Rehana Abbas: Director of Philanthropy, Oakland Museum of California
San Francisco Bay Area, CA
WFU Class of 2002
Major: Art History
Rehana Abbas was certain of one thing upon arrival at the Forest- she wanted to work in the arts. From graduation, she completed internships, PR roles, an MBA at Yale, and development jobs for museums. Now Director of Philanthropy for the Oakland Museum of California, Rehana speaks about her experience getting to this position, and drops major tips for those aspiring to roles like hers.
DeacLink: What did you study at Wake? How has your career unfolded since?
Rehana Abbas: I studied Art History with an Anthropology minor. I knew I wanted to work in the arts before I got to Wake. In high school, I took a trip to Italy, and I fell in love with museums and museum culture.
My first museum internship was at Reynolda House, and I loved it. When you’re in school, you don’t understand all of the parts of the art world and how they tie in together. After that, I went and worked in a gallery for a few months. From that experience, I realized I loved the arts, but I didn’t love the art market. The pricing of things wasn’t why I was interested the field. However, I was interested in the in arts because of the educational aspects and how a museum creates a space for dialogue. Because of this, I knew that a museum would be a better fit than a gallery.
Next, I did an internship at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I was a public relations intern. Going in, I didn’t know what that meant, but I ended up being quite good at it. All of us that go to Wake come out as strong writers. That ability to craft a narrative is essential to PR, and it helped that I could write about something that I was passionate about. After that, I got a job in PR at the Peabody Essex Museum. From there, I went and got my MBA and I started working in development.
I got my MBA from Yale. They have a great nonprofit management program. All of the nonprofit executives at school said, “If you want to be a leader in an arts organization, you need to know how to fundraise. Even if it’s not what you want to do long term, get some fundraising experience.” With that in mind, I moved to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and started in development. It turns out that I happened to love fundraising.
From the FAMSF, I went to the University of California, San Francisco and worked on the hospital side. This was my one step out of the world, and I missed the arts so much and I realized I needed to go back. I started looking, and found a job at SFMOMA. They were undergoing a huge new expansion and I was helping fundraising towards the expansion. I just took a new job with the Oakland Museum of California, and I am overseeing all of Philanthropy.
DL: Would you mind telling me more about this new role?
RA: In my new job, I am responsible for increasing all money given from foundations, individuals and corporations. I also am over membership and fundraising events. Basically, I oversee all contributed revenue.
The Museum has natural sciences, history and arts, and the diversity keeps me interested. Also, this museum has a really bold and ambitious vision, and it is doing interesting work in terms of how museums can be a catalyst for social impact. It’s thinking about how museums can bring people together and insight dialogue. These days, we have to learn to talk to each other about different opinions in a civil way. We have this bold vision, it is pretty revolutionary for the museum field. Part of my job is to make sure we have the support to achieve our goals.
DL: What led you to get your MBA? How has that altered your career trajectory?
RA: There were two main reasons. One was that I was getting a little bit impatient. In museums, where there is not a lot of room for upward mobility, you sometimes have to move out to move up. I saw a long path to get to the level I wanted to. However, business school allowed me to leapfrog. At the Peabody Essex Museum, I was looking around at the people who worked there, and the innovators and collaborators all had MBAs. Those people were doing what I want to be doing.
DL: How have you found the different jobs you've had?
RA: Persistence... I have worked with plenty of people who have strong personal networks. I didn’t have that, so I had to be persistent. When I was applying to my first PR job at the Peabody Essex Museum, I had sent my resume and didn’t hear back. But I thought about it, and I knew that PR people will always open a FedEx envelope. So I FedExed my resume and cover letter to the PR manager, and from that, I got an interview, and ended up getting the job.
The job at SFMoMA was posted, but I reached out directly to the Director of Development to apply. He told me I wasn’t qualified, but I followed up with him when I noticed the role was still open a few months later. Once again, because I was persistent, I got an interview.
Networking is important, but hasn’t been how I got all of these jobs. My job now was a little bit because of networking, but early on you really need to be persistent. When looking for jobs, a great reference is essential. I found a great mentor at the Peabody Essex Museum, and they have continued to help me out throughout my career.
DL: Development seems to be a very popular career path for art alums. What is the hardest part about breaking into this field?
RA: Development is a lot of fun because you get to work across all areas of the museum. The work my team and I do enables our colleagues to produce brilliant ideas from access to exhibition development. All ideas need financial resources, and because of that, we get to assist collaborators in making their ideas a reality.
DL: How do you like living in the Bay Area? How is the art scene out there changing?
RA: The art scene here is blowing up. The international galleries, like Gagosian, are opening sites here. We have the big FOG art fair here in January, where SFMOMA is the beneficiary. With that show, we have amazing dealers from around the country coming to town. When fairs are successful, satellite fairs pop up. Untitled San Francisco popped us this year. Those are going at the same time... plus two galleries opened last week as a part of San Francisco Art Week.
However, the big issue with the arts is that this city is so unaffordable. Artists and smaller galleries are being priced out. But the good thing is that there are organizations like Minnesota Street Project. It’s a donor funded space that has cheap spaces for artist studios.
SFMOMA’s reopening last year was huge in the art world. The museum is an incredible contemporary art museum. And all of these things have been happening in the last 12-18 months. San Francisco arts are having a moment. The hard thing though is that working in museums and galleries doesn't come with great pay, and this is an expensive city.
DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?
RA: At the highest level, running a museum is like a business. I wish I would have had a better understanding of how a museum works. Part of this is my own background, though. I wish that within the department requirements, there was something business related. Wake is a liberal arts school. Because of that there is an effort to make sure that business majors take something besides just business classes. But liberal arts majors should have to take relevant business classes. I had to turn around and supplement this lack of knowledge with my MBA. I didn’t have any basics around economics and business.
DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?
RA: If you can, you should study abroad. Why would you learn from slides when you could learn it in person? You get a different feeling for the work when you are in front of the source. Studying abroad is also one of the greatest things from a personal development perspective.