Art History at MOMA (feat. Michelle Fisher)
Alumni Aloud Episode 16
Michelle Fisher is assistant curator in the department of European Decorative Art and Design at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When this interview was recorded, she was curatorial assistant in MOMA’s Architecture and Design department and a PhD candidate in the Graduate Center’s Art History Program.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Michelle speaks with us about life as a curator, her ongoing investment in academia, and the satisfying ways in which working for a museum blends her research, teaching, and design skills in educating diverse audiences.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: You’re listening to Alumni Aloud, a new podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career and the advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at the Graduate Center.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I speak with Michelle Miller Fisher. In 2018 she will be Assistant Curator in the Department of European Decorative Art and Design at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When we spoke in the fall of 2017, she was a Curatorial Assistant at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She’s currently finishing up her PhD in The Graduate Center’s Art History program. In this conversation, Michelle talks about the benefits of working outside academia while you’re earning your PhD, how being a curator allows her to satisfy her passions for blending scholarship with innovative forms of public engagement, and the myriad reasons why cultivating support groups for research and professional development with your peers at The Graduate Center can help you adapt to the changing landscapes of modern work. This interview was conducted by myself, Anders Wallace, PhD candidate in the Anthropology program the GC. So what’s your name and what do you do for a living?
MICHELLE MILLER FISHER, GUEST: So my name is Michelle Miller Fisher and I’m a Curatorial Assistant at the Museum of Modern Art in the Architecture and Design department. And I also teach in several different places as well depending on the semester. Last semester, I taught as part of the Bard Prison Initiative. The semester before that and quite a few semesters before that I taught at Parsons, the New School for Design.
FISHER: I’ve done a, co-taught a semester with Paula Antonelli, whose my mentor here, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And so in different places depending on the topic and the research that we do here that can be applied to an elective class somewhere else.
WALLACE: That’s really nice that you have that ability to work outside. It’s also a lot of work I would imagine.
WALLACE: Do they give you a lot of flexibility on this end of MoMA?
FISHER: No *laughs*
WALLACE: It’s volunteer, it’s essentially extra?
FISHER: They encourage your professional development. And I’m lucky to work for someone whose really supportive. But it’s definitely extra work that you take on. So any publication that you do outside of MoMA, teaching, any curatorial work I do outside of MoMA is always extra. And our work day here is pretty intense during exhibition-making time. But yeah it’s good I think to keep a pot-belly of different things you can do because one never knows what your next job will be.
WALLACE: Well that’s a really interesting spectrum of things you’re involved in. So how did you come to do the work you’re in now?
FISHER: When I was in undergraduate, I went to the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and I went to do Scottish and English Literature and my third class that you have to take, I decided to do History of Art. And they were, I found out, tiny classes. Like maybe twenty or thirty people in comparison to about 300 people in the literature classes. So I very quickly realized that this would be a way to do a subject where I could get much keener access to the professors and teachers. And learn in a very intimate way. And I just kind of fell in love with the subject matter. It was unusual, I had never really translated anything from the visual into text or vice versa, which is a lot of what you do as an art historian.
FISHER: And so I decided I wanted to do that and I needed to have some work experience. I couldn’t afford to do unpaid work experience so I went to our museum on campus and the only thing that was paid was being a security guard in their geological section.
WALLACE: Oh wow!
FISHER: So that’s how I started in museums.
WALLACE: You needed to get more experience in museums.
FISHER: Yes, totally. So I needed professional experience.
WALLACE: Yeah, because you knew that you wanted to work in a museum context at the time?
FISHER: I knew that I wanted a job. And so I came from a family, my mom is a single parent and I’m the eldest in my family. I hadn’t gone to a museum before until I was about 17. And my best friend’s mom, whose an artist, took me to go see Patrick Harrington-Tea. I still have a very clear memory of going to see that. And I just loved the space, I really loved the whole environment. It just seemed so beautiful. And so when I went into the subject I knew that I wanted a job at the end of it and I had no idea of the range of jobs that would be possible. But I knew that for me at least, it was centered around objects and those types of institutions. And so yeah, I just went to the museum and said, “what jobs do you have that pay” and they said, “none.” *laughs*
WALLACE: *laughs* Security guard.
