Three women who graduated from Bowdoin within the last 10 years recently returned to campus to talk about their careers in the commercial art world. To a crowd of students in MacMillan House, the three speakers described working with the diverse personalities — the artists, the dealers and the buyers — who populate the galleries and auction houses of New York City.
Joanna Ostrem ’03, vice president and senior account manager at Christie’s; Beatrice Shen ’09, sales assistant at Pace Gallery; and Allison Thomas ’10, administrator of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, all spoke frankly about the challenges of getting a job in their field and then actually dealing with their jobs once they had them.
Associate Professor of Art History Stephen Perkinson said that his colleague, Associate Professor of Art History Pamela Fletcher, worked with Bowdoin Career Planning to invite back recent graduates to participate in the “Career Conversation.” These young alumni are closer to that uncertain time of life when, as a recently graduated 22- or 23-year-old, one prepares to launch a career.
Shen, Ostrem and Thomas were unanimous in advising the students to apply for as many art-related internships as possible, warning them that rejections are inevitable. “I got turned down for every internship I applied for: Guggenheim, Whitney, MOMA, the Met, Cloisters,” Thomas said frankly. “So spread your net wide.” She eventually did get hired, as an unpaid intern at a small gallery in Washington D.C. “I loved it there because it was a really small gallery that sold local artists at accessible prices,” she said.
In my art history class, I loved sitting in the dark, looking at beautiful things and listening to why they’re here and why they’re important.”—Allison Thomas ’10, describing the moment she realized her future career path
The three grads spoke repeatedly about the importance of students sticking with it if they really wanted this type of job. Part of that persistence, they said, was to network, and to make those informational calls and contact Bowdoin’s extensive network of alumni already working in the art world.
The three successful alumnae also offered their opinions on the best preparation students could do, outside of earning a liberal arts degree. While they were unified in their belief that a master’s degree is not essential to work in the commercial side of selling art, they did stress the value of international experience. “It’s a global business,” Ostrem said. “Our biggest buyers are in Asia, the Middle East, Russia. Going abroad, opening your eyes, getting comfortable in other cultures is always an asset.”
Ostrem noted, too, that studying abroad helps people develop acclimation skills. In a job, as with travel, you have to adapt to different kinds of people and let frustrations roll off your back. “That’s what living abroad taught me — what my limits were, what my potential was. I think it’s really important,” she said.
Shen also added that in a competitive job market, foreign language skills can differentiate you from your competitors. “It’s a huge asset when applying for art jobs,” she said.
And Thomas pointed out that a student who’s just completed a summer internship or two and is looking for a post-graduation job will likely have resume that has a certain lightweight feel. But that’s okay, she added, and employers expect that. She advised students to play up the experiences they’ve had. Once students have found post-graduation jobs, Thomas added that it’s important for them to ground themselves in the position to learn, show their commitment and interest, and truly develop.
Dighton Spooner, associate director of Career Planning, echoed the advice of the speakers to seek internships to gain experience and form professional contacts. He reminded the students about the large number of grants that Bowdoin gives to qualified students to support them during unpaid internships. “There are ways to find financing and get experiences that will allow you to sit up here one day like these alumnae,” he said.
The evening was sponsored by the Donald and Barbara Kurtz fund, MacMillan House, Bowdoin Career Planning, the Museum of Art, and the Art History Division in the Art Department.