Lucy Zimmerman is currently the Assistant Curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University. Read on to see how Lucy’s senior thesis jumpstarted her museum career.
DeacLink: Please walk me through your path from graduation day to your current job.
Lucy Zimmerman: It was a bit of serendipity, in a way. I’m from Cleveland, graduating in 2009 it was pretty rough time to be out in the world looking for a job and had planned to move home. Jay Curley (my thesis advisor) knew Jon Seydl (then the Vignos Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500-1800 at the Cleveland Museum of Art). Some of my coursework overlapped with an exhibition Jon was organizing, so Jay suggested we meet. I interned for Jon for the summer, then was hired as a curatorial research assistant.
The exhibition I worked on with Jon was about Pompeii and the modern imagination, considering how Pompeii has served as a shifting mirror for contemporary ideas about decadence, apocalypse, and resurrection. I did research on all of the modern and contemporary works in the show (Warhol, Rothko, Allan McCollum, Tacita Dean, Lucy McKenzie, among others) for about a year—research trips to the Warhol and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art were some highlights.
I went to the MA program in the Humanities at University of Chicago in the fall of 2010; which was a fast and rigorous yearlong program. After that year, I came back to the CMA and wrote entries for the exhibition catalogue, as well as authoring didactics. I gave gallery talks and tours, produced and cleared rights for reels of film clips, and worked on an audio guide. It was a great learning experience to see many facets of the show come together, and Jon was an incredible and empowering mentor.
After that I worked in the modern art department in Cleveland for about a year, and I worked on special exhibitions primarily and some acquisitions research. Both of my jobs at the CMA weren’t full-time to be totally transparent, so I was cobbling things together on the side. I worked as a private chef for a family for a little bit, and then a full-time job opened up at the Wexner Center for the Arts where I was hired as a Curatorial Assistant in the fall of 2014, and recently was promoted to Assistant Curator of Exhibitions. This was a natural next step for me, as it was more aligned with my goal of working with contemporary art and living artists.
DL: How much did your studies and general experience at Wake inform or drive your career path?
LZ: The two most formative experiences for me at Wake were both in my last year there: being selected to be part of the student union art acquisition committee and writing my honors thesis. It was such a unique experience to go to New York and interface with galleries, talk with contemporary artists, and purchase art that felt relevant to put in the collection to mark our time. Additionally, I wrote an honors thesis senior year, which was challenging, but it satisfied my passion for research. Both of those experiences opened many doors for me, and the honors thesis was a valuable experience in utilizing the student to teacher ratio and thinking with more nuance about my ideas through conversations with Professor Curley.
DL: How did you find and apply to the various positions you’ve held (online, inside reference, networking etc)? Please share tips and suggestions for the student audience on networking, interviewing and applying for jobs.
LZ: My experience was unique, I guess had the right coursework and proved myself with my research skills and by being resourceful. I would recommend looking at art as much as possible, going to talks, events, and visiting museums when you travel; this way you will be ready when opportunities present themselves to have an informed opinion about what you like and don’t like and why. Keep at it. Museums jobs are highly competitive, and there is a super qualified applicant pool; if this is the career path someone wants to take, it requires persistence.
DL: What could Wake have done better to prepare students for life after graduation?
LZ: Part of me wants to say it’s not what Wake could have done better but what I could have done better; in terms of being more proactive and engaging in the art on and off campus. Wake can be a bubble, so students should be thinking about using local and regional resources to see art in North Carolina whether it’s at SECCA or Reynolda House, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke, Ackland Art Museum at UNC, etc.
DL: What is your favorite part of living and working in Columbus? What is the most interesting thing going on in the art scene there at the moment, in your opinion?
LZ: I used to be apologetic about living in Ohio and not in New York, but Ohio is a quick jaunt to New York or Chicago; so, I don’t necessarily feel like I’m missing out on being in the center of art world. I like that Columbus has a slower pace, it allows me to have some headspace, though there is still a decent number of things happening. There’s a pretty active DIY culture, art collectives, and galleries run by artists that are bringing in young names. Being connected to the university is exciting because you have all these resources and the energy of the campus and students.
DL: What is your favorite part about working for the Wexner Center for the Arts?
LZ: The Wex is a nimble institution by virtue of not having a permanent collection and has a reputation for being a laboratory for contemporary art. The artist residency program is amazing and has defined this place since the center opened, almost 30 years ago. This annual award supports the creation of new work and encourages artists to try something complicated or new. Everyone here jumps at the opportunity to nurture and support unique and challenging work and ideas, and it has been such a joy working with great artists.
I have been fortunate in the last year to work with an array of terrific artists: Anita Witek, Ruth Root, Stanya Kahn, Mickalene Thomas. Kahn is an artist I advocated for acquiring on the buying trip at Wake, so it was such an honor bring her to Columbus and speak with her on a stage about her most recent video.
DL: What and where is next for you?
LZ: I am working through exhibition proposals now and some ideas for the future while continuing to work in collaboration with the senior curator and the curator-at-large on supporting and providing input on their shows.
DL: Do you have a kernel of advice you'd like to impart to the readers?
LZ: There’s a lot going on outside of NY/LA—it’s certainly more affordable when you’re starting out—so don’t be afraid to consider options between the coasts.
Other than that, I guess always be looking, reading, and thinking. The field of contemporary art is so vast that it can feel unknowable, so to get anywhere you have to be active. I read ArtForum, reviews in the NYT and LA Times, Texte zur Kunst, Mousse, and listen to Modern Art Notes podcasts.