FISHER: *laughs* Yeah, security guard. And so that was my first job and then at the end of my undergrad, I applied to about fifteen different museum internships that were on the east coast of the states. I knew I just wanted something very different as an experience. And I had a little bit of money saved up. I was a cook, through college, so I saved that money up enough to last me the three months of a summer internship. No one wanted me because I had no work experience apart from the Guggenheim. I later found out their first choice of intern had passed so I was kind of their back-up candidate. So totally fine.
FISHER: And I got there and I just loved it. I worked in the Education department at the Guggenheim as a summer intern in 2005 and I just worked really hard. And towards the end of the internship, now looking back on it, it was too much of a ballsy move. But I said, “I like it here, can you give me a job.” I had worked hard enough, I really, really, really worked super hard that summer. That they actually created a job for me and they got a visa for me, which was again, unusual. And about a year or two later with the economic crash, that would not have happened. So it was sort of a good moment.
WALLACE: Oh wow.
FISHER: So I worked at the Guggenheim for four years and then I came here to interview once for a curatorial assistant position maybe in 2008 or 2009. My mentor at Glasgow, Juliet Kinchin, whose a wonderful curator and academic in modern design, came here. Moved here for a job she got at MoMA, she’s still here. And she said, “I need a curatorial assistant, come and interview.” And so I interviewed and it was really fun but at the end they said, “well you have no American degree, you have no work in curatorial, working in museums you don’t really have the background that’s useful for this.” And so they said, you know, “you should try to get some curatorial experience and apply again in a couple of years. And I realized that I needed not only curatorial experience but also a graduate degree in the states. And I wanted to go back and do doctoral work anyway and so that fall, I applied to CUNY. I only applied to one school actually, it was only CUNY that I wanted to go to. I felt very strongly about state education. I applied to CUNY, went back to school there. And got various pieces of work experience. I was a Graduate Teaching Fellow so I was teaching but also I worked for Independent Curators International, I worked for The Met museum for awhile. I tried to find pieces of experience that were related to curatorial work. And then I applied to this job another three times before I got it. *laughs*
WALLACE: *laughs* Oh wow, that’s dedication!
FISHER: Yeah, I knew that I wanted to be here. The next time that I applied I was still in coursework and they don’t like to take people that are still in classes because you can’t have a full time job and be able to go to classes as easily. The next time I applied, I actually applied for a summer internship and I got it but it was full-time and unpaid and I couldn’t do it so that’s when I started working at The Met and I was working in their Arms and Armor department. Dirk Breiding and then Hermes [Knauer]… Dirk was the curator and then Hermes was the armorer and I worked for them for a year.
FISHER: And I could do that part-time and that was great. So I was able to get curatorial experience with them without having to give up my paid work. Part of this industry or this field is that you often have to do unpaid work in order to get even close to the paid stuff. For me that was a huge problem because I could not afford to do that most of the time. And I think it’s just a problem of the field, it’s not equitable.
WALLACE: To figure how to gain experience and then there’s the internship conundrum if it’s unpaid, making sacrifices is something that a lot of people can relate to. And then so, what’s the topic of your dissertation?
FISHER: So I’m looking at architecture and translation. I look at Le Corbusier’s Radiant City and village and farm plans from the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. He actually worked on them up until his death in 1965. But I’m interested in how his paper architecture, because most of it was unbuilt, was translated into three very specific places by very unknown, very local, often city council architects in California, in Glasgow and then in Warsaw. At very particular moments in the mid-twentieth century and the way that they realize this paper architecture as part of that nascent identity formation as architects as kind of a political moment for them. It’s fun, I really love it as a topic, it’s something that’s wonderful to be at MoMA. Because although I don’t directly work on architecture here, being within this department is super helpful in terms of giving me a much, much broader context for the work I do in my dissertation. But yeah it’s definitely a slow process while I’m here because my days here can be very, very long. We’re in a nice moment, we just finished an exhibition that went up in early October and so my days are less manic. But often I could be in here at 8:30 or 9 and not leave until 1 or 2am in the morning.
