Spotlight Interview: Caroline Culp

Caroline Culp: Graduate Student

PhD in Art History, Stanford University 

WFU Class of 2013

Double Major: Art History & History (Honors)

Caroline Culp launched straight into her PhD out of undergrad, which is no small feat. With enormous amounts of research and internship experience under her belt, Caroline was accepted into Stanford's Art History PhD program upon graduation from Wake. She speaks to us now about her experience thus far.

DeacLink:  Tell us about what you’ve been doing since graduation.

Caroline Culp: I am currently in the Art History PhD program at Stanford, where I study American art and material culture of the eighteenth century. I very firmly feel that the programs, fellowships, and internships I completed at Wake allowed me to get into a PhD program without first obtaining a masters degree. During my sophomore year, I had an internship at National Portrait Gallery in DC, where I made some great contacts. The summer after my junior year, I had a research fellowship through the history department. After graduation, I worked as a curatorial research intern at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Working in the American Wing with the curator of sculpture to organize and research an upcoming exhibition, I realized this was what I wanted to do in my career--to be a curator at large arts institution. After a grueling round of applications to graduate programs (a full-time job in itself!), I began at Stanford in Fall of 2014. 

DL: What has surprised you the most about graduate school? 

CC: Graduate school is really hard. You have to be 100% sure before going into a PhD program that it is the path you want. It is taxing intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally. You’re likely to be far from my friends and family. You must be completely sure before you make that kind of a jump. But, I love what I do, and I love the program. I have grown enormously in my work, and I wouldn’t choose anything else.

DL: What advice would you give to students considering a PhD program?  

CC: Professor Jay Curley gave me some great advice. He said “Don’t pay for any art history advanced degree if you can help it. Emerging in debt and faced with a lower paying job is a sad way to spend your thirties!” But the reality is that three out of four students at Stanford come in with a masters. I would say that if a PhD in art history is what you know you need to do, take the debt or let your family help out with getting a masters degree. You will then have a better chance at acceptance to a PhD program. 

DL: So what specifically are you wanting to do after graduation? 

CC: The PhD program allows me keep my options open, and that is the best way to approach an advanced degree. I do feel that I would be best suited for a career in curation, but I will still be applying for academic positions. After teaching for the first time this quarter, I was surprised to realize I loved how fulfilling it was. 

DL: What are some of the realities of pursuing a career in the curatorial field? 

CC: The brutal reality is that the job market is very unforgiving. Positions are few and far between. When you finish your PhD, you have a 1-2 year window where you can apply for jobs. And, there are a limited number of jobs in your specialty available. I am focusing on early American art, but I will likely be applying to broad curatorial positions in American art. There are a limited number of American art positions across the country, and those that are open at the right time are an even smaller number. It takes a lot guts to go into this field. You have to have a lot of heart and get lucky. And you have to believe that it will work out. 

I’m guessing my first job won’t be glamorous. Starting at smaller institutions to start is very normal, or moving to a less-than-desirable location. You have no control in this job market. You just have to embrace the opportunities given to you. 

DL: Where would you say are the most opportunities in the curatorial field? 

CC: I would definitely say modern has the most curatorial opportunities. Also, with contemporary, you have the option to pursue curatorial positions in galleries.  

DL: What is the art scene like in Palo Alto? 

CC: The West Coast art scene seems to be (from my removed perspective) a mixture of California chill with a sense of nostalgia. Many artists are investigating questions of representation in various ways. The housing market has largely determined where artists can live. Right now, housing prices have pushed artists to Oakland and increasingly to LA. Being in Palo Alto, we are geographically disconnected. 

DL: Have you had the chance to become involved with the Cantor Center on Stanford’s campus? 

CC: At Stanford, there are various small curatorial opportunities, one of which is the highlight of my time at Stanford. Two years ago, I was able to take a class in which five PhD students in humanities disciplines worked together to conceive a show. We created a conceptually focused exhibition, implemented our vision, and produced a catalog. The class, taught by Richard Meyer and Connie Wolf, was part of a Mellon Grant that enabled Stanford and the Cantor to work together. 

Another Mellon funded initiative allows graduate students to develop and curate their own small show. After putting together a proposal, you get help from the Director of Academic Engagement at the Cantor to help make your vision a reality. 

DL: Given your interest in American Art, were you at all involved with Reynolda House as an undergrad? 

CC: Yes, I was a curatorial intern under Alison Slaby at Reynolda House, and my time there was very formative. It exposed me to a lot of canonical works of American art: the museum has a fantastic collection. My internship there has, I think, shaped the direction of my research and scholarly focus.