One painting, Many Careers: National Gallery staff give real insights into their jobs & how they got there

On Friday 4th November the National Gallery hosted a ‘One Painting, Many Careers’ event in association with the AAH. The day was centred on one of the collection’s most visited paintings – Jan van Eyck’s ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’. We discovered how different departments interact with the painting, and gained insights into the varied career roles within the museum/gallery sector.

Rachel Billinge, Research Associate in the Conservation Department, studied Engineering at university. She began her career at the MOD, before re-training as a conservator – which takes 3 years on a conservation course. It is the conservators who spend most time with the works of art. They restore, treat and ensure that paintings are preserved for future generations. She admitted that, “one of us is often found with a feather duster, cleaning works”. The Conservation Department cross over with the Scientific Department, who examine art works through scientific methods, using infrared radiation and by taking tiny chemical samples.

Her top tips for a career in this field: “You will need an interest in science, and it is an extremely good idea to get work experience working directly with works of art”.

The best part of the role: “You feel wonderful that you’ve preserved something for the next generation”.

Jane Knowles, Head of Exhibitions, was the first person to go to university in her family. She studied Art History and English, before completing an MA in Museology. Her first job was Documentation Officer at Norwich Castle, in which she digitised 10,000 record cards! She explained that working on exhibitions means collaborating with all other departments, from Development through to Security. An Exhibitions Manager is a project manager, co-ordinating activity across the museum and managing a budget. Whilst the starting point for a show comes from a curator’s idea, exhibitions professionals turn this into an exhibition. So how does this happen?

• Curators draw up a list of all the works they want to borrow from other galleries/museums

• The exhibitions team draw up a budget and schedule (usually working 5 years in advance), send out loan letters and arrange shipping of art works. They also oversee:

• Art handlers – who arrange unpacking and installation of art objects.

• The Development Department – who raise funds to put on the exhibition.

• The Design Department – who use lighting, colour, sound and display to tell the story.

• The Education Department – who incorporate main themes in education programmes.

• The Communications Department – who ensure that the key messages are sent out.

Her top tips for a career in this field: “Make sure you volunteer throughout your degree and get lots of work experience. While an appreciation for art is key, more important are organisation, communication and project management skills”.

The best part of the role: “What I love is creating experiences for the public; you will introduce people to new things. I also love working with extraordinary objects, which can have extraordinary requirements. I once had to arrange for two priests to bless some icons on an altar in the gallery, before they were allowed to be displayed”.

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Rachel Craddock, Young Persons Programmer from the Education Department works in the growing field of museum/gallery education, which aims to widen access to the arts and respond to the needs of different audiences. She tells us that this is a “dynamic area of work”, which encompasses: families, early years, adults, schools and outreach. It also takes place beyond the confines of the gallery, from schools and artists’ studios, to communities and the outdoors.

In her role, Rachel uses visual arts to support learning. It is a job that requires creativity, communication skills and knowledge about the changes in formal education. She often works with colleagues in the Curatorial Department, considering how to break down knowledge into bite size chunks and different resources for each audience. She works with a range of external groups, from youth services to charities. Gallery education can: unlock creativity, bring cultural empowerment, build transferable skills, promote well-being, and allow for the exchange of skills/knowledge.

Her top tips for a career in this field: “There are many different pathways in as museums/galleries take on artists, art historians and teachers. Most important is obtaining work experience with the audiences you would be working with”.

The best part of the role: “You get to campaign for the values of art and education, bring cultural empowerment to people, and allow for the exchange of skills”.

kids

Mona Walsh, Head of Communications, manages a team of 28 who looks after: branding, marketing, graphic design, gallery design, social media, PR, film production, email marketing and digital. Their aim is to sell each exhibition, raise the profile of the gallery, engage people, and increase revenue. They work very closely with other departments, from curators to educators, as they check facts and work on the story of each exhibition. Focusing on the role played by the Communications Department in Exhibitions marketing, Mona mapped out the timeline and processes involved:

• Start with strategy, identifying target audiences and objectives, such as ticket sales

• Name the exhibition e.g. ‘Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites’

• Marketing e.g. films

• Press e.g. reviews

• Creative e.g. image choice as a means of telling a story

• Advertising e.g. tube stations, magazines, online/digital, press adverts

In today’s world “there are so many ways to connect and share content” e.g. live events on social media/ trailers on YouTube, which means that “the look and feel has to work across all channels”. She also pointed out the importance of analysis in communications. From social media statistics and website analytics, the team discovered that The Arnolfini Portrait is the most visited webpage, downloaded work of art and popular image on social media.

Her top tips for a career in this field: “If you like great art, and content, and are fascinated by people, then I would seriously consider communications as a job”.

The best part of the role: “I connect people with art”.

Judith Kerr, Head of Trusts and Individuals, Development came to this position following a degree in Music, volunteering in fundraising for orchestras, and then working in development roles within Higher Education and galleries. The Development team play a crucial role in raising income for the gallery’s projects, including exhibitions and education programmes. They raise funds through:

• Trusts and individual giving

• Corporate e.g. Credit Suisse partnership

• Operations

• Events

Judith pointed out that she works with all departments in the gallery, as well as with many external supporters and influencers (e.g. art dealers). She will research each project, prepare and then share the proposal with the supporters (from colder contacts to warm contacts), growing support, raising income and then thanking/involving supporters.

Her top tips for a career in this field: “To work in this field you’ve got to like working with people, and involving them in the organisation”.

The best part of the role: “Making art accessible to all and meeting so many varied people”.

Julie Malloy, Managing Director, The National Gallery Company has come to the National gallery from working in Retail/Business and deciding that she wanted a career change. Her motto: “I prove positive that you can mix art and business”. In her role, she generates income from commercial activity, educates customers and enhances people’s experiences of the gallery. She looks after:

• Retail (3 physical shops on site and an online shop)

• Cafes and restaurants

• Publishing (e.g. guide books and catalogues)

• Product development and sourcing (e.g. bespoke products)

• Image library, licensing and brand development

• Commercial filming

• Audio/multimedia guides

• Venue hire

Her top tips for a career in this field: “You can bring skills from other sectors”.

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Trevor Horsewood, Campaign Manager, Association Art Historians finished the session. He gave an insight into the top skills that employers look for within Art History careers. He stressed that all of these skills are gained by students whilst studying Art History:

• Analysis, problem-solving and thinking

• Awareness across commercial or arts sector

• Communication

• Initiative: being able to motivate self and others

• Negotiation: the act of persuasion

• Organisation: turning an idea into an action

• Perseverance

• Teamwork

Key messages to take away

  • You don’t have to begin your career in the museum/gallery; many employees build up skills in other sectors first
  • You don’t have to have studied Art History to work in a museum/gallery
  • You must love the arts!
  • Sell the skills developed during your degree to employers
  • Volunteer/gain work experience, as it is essential in this competitive jobs market as a means of developing skills, networking, showing motivation and gaining knowledge

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