This spring CODART launched a mentoring program that paired curators at the start of their careers with those who have years of experience in the profession. With this program, we set out to give the next generation of curators a flying start in the field – and in the CODART network, while also offering experienced curators the benefits of developing new contacts outside their own institution.
The first round of the CODART Mentoring Program ran between May and October of this year. CODART connected participants to a mentor or mentee and proposed that they meet up – whether digitally or in real life – at least three times during the course of the program. Within this framework, the couples were free to choose their own approach to the program, and to decide which issues to discuss. This led to various interpretations and outcomes, as shared by the participants in the final evaluation meeting in October.
In this feature, three mentor-mentee couples share their experiences with the program. How did they approach the program, how has it helped them, and what are their takeaways?
Courtney Harris and Anne Woollett
The CODART mentoring program paired us (Courtney Harris, mentee, and Anne Woollett, mentor) thoughtfully, partially due to Anne’s previous time at the MFA. Courtney is relatively new to the specialty of Dutch and Flemish art, with a growing interest particularly in the decorative arts, and Anne is a well-established curator of Northern European paintings. On opposite sides of the country, we met through Zoom and keep in touch regularly by Zoom. Anne’s knowledge of the collections in Boston allowed us to jump right into conversations about the state of the field in the US as well as opportunities for Courtney to make further connections to other curators both at American museums and abroad.
Inspired by Courtney’s enthusiasm and her exciting projects associated with the remarkable collection of Dutch and Flemish objects at the MFA, Anne offered various suggestions for further expanding her professional network and opportunities for contributing her expertise to the field, which Courtney followed up on and which quickly yielded productive results. In particular, Courtney and Anne discussed Courtney’s research into William and Mary and Anglo-Dutch relations, rooted in her desire to relate the MFA’s superb British decorative arts collections with its increasing Dutch focus. Anne recommended that Courtney attend, or even better, participate in the 2024 Historians of Netherlandish Art (HNA) conference. Courtney developed a paper proposal on the topic of depictions of the royal couple in medals , particularly on the earlier marriage between William II and the Princess Royal. Excitingly, the paper was accepted to a panel. Courtney looks forward to sharing her findings about this important collection of medals and making further connections to both museum and academic colleagues next summer.
With Anne’s recommendation, Courtney was invited to join the (Inclusion in Dutch and Flemish Art) IDFA working group of mostly American curators. The IDFA meets bi-monthly to discuss topics relevant to inclusive narratives, diversity, and changing histories within the curatorial community. Engaging with colleagues and institutions both large and small has been fruitful for learning about our shared challenges and successes within the field.
Anne appreciated hearing about the recent reinstallations of the Dutch and Flemish collections at the MFA and the book project Dutch Art in a Global Age, among the new initiatives of the Center for Netherlandish Art (CNA). Anne and Courtney plan to confer in person in Boston soon to look together at the galleries and the collection. We still have more to learn from each other!
Jessie Park and Tom van der Molen
Prior to the mentoring program, we had collaborated on a virtual panel discussion in 2021 on the topic of challenging Eurocentrism and restoring the narratives of historically underrepresented people through museum curation. After we were paired as mentor and mentee by CODART, our shared curatorial vision provided a solid foundation for our meetings.
We began a series of meetings with the topic of the importance of self-care. As museums increasingly play more diversified roles in society and curators’ remit expands with the changing of time, museum professionals are regularly experiencing burnout and are often faced with an unsustainable amount of workload. For some curators, organizing exhibitions and permanent collection installations anchored to the values of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, has been particularly challenging in a world that is politically and socioeconomically polarized at unprecedented levels. We discussed some of the ways in which each of us has been navigating these challenges with varying degrees of success, as well as methods of combating workplace burnout.
In two subsequent meetings (virtual and in person), we walked through Tom’s recent exhibition, Panorama Amsterdam, a presentation of Amsterdam Museum’s collection. It is set up to activate the audience to think about their own positions within the past and present of the city and functions as a laboratory to explore new ways of presenting history in preparation for the museum’s reopening around 2028. Some of the various topics we addressed include similar and different approaches to curation in history museums and art museums, the benefits of and lessons learned from experimenting with non-traditional displays, various ways of amplifying community voices in museums through texts and objects, and visibility of underrepresented peoples from the past and present in narrating histories of Amsterdam.
We have also centered our sessions on workshopping each other’s projects-in-progress. In between our meetings, we shared resources such as exhibition reviews, publications, and other materials that speak to each other’s interest or current projects. Some of the greatest benefits I (Jessie) received from the mentoring program are Tom’s support, insight, and advice. His guidance, thought-provoking questions, and genuine desire to see me grow as a curator strengthens my resolve to continue the important and necessary work of DEAI-centered museum curation. I (Tom) was inspired by Jessie’s intellectual, professional, and personal power with which she is tackling the important changes in museums and the curatorial profession. I am looking forward to continuing our conversations.
Guido Scholten and Manfred Sellink
Guido: After a first open conversation in which we both shared our expectations and wishes for the mentor program, we selected a number of topics to focus on during the mentorship. We thus took a relatively structured approach, with each meeting having a predetermined theme to discuss in more detail. As a mentee, I really liked this setup. The targeted focus allowed us to dive deep into the various topics, and because we tailored them at the start, they were all issues that were relevant to me.
The topics ranged widely, from personal matters such as career planning and practical questions like what things should/could be on a CV, to sharing experiences with doing research within the museum context, for example. Learning about experiences in different museums in other countries and their respective museum cultures, was also an aspect of the mentorship program that I found interesting. This exchange helped to broaden my perspective. In addition, due to the unforced and open atmosphere in our conversations, there was always time to discuss current affairs, either from our own work or from the news.
Manfred: It was indeed a structured approach that I quickly felt would interest and benefit the mentee best – after all, the program is mostly set up for them. After we agreed on the topics to discuss, as ‘traditional’ director and professor I could not resist the proposal that we – mostly Guido, that is – should prepare our meetings. Depending on the subject we sent each other texts and links, on various subjects as how best to present a cv, exhibition policy and organization, how to realize your own research projects, how to work on an academic career within institutional limitations, as well as how to realize and activate a relevant network and how to realize a good work and life balance – one of my own great pitfalls.
But to be honest, I was as much a mentor as a mentee. I truly enjoyed our meetings in giving advice and sharing experiences, forcing me to delve into my own career and (re)consider the choices I made for better or worse. But I was as much excited by the talks with an ambitious and eager young(er) curator, in whom I recognized so much of what I wrestled with – how different we are as individuals and how different the choices that we make (and will make) are. From this I learned a lot – as a person, as museum professional and as scholar.
Courtney Harris is Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She has been a member of CODART since 2020. Anne Woollett is Curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She has been a member of CODART since 2006.
Jessie Park is Nina & Lee Griggs Assistant Curator of European Art at Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. She has been a member of CODART since 2020. Tom van der Molen is Curator at the Amsterdam Museum in Amsterdam. He has been a member of CODART since 2014.
Guido Scholten is Scientific Trainee at Draiflessen Collection/Liberna in Mettingen. He has been a member of CODART since 2023. Manfred Sellink is director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. He has been a member of CODART since 1998.