Jame Anderson: Architect
WFU Class of 1993
Double Major: Art History & Studio Art
Jame Anderson has quite possibly the coolest job in our nation’s capital. As an architect for SmithGroupJJR in their Cultural Studio practice, Jame works to bring cultural institutions to life. From designing museums of all types and shapes, converting archaeological sites into museums, to planning collections and object based research facilities for universities, Jame tells us what it takes to succeed as an architect.
DeacLink: Tell us about what you’re doing right now.. Are there any particularly exciting projects going on for you?
Jamie Anderson: I’m currently based in DC working as an architect for SmithGroupJJR, in the Cultural studio practice. We deal with museums, historic preservation, performing arts centers, and collaborate often with higher education for things like art on campus. I’ve worked on cultural institutions for my entire career since Wake.
Our latest project at SmithGroupJJR is deciding what will become of a site in Richmond newly discovered to be a slave auction house, jail, and business from the 17 and 1800s. The project has been titled the ‘Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site’, but was known colloquially as ‘The Devil’s Half-Acre’ in its time. Everyone knew this area in Richmond had these sort of sites but there had been no prior documentation of it until now; an archaeological dig recently revealed the site’s buildings and artifacts.
The most interesting part of this project follows the story of human progress in our country. The owner Robert Lumpkin willed this property to the woman who bore his children, who was an enslaved African American owned by Robert Lumpkin. When he died she donated it to what has become the Virginia Union University, the first historically black university in the state of Virginia, which was then just starting up.
When deciding what will become of the site, it’s very important to listen to the surrounding community throughout the process. Before we can bring our design to the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site, it’s crucial to allow those who will be surrounded and touched by the project to speak and react first. From this point we can begin to make decisions, the biggest being what the site should be. Should it be a museum, a memorial.. Something else? In the next nine months we hope to produce a concept design of the entity that will exist there.
This is the only project I’m able to speak publicly about.. But there are some other extremely cool projects going on that have to remain private for now.
DL: Take us through your journey to your current occupation since leaving Wake.
JA: I graduated from Wake in 1993 and decided to move to the city with the most museums, because I knew that’s where I wanted to work. I had done a bunch of internships prior to graduation from Wake.. my mindset was to get into any museum that would take me.
From ‘93 to ‘95 I did a series of odd jobs for the Smithsonian. I was in the Office of Exhibits Central (OEC), responsible for fabricating components of exhibitions. We did matting and framing, silkscreening, clay modelling.. There was even a taxidermist on the team. It was a very wonderful, crazy place to be. I fabricated and painted items for dioramas at first, but I found that I really wanted to design the dioramas themselves.
I looked into grad schools and at the time there weren’t many Exhibition Design masters degrees. I decided to go back to architecture school at Rhode Island School of Design. I had no idea what I was getting into at the time.. The program was truly above and beyond. During the completion of my thesis, my advisor Mikyoung Kim recommended I try working for a firm after graduation to see what I thought of it. I took her advice, and landed at a forty-person firm in the suburbs of Washington who had just been hired as a joint partner on the National Museum of the American Indian. I worked on that project for five years, after which I moved to the National Gallery as an architect and exhibition designer.
There we were in charge of everything that the art touched, and everything the visitor saw. This ranged from information desks and little cafes, to picking the wall colors and designing pedestals for the exhibitions, to gutting complete portions of the building to show collections. We worked closely with the curators throughout the installation process as well. You don’t get to touch a Picasso everyday.. With gloves of course!
All of my colleagues were the top in their field, it was a professional and beautiful place to work. We worked on more than a hundred special exhibitions and projects. Last year, almost a year to the day, I left the National gallery after thirteen years there. I returned to SmithGroupJJR ready for a different type of museum.
DL: Would you say your studies at Wake informed or drove your career path?
JA: Yeah, I think so. Double majoring in Art History and Studio Art allowed me to look and think critically and develop my writing skills, whilst developing a sense of aesthetics and my own brand or style in the studio. The combination was really good, although it did need to be layered over with a design education for the career I was pursuing. That’s of course where RISD came in, where they consider design to be an artform. I went into RISD agreeing with that, and left there disagreeing.
DL: Do you think Wake arts could have done to better prepare students for life after graduation?
JA: Probably… the thing is, Wake’s career services (at the time) worked really well for other majors, but not necessarily for those in arts concentrations. Career and internship information for students focused on Art History or Studio Art comes basically from the professors. And this of course isn’t a knock against Wake professors, but a lot of times when you’re in an academic institution, you don’t know about all of the opportunities out there because in the academic environment your focus isn’t on that. Grades and growth are the main focus.
The biggest lack of connection was preparing students for portfolio review, and for critiques that weren’t to other students and professors, but to people you’re trying to sell work, or yourself, to. To me it’s the professional practice aspect that was missing. The Buying Trip and Management in the Arts course were very helpful but those experiences aside, it’s challenging. The best way for students to understand what opportunities are out there, is connecting them with alumni. There’s a need for arts-focused career days, either on campus or at a host city. That would be great for Wake’s art department and its students.
In fact, I started something in DC because I noticed there were lots of women there in the art field who graduated from Wake. I decided to pull everyone together during a summer when we had three Wake interns working in the area for various museums. The goal was to have them meet as many of these professional women as possible. Since that initial gathering, we all get together two or three times a year and network with each other. Now there’s a DC rep for WFU, Jennifer Richwine, who we inform about our meetings so more alumnae can get involved. We need to get together again soon, sometimes it's hard... but we will and it's great to have that network.
DL: What advice have you got for students in the process of applying to jobs and internships?
JA: I’m a Generation X’er so in the summer of 1990 when I obtained my first internship, nothing was computerized yet in the museum and academic world. I sent typed letters to every museum in DC and heard back from just one. This initial experience taught me to cast a wide net and really put myself out there; you have to if you want to get anywhere. I take that into the present day too, even though emails and online applications are in place to expedite the process; if you don’t ask the question, send the email, you’ll never hear a yes. You have to raise your hand and go for it.
Specific to DC, students wanting to work here should go on usajobs.com and get their profile set up. Most museums are federally run, so you have to fill out a federal application. Secondly, they should speak to the people whose job they want. Whether it’s the job you want now or in ten, twenty years... Talk to them about how to get started. Chances are that something within conversation will remind them of someone they know, and they’ll put you in touch with them. And yes, I mean on the phone or even in person! Be ready to talk, to have very clear questions, and be professional.
DL: What’s the hardest part about breaking into your field?
JA: Architecture takes a lot of follow-through. You have to go to school for a long time, take a lot of exams, and it’s one of those disciplines that’s notorious for its long hours and relatively low pay. You have to love what you’re doing and want to change and build environments. So, I would say the hardest thing is perseverance- you have to be a little stubborn.
DL: What kernel of advice would you like to leave with the readers?
JA: Figure out what you love to do, then figure out how to do it.