At work I was known as a lifer. Museum work is exciting and I was living the dream of being in the center of the multi-disciplinary art world. I sought cultural capital, and for almost 25 years, I found it.
A few months ago I walked out of meeting and said to myself “You’re not a lifer anymore.” I went home feeling as if life itself had abandoned me: I knew had to leave, but had no where to go. Having identified so strongly with my work, I had no clue what I was else I was qualified for. I hadn’t updated my resume in decades and I was continually ill from a vestibular disorder that causes chronic vertigo. I didn’t know where to start.
HOB watched me cry for a while, and then he pointed to one of my paintings, I portrait I made of us in the style of a medieval manuscript. “When we leave the Garden of Eden” he said “you’re not even looking back. You’re onto the next challenge, as usual.”
So I updated my resume and looked at job posting sites. Some positions seemed promising but I didn’t have the required qualifications. I sent out a few applications and heard nothing.
Then I saw it. THE JOB. Every damn thing in the job description: yes yes yes yes yes yes. And at an extremely high quality cultural organization with a great mission.
I got the job.
Today was my last day at a place I’ve worked, the whole time in visitor experience, for almost 25 years. I’m not interested in nostalgia, but I do wish I could go back in time to give myself, a half of a lifetime ago, a bit of career advice. Here’s what I’d tell me:
-Get to know the interns. They will be museum directors in 10 years while you have the same job title.
-Scavenging free food is going to be one of your top career skills. The best free food is leftover from lunches with fancy, donor-type people. Uneaten food is going to hit the table by the 5th floor south elevator minutes after the meeting ends, so walk by casually, just making a photocopy, or refreshing the hot water in your tea and (sound surprised) “Oh, there’s some food here, might as well take it, hate to waste…” Less fancy people have less fancy food, usually just fast food sandwiches or the dreaded, ever-present Corner Bakery Snack Tray, which you will always scavenge even though you loathe that weird skinny biscotti, because—face it—you’ll eat anything free.
-You will need to use the language of museums. When you first start at your museum you all will be saying “diasporic” and then you will move on to “paradigm shift”. You will then start to say “trope” a lot (actually, museum people still say “trope” a lot). You will not miss an opportunity for a “rubric”. These days you are “centering” everything, or maybe “nothingness” (never ever forget the wall label that said “flirting with nothingness”).
-There will be times in your workday you are unclear what you should be doing; in those cases the answer is: reapply your lipstick, stand in a lobby and smile at visitors.
-When you meet people and they find out you work at a museum they will get starry eyed, like they just met a celebrity. “Oh wow!” they gush “Are you a curator?” And when you reply “No, I work in visitor experience”, their eyes grow dim and they lose interest in you. You will, in fact, know curators, and many of them are brilliant. You will also know brilliant accountants, security guards, building engineers, registrars, theater techs, librarians, educators, fundraisers, IT folks, retail workers, graphic designers, box office associates and so on. They will be brilliant and you will learn from them. You are a modest person, but you have to admit, their brilliance rubs off on you. You become a brilliant museum worker too.
Early in my career I sold tickets to a performance by a dance company called STREB. It was terrible to watch. They didn’t dance so much as abuse themselves on stage: leaping into the air and smashing against sheet metal and other painful surfaces. For a sort of grand finale the choreographer stood in a tight column while dancers tipped a concrete wall with a tiny window on top of her (she miraculously survived by being exactly in the right spot for her skinny body to thread through the window, while the wall crashed down around her). From my seat close to the stage I could clearly see her face: she was shaking, she was terrified.
My job at the museum had started to feel like that STREB performance: an audience gawking at cheap thrills masquerading as art while I stood on stage, hoping this wasn’t the night the concrete split open my head.
So today I left the museum for good, and in another week I start my new position. To my new job I’m taking my loyalty, my integrity, my tenacity, my advocacy, my resourcefulness, and yes, my own form of brilliance. I’m striding out of that garden, tossing an apple core over my shoulder, not even looking back.