Today’s jobtalk is with James Christen Steward, Director of Princeton Art Museum. If you’re wondering what some of Steward’s favorite off-the-beaten-path museums are, you’ll find out if you read this interview.
Ph.D. History of Art, Trinity College, Oxford University, 1992
M.A. History of Art, Institute of Arts, New York University, 1988
B.A. French, History, Art History, University of Virginia, 1981
Career Stage: Advanced
What made you decide to study art history?
When I started college, I thought I was going to go to law school and was looking at undergraduate degrees that would be appropriate for law school. I went to France to study during my undergraduate years, and during that time I realized that what I viewed as an avocation really was something that I was more compelled by – meaning working with art and specifically doing it in a museum setting.
So, by the time that I was a senior in college, I knew that I wanted to be on a trajectory toward having a museum career, and that graduate work would be the credential that would make that possible.
For a variety of reasons, I didn’t feel that I was ready to undertake the kind of serious program that I wanted to go into, so I did a different master’s degree at University of Virginia. Then I took a couple of years off from academia to do African relief work. I wanted to have a little bit more worldly experience under my belt. Until the end of college, I had never been out of school since I was five years old, and I really felt that I needed to be away from school for a while in order to appreciate the freedom that graduate school actually is.
How did your parents respond to your decision to go for a museum career?
It helped that my parents were very educated. I remember a certain skepticism by my parents initially, but I think what ultimately made a difference was their recognition that I had the passion for it, and that perhaps I was going to do better in a field I was passionate about because I would have the drive to succeed and define my own niche.
My motivation for law school was to have a career in public service, which is a family tradition. I think of the arts, and of art museums, as being in the public good, so I think I landed where I ought to be. I’m just applying my service in a different way than I had originally intended to do.
What advice do you have for students that are thinking about a museum or art history career?
Understand why you want to study art history in the first place. Is it a prospective career for you, or is it a way of developing your critical thinking skills? I would still argue that art history as an undergraduate major can be a very appropriate choice for someone preparing for a vast range of careers.
Can you give some examples?
I’d say graduate programs in business and law. A good art history program really does hone your ability to reason critically and to analyze information. We live in an incredibly visual world where we’re essentially absorbing more and more information at very high speeds. I think our ability to synthesize that information is critical. Art history training helps to refine those skills.
It’s very different if you are thinking of art history as a potential career path. Then I would say you have to be very serious with yourself about why you want to do it. You should test yourself to see if you have that extra drive. You’re going to be in graduate school for somewhere between six and ten years. More and more, the master’s is not enough. Certainly, for teaching positions, a Ph.D. is essential, but that’s also becoming true for museums too. Frankly, with very few end-point job openings, whether at the academy or with museums, this career path is just too demanding if you can imagine doing something else.
Maybe you’re interested in teaching, but does it really need to be in higher education? Could it be at the secondary level? You might not be able to teach art history in a high school, but you could teach history, for example.
The other thing I would say is that you should be geographically flexible. The job market, for as long as I’ve known it, which is give-or-take 25 years, has been so competitive, so if you only want a museum career if you can have it in New York City, my advice is think again. You may get there eventually, but you may have to pay your dues. There are extraordinary museums in second and third-tier cities all across the country. Omaha, Nebraska and Toledo, Ohio have great museums.
Recognize that you’re going to have to go where the jobs are, and they aren’t necessarily concentrated in major urban places. There are literally thousands of art museums in the country. There are many thousands more museums in other fields such as children’s museums, history museums, historic house museums…They may still value specialist education; if it’s an history museum they might want you to have done graduate work in history, but you’re also going to have to be a little bit of a jack-of-all trades in order to thrive in this field.
Get a degree in a subject field – history, music, whatever your passion happens to be, but not in museum studies. I wouldn’t hire someone who just has a museum studies degree. I want expertise, and I want it to be honed in a real context. If you have subject expertise and a museum studies degree, that’s the icing on the cake.
