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GSAS Alumni Spotlight: John Marciari, Curator, Morgan Library & Musem

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What is your current profession/job? What did you study at Yale? When did you graduate?

I’m the Charles W. Engelhard Curator and Head of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. The curatorial part of my work here relates directly to my 2000 PhD in the History of Art. My dissertation on Roman art in the later sixteenth century included fairly extensive study of the drawings from that time, and the Morgan’s collection was one that I knew well even back then. 



What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/ or rewarding?


The great attraction of my position is the Morgan’s extraordinarily rich holdings, one of the most important collections of European old master drawings in America. I’m continually surprised to find that even major drawings here have been less researched than one would imagine, and that there are, accordingly, always new discoveries to be made. As part of my position, I am also head of the Morgan Drawing Institute, which provides funding for pre- and post-doctoral fellows, publications, and a great range of programming running from single-day graduate seminars to public lectures, to symposia: this gives my position and my department a rewarding academic component that many other curatorial departments do not have.

The most significant challenge is, unquestionably, the workload. We mount a new drawings exhibition three times per year, and trying to balance this perpetual need to produce exhibitions with research on the collection, organizing the Drawing Institute, and a range of administrative tasks—management of staff, budgets, donor cultivation, and so forth—is a constant juggling act.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?  


When I arrived at Yale, I was already predisposed to what some would call an object-based history of art (as opposed, I guess, to a more critical/theoretical methodology), and although I held a few teaching assistant positions, I spent even more time working in the museums, as I knew early on that I hoped to wind up in museum work. Yale’s museums were, in fact, one of the reasons I chose to come to New Haven for graduate work in the first place. I held fellowships at both the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, and I worked for a number of years with Steve Parks in the Osborn Collection at the Beinecke, where I was able to organize an exhibition on the Grand Tour that combined manuscript material from the Beinecke and the Walpole Library with art from the museums. In short, I managed a hands-on curatorial training simultaneously with the academic training from the department of the History of Art.

What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career? 


The research and analytical skills necessary for the PhD thesis are much the same as those I use when writing exhibition and collection catalogues, reviews, articles, etc. In that sense, I think a museum curator position is less a departure from a university faculty position than are some of the other careers that you’ve highlighted in this series. In the museum, we work to external publication deadlines more than might be the case for other academics—an exhibition catalogue must be ready when the exhibition opens, after all—and when hiring assistant curators, we pay attention to whether a candidate was able to complete the PhD thesis in the normal 6-7 year window, or whether there is other evidence that the candidate can keep up with the fairly rapid pace of work and to multi-task and manage very different kinds of projects simultaneously.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?


As I noted above, I spent much of my time in residence in New Haven working at YUAG, the BAC, and the Beinecke, and I also had a semester-long fellowship at the Wadsworth Athenaeum up in Hartford. In addition to learning how to understand the objects, these museum positions included writing labels, giving gallery talks, and so forth and thus offered necessary lessons in how to present complex research in relatively straightforward terms to a general audience, which is a departure from the sort of writing one does in seminar papers or a PhD thesis. Finally, the building of a collection with new acquisitions is an important part of most museum positions, and no graduate seminar will ever talk about purchasing art or raising money, so that is something that is necessarily learned through mentoring and experience.

What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?

The path to a curatorial job is museum experience, and even if fellowships don’t work out, there are usually volunteer internships that are available and should be pursued as early as possible. Apart from any position, it’s important to spend time studying the objects themselves: our job interviews almost always involve putting both well-known and “mystery” works in front of candidates, to see whether the candidates can respond to the object and not simply to fall back on a canned history of a period or style. Also, dissertation topics can be pretty narrow, but most museum jobs cover a fairly broad range of material, so don’t forget to look and learn beyond your specialty: my research is mainly on Italian art of the 16th and 17th century, for example, but I’ve worked on exhibitions ranging from early Italian painting  to Arts and Crafts furniture, to German Expressionism.
 

GSAS Alumni Spotlight

This GSAS Alumni Spotlight is part of an ongoing series featuring alumni who have chosen non-faculty careers.