WALLACE: Oh, wow.
FISHER: And it’s seven days a week.
WALLACE: Is that common in art curating?
FISHER: Not always, my husband works at The Met and his days are not like that at all. *laughs*
WALLACE: *laughs* Ah, ok.
FISHER: But I think this was an unusually large exhibition we worked on. And we have quite a dynamic roster of exhibitions that we do here in contemporary design.
FISHER: So it’s usual for us, but perhaps more unusual in general. Although I think anyone when they’re doing an exhibition, the final weeks gets a big fraught.
WALLACE: So you talked about your academic background and how that really weaves into your professional life. What’s a typical day in the office, sounds like that might vary?
FISHER: Yeah it does vary, although it’s usual, it’s fine. So I’m usually up by about 6 or 6:30 and I’ll do about a half hour or hour of emailing before I leave from home. And when I get here, the first thing I often do is go into the gallery if we have a current exhibition on, I’ll check through the gallery to make sure that no one’s moved anything or touched anything the day before. *laughs*
WALLACE: Ok, do a walk through.
FISHER: So the walk-through of the gallery to make sure everything is ok. Part of a curator’s role is to care for the objects in the collection so that’s important to do right at the beginning of the day. And then I’ll often have meetings. And so we work with many, many different departments to make things happen within the exhibition. So today for example, I’ll meet with my colleagues in Education and then we actually have a public program. I’ll be moderating a discussion with a photographer, kind of a live, moderated discussion with whoever wants to turn up. And then later on today I’ll be working on, we’re finishing off parts of our book reprint. So we have a catalogue for the exhibition that we wrote and it’s been very popular so it’s going into reprint. So we have to go back through that and look at image permissions, any updates that need to be made to the text before it needs to go back to the printer. And then other meetings, emails, phone calls. It’s a lot of chatting with other people, of trying to make sure you’re working as part of a larger team. Often the moments when I need to research or I’m searching for an article or an exhibition catalogue or the wall tags that go up, happen in the evening because that’s when it’s quiet. The workday is often really busy and kind of populated with different meetings and interactions, yeah.
WALLACE: So what do you enjoy the most about your work?
FISHER: I love a lot of things. I grew up always wanting to read and write and this job allows me to do that. I grew up wanting to be able to interact with the important things of peoples’ everyday worlds and I think design is absolutely part of that. Whether we realize it or not, design is the ATM interface that you use or it’s the subway interface that you use or it’s the uneven distribution of healthcare or education access. It’s the products that we use in our kitchen drawers every day, it’s wheelchairs, it’s blood bags, it’s blood banks. It’s various things that really shape our world for better and for worse. That to me is hugely interesting because through circumscribed scholarship where you can really research carefully something and put it out in an academic setting and that sort of helps change or add to the conversation there. But through exhibitions that are seen by you know, thousands if not tens of thousands of people during their run, you can slightly re-calibrate or adjust or welcome people into a new view of the world around them and hopefully help them participate kind of actively in the shaping of their world in a different way. And that to me is really exciting.
WALLACE: It sounds like a very educational motivation for you, which I understand completely. And I think a lot of academics feel they get through their writing or their teaching practices, which you get in a museum context. As you say, the public can come in and so you potentially reach a bigger audience.
WALLACE: What would you say is the most frustrating aspect of your work?
FISHER: That’s a really good question. I think that, that access is a frustration because you have this wonderful kind of idealistic idea of what conversations around contemporary design might be. And they work out sometimes beautifully. Like we had a series of debates around one exhibition, Design and Violence, and it was really exciting to have this public format of debate. But it can often feel especially at somewhere like MoMA which is such a magnetic place for the architectural design community, where we’re lucky that we have people that just engage with us. And want to come to discussions and want to see exhibitions, that it’s a bit like preaching to the choir. I think its, you know, we’re all bemoaning at this point in time, the polarity of our politics, widening social gaps, these very kind of macro issues that you know, whichever part of the political spectrum or social spectrum that you exist on, you’re feeling in some way. And I think the ideal of being able to have conversations that engage those topics if not often matched by the real of what happens in a museum.
