Caroline Nelson: Executive Director's Assistant and Researcher, The Estate of David Smith
New York City
WFU Class of 2013
Major: Art History
Caroline Nelson graduated Wake Forest University with a major in Art History and minor in Psychology. After graduation she found herself interning at the Bruce Museum. She later pursued her Master's at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Caroline is now based in New York City doing wonderful things at the Estate of David Smith. We recently spoke to Caroline about her love for the arts, her career path, and her advice to young art history majors.
Note: Since conducting the interview, the Estate of David Smith has seen a number of changes, including Caroline being promoted to Exhibition Manager, in addition to remaining a researcher for the Catalogue Raisonné.
DeacLink: What did you study at Wake? How has your career unfolded since?
Caroline Nelson: I was an Art History major. I was initially pre-med, but by the end of Sophomore year, it had become pretty clear to me that my heart wasn’t really in it. My whole family is very science oriented. Veering off this path was not without its challenges, but certainly worth it in the end. I distinctly remember emailing Morna O’Neill from my bed in Piccolo my second year, desperately trying to get into what would eventually be the first Art History class I took at Wake - except it had begun weeks before. After some discussion, she let me in the class, and her support has proved incredibly influential ever since. After doing an independent study with her my junior year on 18th and 19th-century art, which also tied in with an exhibition mounted at the Reynolda House, I decided to pursue an honors thesis on John Constable prints. Because Morna was on sabbatical, though, I ended up working with Jay Curley as my advisor. His own interests and modernist insights led to new sources in my research and pushed me to think in ways I hadn’t before.
Despite all of this, I really had no idea what I wanted to do once I graduated. I wasn’t ready to go directly on to grad school. Looking back, I think I got pretty lucky. I didn’t apply to very many jobs, didn’t have a very strong sense of direction, but ended up landing a 9-month residence internship at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT. It was a broad role, maybe a little more directed toward curatorial type stuff. It was paid so was more like a job than an internship. It was a great experience. Just being up north, I was able to go to New York on the weekends and get further immersed in art. I am from West Virginia and have always been attracted to the city, but that hasn’t been my background.
Once I was “in” the art world, I realized that I wanted, as well as needed, another degree. That fall, I applied to a number of different Master's programs and a few PhD programs. I eventually chose to attend the Courtauld because they had a class specifically on late 18th / early 19th century British Art. I had studied abroad in London and fallen in love with it. It wasn’t a difficult decision to go back. I was a one year program as opposed to two, which ended up being a love-hate thing in a way. It was incredibly difficult and demanding. The Courtauld is sort of like Wake in that it prioritizes interacting and discussion based classes over lecture, but also required a lot of independent study, especially since everything was being consolidated into a shorter time frame. But I have absolutely no regrets about it.
What I ideally wanted to do was stay in London and try to find a job relating to the early modern British art I had been immersed in for almost a year. But I wasn’t able to balance looking for jobs while I was still in school, so I waited until after I turned in my dissertation, which left me with very little time to find something before my visa expired. It was a difficult market to break into anyway, especially for an American. So I moved back home to West Virginia, and I tried to make the most of it. I was there for about six months, and I got a job working as a secretary for a state senator. This was not entirely in line with anything I had done up until that point, but a lot of the skills that I sharpened there are completely applicable to any job, and definitely my job now. There is also a small museum in Charleston called the Clay Center, and as far as art goes, that’s pretty much it. I emailed the curator, Arif Khan, and worked with him a bit in addition to my job at the capitol. Most of it was exhibition research and I wrote some wall text. I got a stipend which was nice. Arif was a very positive influence and the opportunity helped to keep me motivated to continue applying to art jobs.
DL: Would you mind telling me more about what you're doing at the Estate of David Smith?
CN: All of this time, I never thought I wanted to be in New York. But I realized that if I wasn’t going to be in London, and if I wanted to truly take a stab at the art world, it’s where I really needed to be. It’s where the jobs are. On the NYFA website, I found this position at the Estate of David Smith, which is half administrative (I am the Executive Director’s assistant) and half research-based.
Working with modern sculpture is a huge jump from 18th/19th century British painting. I have learned so much since I started, though, and I have been here a little over a year now. I do a lot of outreach. We are represented by the gallery Hauser and Wirth. We have a big exhibition opening next month, and that’s been taking up a lot of my time. The other part of my job is geared toward an updated catalogue raisonne on Smith’s sculpture, which is projected to be released in full in 2021 I think, but our first deadline is also next month.
DL: How much did your time at Wake inform your career path?
CN: I got an internship at the Weatherspoon in Greensboro the summer before my senior year. But I really think Morna and Jay were the biggest influences for me as mentors. They were always encouraging but at the same time very realistic about this field. The relationship I had and continue to have with them is why I wanted to go somewhere like Wake Forest. My friends at bigger schools never had these kinds of interactions with professors - especially beyond graduation. Both have written me recommendations and given me a wealth of advice. It’s something I am continuously thankful for.
DL: How have you found the different jobs you've had?
CN: I found my current job on NYFA. That seems to be the way to go. When I was looking, that was the best source. In terms of Wake, the career center helped me tweak my CV, but there wasn’t anything specific set up as far as helping students go about navigating the art world. There was really no way to know about all of the different niches and things you can do with an art history degree.
DL: How do you like living in New York? What advice do you have for students considering pursuing a career in the city?
CN: It was definitely an adjustment. And there are still times where I can’t believe I live here. It is a nonstop place. But you have so much right at your fingertips. It’s almost the opposite problem of a small town like home: it can be a little too much at times. Still, I feel like for someone in the arts in their 20s this is an amazing place. Networking is important and I’d even say essential for finding a job here. My advice to anyone thinking of moving here would be: It doesn't hurt to reach out. Most people were in your same position when they first moved here. Keep pushing yourself to meet and connect with new people. Most people are really receptive.
DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?
CN: Maybe a new class or even a whole career center for the arts. Something that allows you to feel a little more supported. I think it was my junior or senior year, Jay organized an arts field trip to Richmond one weekend. Things like that get you excited. Wake can be a bubble, and students need to get out and see art in the real world. Students should be encouraged to look beyond the gates of campus. It might make more people feel like a career in the arts is actually doable. Art can be boring when you’re just looking at it in a book or on a projector. Seeing things in person can make a huge difference.
DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?
CN: Something I struggled with in my transition to art from the pre-med path I had assumed I would follow was acceptance, both inner and outer. A big part of me found it difficult to seriously consider an academic pursuit (let alone a future career) focused on a subject I not only genuinely enjoyed, but one that many others also seemed to believe to be for enjoyment only. While this is something I admit I still occasionally wrestle with, I think much of this doubt is based in mere stereotype. This is a field that can be both extremely fun and extremely rigorous. Not everyone will understand what exactly it is that you're doing, but some will occasionally give you the opportunity to show them. I really do believe that if you are invested in what you're doing, the rest will follow.