Virginia Spofford Seay: Collections Manager
Collections Manager & Registrar of Art & Antiques, Fidelity Investments
WFU Class of 2011
Double Major: History & French
Virginia Spofford Seay is passionate about history. She held internships across undergrad at places like Old Salem, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Picasso Museum in Paris. Now serving as Collections Manager at Fidelity Investments, Virginia shares about her role and the realities of her field.
DeacLink: As you mentioned, you didn’t study art history at Wake. What did you study? How has your career unfolded since?
Virginia Spofford Seay: I double majored in History and French. I became interested in the museum field, but wasn’t exactly sure how to get there. A few professors pointed me to museums, and among the institutions in Winston, MESDA in Old Salem stood out. I began interning there, and during that time I took a class in the history department where we designed an exhibit. I learned that MESDA was actually linked with two other institutions dealing with earlier American antiques: Colonial Williamsburg and Winterthur. After graduation I took an internship at Colonial Williamsburg where I remained for nine months. I was gathering more information about this particular field, and researching grad schools during this time. There are so many programs, and so many types- one year degrees, certificates, online degrees… It was hard to determine what was right for me. The best advice I received came from asking contacts around the industry about their perspectives. I spoke with many curators, collections managers, and museum professionals while deciding what I wanted to do.
In the end I chose to do an MA in Decorative Arts at Bard on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I was coming in from a summer in Paris at the Picasso Museum. The program melded art history and design, and was known for intentionally recruiting students from a variety of backgrounds to push interdisciplinary education. Students who graduate from this program typically go into their PhD’s afterward. I chose to do an academic program over a museum studies or art history program. I was able to take classes while doing internships which focused on museums and collections management.
After a grad school internship in the State Department in DC, I began feeling ready to go to work. I moved home to Boston and began job hunting. I saw a posting for the role I am currently in, and things just aligned from there. I am a registrar, dealing with both collections management and registrar duties. I have learned that my historical background afforded me transferable skills regardless of the subject area.
DL: Tell us more about your role at Fidelity.
VS: Work in private corporate art collections is not widely publicized. It’s sort of a ‘hush-hush’ world. We are fortunate to have a large team of 10 people working together. We have a curator, operations managers who organize logistics and art handling, and I am in charge of documenting the location of all of the artwork. In a regular museum setting, that would be akin to exhibition turnover. We move art much more often than museums do, for everyday construction projects, moving a business unit, or simply refreshing the hang. There are also numerous general common areas which we place art into as well. Because there is so much movement involved, I do a lot of shipping. It’s most important to ensure that the artwork is packed sufficiently, and that the lists of what is coming and going are accurate. I also play a part in monitoring the condition of all the works, keeping an eye on their quality, framing, and state of cleanliness. Much of my work is done from a computer as opposed to hands-on. We have a major storage facility in New England where I can handle, process, and label new acquisitions. I do travel to our various locations to complete walkthrough checks of the buildings, but the curators are the ones shopping, researching, and making sure the items in our collection are high quality and relevant to what the company’s focus is.
DL: What is the hardest part about breaking into your field?
VS: This field is still not 100% professionalized. Historically, people would go to an organization and end up working in that place. Now, there is a push for an MA; the employer wants to see it. Paradoxically, they also highly value field experience. For young people coming out of school, which do you do first? It is hard to reconcile a lack of experience and desire to get an education.
If is also very regional. I got this job partly because I was living in Boston already. You have to be flexible and willing to move anywhere because the job market is so tough. Boston has a lot of rich cultural institutions, but I was still applying to positions all over the country.
DL: How do you like living in Boston? Do you have any advice for people considering moving there?
VS: Boston is awesome. The history here is fantastic, and there is a lot of community and governmental support for public art. For instance, the Greenway downtown is filled with art and sculpture.. You can encounter art wherever you go here. The galleries do First Fridays each month to open new exhibitions, and the ICA focuses on contemporary art produced by a balance of local and international artists. Although NYC is most known for being a global city, Boston can offer this too- there are lots of great schools bringing in people from all over the world. It’s not insulated by any means. Boston is pretty expensive to live in, which has priced out some artists. However, there are plenty of artists still living, working and showing here. The cultural community supports them well.
DL: What do you think Wake could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?
VS: Students should be getting out of the ‘Wake bubble’ more. And I don’t mean going all the way up to New York, or far from Winston. There are plenty of organizations to get involved with in the local community. Wake could also bring more artists and arts professionals onto campus so students can be exposed to more than just what’s in front of them.
I learned in grad school that nothing is one singular focus. Art and culture are interdisciplinary, and those topics are not just for artists. Business majors bring finance background to the industry, but I am bringing culture to the finance industry. Having information on other fields will be helpful to all majors.
DL: What and where is next for you?
VS: I like this collection management piece, and being more hands-on. It’s nice knowing that my work will go beyond me, as I’m providing art and culture in places people wouldn’t expect. I’m helping people be more creative in their jobs. If I can take care of this collection now, when I am no longer around, someone else can continue the legacy. It is certainly not a short-term initiative. It’s also a tricky role; curators are more public and get the recognition, while operators and managers are behind the scenes. You must be happy in the work you’re doing, even if your name isn’t making it into the publications.
I might go back to NFP one day, because it reaches an unlimited community. Right now I like that I’m affecting a collection and reaching a community, but it is a limited one.