You know, what could happen is so very different sometimes then what actually happens when you deliver a project. And I think there’s often, I think that also goes hand in hand with the scale of an institution like this one. Both its profile, but also just you know, 800 or so employees. And I think you can do things with greater agency sometimes that much smaller institutions. We’re very lucky that we have great funding here so we have often budget to do things. But there’s a nimbleness and an agility that comes from different set-ups that sometimes doesn’t manifest here.
WALLACE: So you talked about what you led you to your, your field of work. And did you ever think of being in academia full time? Sounds like you knew quite well that you wanted to be engaged in a more public aspect of work.
FISHER: Yeah, I think I do like the idea of at some point being engaged fully in academia. The person whose career I have loved and has been a longtime mentor apart from my wonderful here, Paola, is Juliette. And I’m lucky to work with both of them here. Juliet Kinchin is our other curator of design. And she has gone back and forth between academia. So she was a professor of Glasgow University while I was there, she was at the VNA before that. She’s worked in other museums, she’s now back here at MoMA but she still teaches. I think, I don’t know, I like the careers of people who have had feet in different places simultaneously. And I think it can really inform your teaching practice to be involved with objects in the museum and vice versa. I think maybe the best set-up or the ideal set-up for me is probably university gallery or museum in the end. Where you can have access to both things and you can really kind of synthesize the two.
But yeah, most days, I don’t know. I come from a very working-class background, I just want a job. This is always the job that I wanted but at the same point in time, I never expected to get it and so many other jobs and still today, many other jobs. And I don’t know I was home for some time in November and watching, I was in hospital with a family member. And watching doctors and nurses do their jobs and just thinking, “wow, what they do is so amazing.” Watching especially nurses in a high-dependency unit and thinking, “what on Earth am I doing with my life.” I think everyone has that moment, especially if you have a humanities degree, where you think you have these wonderful things that you do as a teacher or as a facilitator in other ways. And then you’re brought into contact with someone who like really, really, really does like crazily wonderful things. And so, I don’t know if I won the lottery. I just keep going back to school to do thing after thing after thing. I think maybe many of us would because that’s why we enjoy being in higher education.
FISHER: And so, this job and this life is a wonderful one but it’s not the only one that I can think of.
WALLACE: The times we live in you know, work may or may not be a stable thing and being open-minded about what else is out there while being loyal to what motivates you is a nice thing to be able to do.
FISHER: Totally, yeah.
WALLACE: How has your PhD benefitted you in your career?
FISHER: That’s a really good question. I think more than anything for what I do right now in terms of the way I research and read and write. And I know that sounds incredibly basic but I noticed a shift in those skills as I was going through the classes and exams part of my program. After my first exam and having to really understand the scholarship of my field enough to be able to synthesize it very quickly and form arguments in a written format there. And then spending six months revising for oral exams and figuring out how to present research and really, I don’t know, role play the, the… I guess these moments are kind of acting as if, to borrow a [distorted] phrase, to say you know, “I can see myself as being part of this community of academics.”
FISHER: And that has been really important in terms of then researching and writing, my standards for researching and writing changed and I understood how to write more clearly, how to write within and outside of my discipline and I can notice that often when I’m working with other scholars who we hire perhaps write for our catalogues or hire for public programs or invite into our research in other ways. That there is this real difference having had that training in a strong doctoral program and perhaps not. Some people are just excellent at writing and presenting anyway. But I notice that that skillset is really beautifully honed when you’ve been in a doctoral program.
WALLACE: So what skills do you think that students at the GC could hone for themselves? Are there things that you wish you’d done more of, skills you’ve acquired while in graduate studies or other things?
