Laurel McLaughlin: Ridgway Curatorial Fellow in Special Collections, Bryn Mawr College
WFU Class of 2013
Presidential Scholar of Voice
Double Major: Art History & English
To call Laurel McLaughlin multitalented would be a severe understatement. While at Wake Forest, she was a double major, Presidential Scholar of Voice, and a selected member of the 2013 Student Union Art Acquisitions Committee (formerly known as the ‘New York Art Buying Trip’). Since the interview, Laurel has completed graduate school and become the Ridgway Curatorial Fellow in Special Collections at Bryn Mawr College.
DeacLink: Tell us about your current job, and any other projects going on outside of work.
Laurel: I am currently a graduate student in the doctoral program at Bryn Mawr College with a focus on contemporary performance art and theories of embodiment, in addition to working as a Curatorial Assistant at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where I’ve collaborated on exhibitions ranging from Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis to World War I and American Art. I am also currently co-chairing the Bryn Mawr College Graduate Group Symposium, which will take place in the Fall of 2017, and co-curating two upcoming exhibitions, one with the University of Pennsylvania's Incubation Series, entitled Passages, at Fjord Gallery, Philadelphia, and the other at both Bryn Mawr College and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts entitled, Beyond Boundaries: Feminine Forms, which will be accompanied by programming and an exhibition catalog.
DL: Take us through your journey to your current occupation since leaving Wake.
LM: I graduated from Wake Forest University in 2013 and had the opportunity to do an internship in the Contemporary department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, after which I stayed on as a Research Assistant for a year working on exhibitions ranging from International Pop to Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals. I then moved to London in 2014 where I completed a Masters with Distinction entitled, “Corporeality within Globalised Migratory Aesthetics According to Nine Female Artists: Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo, Milica Tomić, Oreet Ashery, Tania Bruguera, Tímea Oravecz, Meriç Algün Ringborg, and Teresa Margolles,” at The Courtauld Institute of Art in Global Conceptualism with Dr. Sarah Wilson. In 2015 I returned to Philadelphia where I began graduate coursework at Bryn Mawr College.
DL: What are your biggest incentives and motivations in the job you’re doing now?
LM: My love for museum institutions and the public knowledge that they engender is a major motivation for my current graduate studies as I hope to join the ranks of a curatorial team.
DL: How much did your studies or Wake in general inform or drive your career path?
LM: I am profoundly grateful for the work ethic that the liberal arts education at Wake Forest promoted. Every semester I would petition the Dean to take more classes than perhaps encouraged, and each semester became more of a challenge and an incredible adventure. The opportunity to study in such an interdisciplinary environment has continued to reinvigorate my studies with a multifaceted perspective throughout graduate school.
I would also be extremely remiss if I did not acknowledge the wonderful mentors that guided me throughout my time at Wake Forest. Professor Jay Curley is one such professor whose professionalism, scholarship, and dedication to his field first inspired me to pursue graduate studies and a curatorial career; and he remains a valued mentor and wonderful interlocutor to this day. I am also grateful for Professors Barry Maine, Bernadine Barnes, Teresa Radomski, and Herman Rapaport whose teaching abilities, class discussions, and vocal exercises never ceased to amaze me.
DL: What do you think Wake arts could have done to have better prepared students for life after graduation?
LM: Looking back, it would have been helpful to speak with recent Wake alumni who had continued with graduate studies in Art History.
DL: Prior to what you’re doing now, what other sorts of jobs have you had? How did you find and apply to them?
LM: I’ve held a variety of internships and fellowship positions at The Reynolda House Museum, Wake Forest University Special Collections, The Barnes Foundation, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Sadie Coles HQ (London), Hales Gallery (London), The Slought Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I found most of these opportunities on museum websites and art-related search engines, such as the New York Foundation for the Arts, and The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
DL: What’s the hardest part about breaking into your field?
LM: One of the most challenging aspects of academia is the constant multitasking. While Wake Forest certainly introduced me to this lifestyle, graduate school increased that tenfold. Between applications for external opportunities, research papers, language exams, readings, jobs, classes, and this enigma called “life,” I’ve found a strange balance -- but it certainly took some time.
DL: How do you like living and working in Philadelphia?
LM: I’ve enjoyed my time living, working, and studying in Philadelphia tremendously. I enjoy my short commute to the suburbs for classes and the resources at Bryn Mawr that all remain close to the city. Philadelphia itself is a charming place to live with numerous neighborhoods and diverse communities. Its art scene ranges from contemporary museums such as The Fabric Workshop Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, to hybrid social activist platforms such as the Slought Foundation, to encyclopaedic institutions such as the PMA and PaFA, with some quirky haunts like the Mutter Museum and the Eastern State Penitentiary. The city teems with history. And its close proximity to New York, Washington, and Boston are an added bonus.
DL: What has surprised you the most about the art scene in Philly? Do you have any advice for students wanting to move to move there?
LM: I have been surprised by the opportunities to partake in the Philadelphia art scene at such a young stage in my career. Unlike neighboring cities, which seem to have established hierarchies for their art scenes, Philadelphia remains fairly open and eager for collaboration and new activities.
DL: What and where is next for you?
LM: I will remain in Philadelphia to finish my second year in Bryn Mawr’s graduate program. Next year I hope to undertake a curatorial fellowship while writing my dissertation proposal.
DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on, or currently go by?
LM: Be creative. While other students spent time at networking events or seminars on LinkedIn during the summers, I spent time in museum archives, which eventually led to current jobs and curatorial opportunities. Our art field, although seemingly corporate at times, operates a bit differently and requires some out-of-the-box thinking. Never be afraid to write an unusual proposal or make known the fact that you’re curious.