Well, Berkeley only has had a museum since 1970, which is very late to the game for an art museum. Their curatorial program is a fairly small one. I think when I was there, for the most part, there were only three curators. I, therefore, had to really master an incredible range of art from the collection and temporary exhibitions. I had to work with faculty and curators, and fundraise on behalf of my own projects.
I had interned in art museums before, and I had a short-term gig at the Met, but I had relatively little hands-on museum experience. I had to be trained in professional art handling so that I would be trusted to go into the collection-storage areas and handle the art objects myself without expecting that there would be some collection manager that would be able to safely handle the object for me. It was a kind of throwing-someone-in-the-deep-end-of-the-pool experience.
People ask me sometimes how I figured out that I was a good fundraiser. Well, I found out because I had to do it. I had no choice. If I wanted the exhibitions that I was interested in mounting to come to pass, I had to get into the trenches and do a lot of the hands-on work. I discovered that I was fairly adept at fundraising because I was a good listener. I could hear what the donor-prospect was interested in, so I could appeal to their own passion.
I also wasn’t uncomfortable about money. It’s an odd phenomenon that if you’re going to be in development work – though I’m not a professional fundraiser – you ultimately have to be comfortable with talking to people about very personal things. I recognize that we operate in an entrepreneurial culture in this country, compared to Europe for example, where support for the arts comes from the government. Without private support for the arts, our museums wouldn’t exist in this country. Federal support, as you know, has been insignificant for decades.
Over the years, I’ve met fundraisers who are fundamentally uncomfortable in a context with people who have significant resources or about having discussions about money. In my case, because I do this out of passion, I’m not uncomfortable about it.
Could you fulfill your position as Director of Princeton Art Museum if you weren’t an adept fundraiser?
In my opinion, no. And not just at the director level. Increasingly, the whole culture of art museums has moved in the direction of being more entrepreneurial; we had to because of cuts. It isn’t enough for the director and the development department to be good at fundraising.
Curators and other people who are the ones generating the content sometimes also have to be comfortable with fundraising. They may not be the ones who have the conversations with the donor and say, “Would you consider a gift of blank amount of money?” But they may have to be involved in the discussion. Curators have to be able to excite others about the projects they want to do.
There’s such competition for philanthropy. You have to be able to make the case extremely persuasive. You’re not just competing against other cultural organizations, you’re competing against gifts that might go to a medical center or to social service organizations – organizations that have an incredibly deep value to society. Obviously, I make the argument that art has an incredible value too because it goes to the core of our humanity. The reason we want to be healthy is to have a richer human experience, which I think the art community provides.
How do you find the time to publish?
Realistically, these days I don’t. I left another museum directorship to come to Princeton. I left a staff of 35 to 40 for a staff of about 75, and the budget size tripled. It’s just not practical to write now. I will publish again, but I will do so by taking a sabbatical.
What are some of your favorite museums that aren’t well known to the public?
In London, Sir John Soane’s museum is extraordinary and idiosyncratic. It grew out of a private collection that was assembled in the early 19th century by an eccentric English architect. He converted the house he built for himself into a museum to house his own collection. You can feel so strongly that man’s identity in the house, the collection, and the way it’s displayed. The basement rooms are still lit by candlelight, which is almost unbelievable because of the fire hazard that open flames create.
On the-other-end of the spectrum, the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas is a museum that was essentially founded by the modern, minimalist artist, Donald Judd, after having gone through west Texas on a train and seeing a disused army base and thinking that all the disused buildings would be great for displaying modern art. I don’t know that I ever appreciated that kind of modern art until I went to it in that setting. You have to work really hard to get there. It’s a three-hour drive from El Paso, Texas.
It’s a kind of pilgrimage site in a way. You’re not going to find the masses there when you go; you can really have your own personal experience of the place. I love the tried and true, well-trod museums like the MoMA too. But sometimes the fact that they are so successful in attracting visitors is a bit sad because it begins to compromise the personal experience that people can have with art. Sometimes at high-trafficked museums you’re more aware of the other people around you than you are of the art on the floor or the walls.