FISHER: Yeah that’s a really good question. I think the reason I really chose to go to the GC is because it has an incredibly inspiring population of students there. My peers there I learned as much from as the professors and I love my professors. But I don’t know if there’s something people could do more of, I’m always impressed by the level of conceptual and cerebral work that my peers did in my program and the extracurricular professional activities that they did. I think, I don’t know, time to completion is a difficult one and I think about that a lot. And so I wonder if which the types of study groups I had through exams could have been continued as writing partners. Or ways to just will each other into the existence of a finished PhD but no, I… The skillsets and I think the GC students are particularly strong because they often have good professional backgrounds. Maintaining one’s professional grasp on that is incredibly important. Unless you actually, you know, see yourself as having an absolutely, do or die, academic career. Then I think it’s really important to maintain some kind of professional connection from the beginning to the end of your program
WALLACE: Professional connections outside of academia.
FISHER: Yeah, to be doing work that is not academic. The very beginning of my program, I set myself a goal to write for a non-academic publication once every two months. So an exhibition review, anything that would kind of make me write short-form quick and dirty so that I could understand what it was to have feedback outside of the you know, sort of masterly work that I did for my professors. And that was really helpful because I learned, you know, that academic writing is not the only type of writing. And sometimes actually you can borrow strategies from non-academic writing to make your academic writing better and stronger and clearer. And it makes you a quicker writer because when you have to write something on a deadline and, you know, you’re getting paid for it or there’s a publication that can’t go to print until they’ve got your piece of it, you have a different responsibility towards getting that done. *laugh*
WALLACE: Yeah, yeah.
FISHER: And so that has helped me hugely. So I think keeping some kind of connection alive to your professional field outside of your academic field is hugely important because, I don’t know it can open more doors, it can make you stronger as an academic.
WALLACE: I think that’s important, for all the reasons you raise because there’s increasingly these connections between the academic world and non-academic. And then as far as the job market goes, who knows what could happen. But also because, like you said, I think academics learn good teaching and presenting skills, but it comes with the caveat that there’s jargon or what not that academics don’t do well at simplifying.
FISHER: So I present at the major conferences in my field, [distorted] is one of them. And the research there and the people that I meet are excellent and fantastic. But there are very few people in life that can listen to five twenty-minute papers in a row and take in meaningful information from them and walk away with something that’s actually useful for their own research. And yet, that’s the predominant mode of sharing information professionally in the academic field. I came into design, and while I detest Ted Talks more than I detest most things, there’s a happy medium between those places where you don’t have to give the superficial (as in the Ted Talk) and you don’t have to give the twenty-minute paper that no one can quite grasp because they’re fatigued from hearing many before that.
I’ve been able to sort of find this middle ground where there are really meaningful ways to deliver information that take strategies from very different places and enrich the exchange that you’re able to have. And to experiment with those strategies through different types of public programs we do at the museum. And so, while there is a real difference between the academic writing and work and for example, writing in a museum catalogue… They’re different things and I understand that, I don’t know, both can be enriching. So I think it’s kind of useful to step outside of the academic world as it’s useful to step out of any world and learn from other places.
WALLACE: I think that’s really useful to anyone who may listen. Is there anything else that the conversation is bringing up for you?
FISHER: Trying to think. I just, I felt really strongly about having this conversation because I have such a passion for The Graduate Center. I feel really strongly in the landscape of higher education in the states, it’s still kind of an anomaly to me that I feel so lucky to have grown up in a country where I had socialized medicine, where I had access to education.
WALLACE: In England?
FISHER: In Scotland, I was in Scotland. And so I think it’s really useful to express solidarity with one’s peers and figure out ways in which through sharing knowledge that you have and listening to others. Because I know it had hugely benefitted me to be able to have those types of conversations. Having peer discussion or discussions within you know, one’s peer groups, can be good ways of expressing solidarity around difficult job markets. And also thinking about possibilities that might not have occurred to you before in terms of the ways that you can use your skills.
WALLACE, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Michelle for taking the time to share her insights on her career journey with us. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Season One of Alumni Aloud, published every two weeks from our office during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook and Twitter pages, and other resources available on our website at cuny.is/careerplan. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
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