large and small, from assisting municipal libraries across the country in the research of local histories to providing funding and resources to Ken Burns’s famous documentary series on the Civil War.

Other significant moments included meeting with George Hemphill at Hemphill Gallery and Liza Kirwin and the staff at the Archives of American Art. Since we were fortunate enough to have received tickets to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we spent an afternoon exploring the new collection, which has drawn critical praise and has a months-long waiting list for entry. We also had the opportunity to work on our networking skills thanks to Robert Hoopes ’89, P’20, and Hilary Barnes Hoopes ’89, P’20, who hosted a reception for us at Vox Media.

In our conversations with these DC art-world figures, we encountered a common thread: there is no set path leading to a career in the arts. This is not to say that art history is a “useless major,” for what was true of each individual we met was that an inquisitive nature, an ability to write, and critical thinking skills learned during their college years were invaluable to their careers. An art history degree isn’t always the ticket for a particular set of jobs; rather, it is up to us to explore, take advantage of opportunities that come our way, and submit ourselves to the realities of the adult world, a place where variables and circumstances inevitably lie beyond our control.