A Day in the Life of a Public Humanities Professional

March 27, 2013

As one of the people who help to run the public humanities M.A. program, I am frequently asked "what do your graduates do?"  Whether responding to prospective students, faculty, or staff at local organizations, answering this question gives me a way to talk about the fascinating and varied ways that public humanities alumni are putting their degree to work in the world.  Six cohorts of students – about 75 in all -- have completed the M.A. degree since 2007; as graduates of the only degree-granting public humanities program, they offer evidence of the versatility and marketability of the degree, although all would argue that it narrows the program's value to focus only on the employment paths it open.  But the professional careers followed by graduates do help give definition to this broad field and inspire current and future students.

On Wednesday, April 3, a group of alumni will be discussing their post-graduate work, drawing connections to the interests that led them to Brown's public humanities program and the skills and expertise they acquired through courses, practicums, and projects.   For the past few years, the Center has sponsored this event each spring in order to introduce prospective students to the graduate program, especially those who have applied and been offered admission, and give current students who are nearing graduation the chance to think about their own job searches.  We also hope the event strengthens the networks among past, present, and future students.  Our speakers this year are: 

Elizabeth Manekin, '09 Museum Educator at the Yale University Art Gallery

Meg Rotzel, '10 Producer of Artists in Residence and Public Programs at MIT

Reina Shibata, '10, Deputy Director, Percent for Art at NYC Department of Cultural Affairs

Jess Unger, '12 Special Projects Associate, Office of Governor Lincoln Chafee at State of Rhode Island

In preparation for this year's panel, I asked Jess, Meg, Elizabeth, and Reina to share details about their current work.  Each promptly provided a calendar annotating what they did during a single day last week. Sandwiched between endless emails that start and end each day (and sometimes fill the lunch hour), each calendar contains specifics about meetings and projects that contribute to the larger goals of animating public life through arts and culture.  

8:30 am Correspond with Matthew Suttor, Professor / Director of Sound at the Yale School of Drama, Gallery curators, and MFA students in writing, sound / projection design and directing, working out the kinks for upcoming "Gallery+" installation project (Elizabeth)

9:00 am Correspond with 1663 Charter commission members re: upcoming public program in Newport (Jess)

9:30 am Work with Sara Reisman (Director, Percent for Art) to generate a list of 25-30 artists to consider for commissions for projects at two public primary schools in Queens. Each artist will submit 20 images and an artist statement to Percent for Art for presentation to a selection review panel next week (Reina)

10:00 am Work with intern on grant-funded education projects (Jess); Teach second grade class from the Foote School, focusing on Indo-Pacific weaving and sculpture (Elizabeth)

11:00 am Develop agenda for upcoming committee meeting and post on Open Meetings (necessary for all official government meetings) (Jess); Meet with Gallery colleagues in Education, PR, Graphics, and Editorial Departments to discuss programs calendar and re-design of accompanying ephemera (Elizabeth)

11:30 am Meet with colleagues to launch arts and innovation prize “10K Creative Arts Challenge” in collaboration with MIT’s $100K entrepreneurship competition. Award will be given to the best business plan that demonstrates use of the arts as a core component of a business plan (Meg)

12:00 pm Meet by phone with representatives from Percent for Art, Department of Cultural Affairs Legal, Department of Transportation Legal Counsel, Economic Development Corporation, AKRF (engineering firm that is contracted by the city) Legal, and Roxy Paine’s lawyer (attorney representing commissioned artist) to discuss Jackson Avenue Streetscape Contract Review (Reina); Meeting with education department and deputy director to discuss an upcoming lecture series for the fall (Elizabeth); 12:00 pm Send invitations to alumni jurors for the $10K competition: Eran Egozy, co-founder Harmonix Music Systems, creator of Guitar Hero video game and musician; Susanne Seitinger, City Innovations Manager for Philips ColorKinetics and public artist; Marc Steglitz, Senior Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Guggenheim Museum; Marcel Botha, entrepreneur, engineer, architect and inventor (Meg)

12:30 pm Lead Skype meeting about projects during the 2014 Cambridge Science Festival with Visiting Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer; Director of the MIT Museum, John Durant; Executive Director for the Arts at MIT, Leila Kinney and Curatorial Associate Laura Knott (Meg); Work on funding requests: draft letter to potential private funders, draft thank yous to corporate sponsors (Jess)

2:00 pm Review Yale undergraduate essays submitted for Art, Lux et Veritas, a collection of 10 student essays published in conjunction with the History of Art Department and the Yale Center for British Art (Elizabeth)

2:30 pm Governor Chafee's birthday party (Jess)

3:00 pm Coordinate with the artist, architects and project team (Department of Design and Construction) to prepare artist Julianne Swartz for the review of her project by Queens Community Board (Reina); Meet with account executive at RDW group to review communications plan for the Charter commission (Jess);  Meet with arts communications staff about upcoming PR including updates to Visiting Artist website with reviews of last week’s concert with jazz musician Don Byron and opportunities for social media for upcoming sound series (Meg)

4:00 pm Phone call with John Barry, a scholar giving two public programs as a part of the Charter Commission's work (Jess); Lead weekly curatorial talk and discussion session with Yale undergraduate Gallery Guides (Elizabeth)

The work of producing arts residencies or running gallery programs at a major research university varies tremendously from the job of commissioning artists to work on local projects in public spaces in New York and organizing a statewide historical commemoration.  However, public humanities alumni share particular skills and activities across the disparate settings where they do their work.

Some of these commonalities become more visible when calendar entries are visualized this way:









These entries demonstrate how public humanities alumni spend their time collaborating with a wide variety of partners and stakeholders, including staff from government agencies, artists, musicians, and scholars, teachers and students, and other administrators.  On a daily basis, they are fund raising, coordinating review boards and prize committees, developing concepts and overseeing logistics for programs in history and the arts, and promoting events through social media and public relations campaigns.  Many are doing boundary-crossing work, such as connecting the arts with science.  And even when their content is historical, they focus more on the future by planning for upcoming programs and events.

A correlation wheel visualizes the connections between alumni and the public: 










Although they do not always interact directly with ‘the public,’ they encourage those interactions through their work as program producers, educators, activity planners, and mediators between offices and departments within their workplaces.  They value transparency and accountability, including posting meeting agendas for public information and working with artists to prepare for community reviews of proposed public art projects.

And sometimes, they get to eat birthday cake with the Governor.

For a window onto the M.A. program and a chance to learn more about the ways alumni are giving definition to the public humanities, we invite people to come to the Alumni Panel on April 3rd.  


Guest Blogger: Annie Valk, Associate Director for Programs

Public Humanities Events