Spotlight Interview: Alexis Slater

Alexis Slater: Graduate Student

University of Texas at Austin: MA in Art History, Criticism and Conservation

Austin, TX
WFU Class of 2016
Double Major: Art History & History


Alexis Slater graduated from Wake Forest and went straight into a job at Polskin Arts in LA, doing PR for museums and cultural institutions. While in this role Alexis realized she wanted to be the one telling the stories instead of pitching them. She is now obtaining her MA in Art History at UT Austin, preparing to enter the curatorial field. We interviewed Alexis in Fall 2017 before her class trip to Germany to learn more about her story.

DeacLink: Tell us about what you’re doing at the moment.

Alexis Slater: I am currently getting my MA at UT Austin, with a focus on the Northern Renaissance working with Dr. Jeffrey Chipps Smith (whose work I had read in Dr. Bernadine Barnes’ Northern Renaissance course at WFU). I wanted to work with Dr. Smith because the questions he asked in his work are some of the questions I’m personally curious about. This idea of seeking out scholars that ask the “right” research questions was something that I learned from a conversation with Dr. Barnes my senior year at Wake and really impacted my search for the right grad program. 

In one of my favorite classes this semester, I’m studying Cologne and Nuremberg in the late medieval to early Renaissance period with Dr. Smith and Dr. Joan Holladay. We are going to visit both these cities next week. It’s really important to see these things we’re studying in person, in their original contexts—you certainly can learn more in person than from a slide.

I am also taking a class about Roman architecture during the Republic; we cover construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction which ties in with my interest in cultural heritage.

DL: Sounds like a great program. Could you elaborate further on the experience?

AS: As a whole grad school is challenging in a way I wasn’t necessarily expecting, but I’m very appreciative of the experience. I can already see myself improving as a thinker and a scholar. It requires a different level of thinking and a lot of figuring how things work on your feet. For example, being assigned readings in languages I don’t speak (which is pretty intimidating) forces me to figure that out. Assignments like this are great for expanding the mind and making me more flexible as a historian and person.

I’m also surprised at the amount of group projects there are in grad school. It’s been useful from a teamwork standpoint, and sometimes group members are fluent in the languages our assigned texts are written in. There is so much more to be learned from original texts than an English translation; the original Italian or French can get more points across about the work we’re studying.

DL: Take us through your journey to grad school since Wake. We understand you had worked a job before enrolling?

AS: Yes- I graduated from Wake Forest having completed a double major in Art History and History. My thesis in History was on Alexander the Great’s conquest in Persia, with an emphasis on cultural heritage. Specifically, I looked at his destruction of the palace at Persepolis. My art historical thesis focused on the influence of the female patron, Elisabeth Borluut, in the commissioning and creation of the Ghent Altarpiece. I was actually able to conduct research in Belgium for this through Wake’s Lynn Johnson Travel Award. In the spring before my senior year, I travelled to Ghent and Bruges where I was able to see the Ghent Altarpiece in the flesh. Seeing the original chapel setting of the Ghent Altarpiece was instrumental in helping figure out a new way to view this important (and frequently written about) work. I noticed that the keystone of the “Vijd chapel”, which was a coat of arms, was actually split between Vijd and Borluut heralrdy! This in-person discovery—something I hadn’t seen mentioned in my reading—totally changed how I thought about the entire altarpiece. 

I took a year after graduation to live in Los Angeles, where I was working for Polskin Arts and Communications Counselors. Polskin is a firm working specifically with museums and cultural institutions, with an impressively wide range of clients like MoMA, the Whitney, SFMoMA and The Broad.

My role here was mostly focused on an account for The Getty Initiative, which comprises more than eighty exhibitions and institutions outside of California all tied into the arching theme of Latino and South American art. I also worked on the reopening of Hollywood’s Ford Theatres, and worked on projects and events for the Natural History Museum and the Sotheby’s LA office. 

PR for museums and institutions was fun, and definitely a challenge outside my area of familiarity. I came in with basic knowledge from a previous marketing and communications internship, but the role at Polskin required me to foster relationships with local and national press, whether it’s getting them to cover an exhibition or attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony. I had to find common links between the scope of an exhibition and the interests of a publication. Through this you get to know exhibitions really well; I was able to attend previews and explore archives as part of my job which was really great.

I realized during this year, that I wanted to be the one telling stories instead of pitching them. I craved a more active role in art history- asking questions, doing the research, writing theses, and crafting the stories I wanted to tell. The questions you’re allowed to ask in art history can go deeper, and be, of course, more academic, than journalism allows. With this realization I decided to pursue grad school.

DL: The work experience you’ve had seems very beneficial. How did you find and apply to the Polskin position, and previous internships?

AS: Interestingly, the Polskin representatives had come to a USC (University of Southern California) class in February to field interest among students, because the women who run the LA office got their masters there. They were after a USC candidate, but my friend in the class that day texted me saying the role would suit me perfectly. I applied off her recommendation but was initially told that because of timing, it wouldn’t work out. Once I graduated from Wake and moved back to LA in May, I sent an email to Polskin asking if they were still looking for somebody; which they were. I interviewed shortly after and started days later. The circumstances certainly fell into place on this occasion.

Most of my other internships I simply applied for online; the Reynolda House internship was a fantastic opportunity, and Wake students should definitely look into their many internships within the program. They offer focuses like educational development or marketing and communications (I did education my sophomore year and marketing as a senior). Both of these experiences primed me incredibly well to go forward, and they’re such passionate people at Reynolda with a real interest in helping students.

I also did an internship at the National Portrait Gallery in DC, which I applied for through their online application portal. For the NPG I interviewed on the phone with the curatorial team of the Painting and Sculpture department, which included Chief Curator Brandon Brame Fortune and Curator Dorothy Moss.

Another slightly random but interesting internship was on I did in Berlin while studying abroad. I had attended an artist talk at the gallery, Kinderhook & Caracas during Berlin Art Week, and found the space really interesting. I sent them a cold email afterward stating my interest in the space and the projects going on there. They had me helping with an exhibition in my time there- a performance work by Norwegian artist Hanne Lippard.

DL: That’s great- reaching out and being assertive can really go a long way! What works best during interviews, from your range of experiences?

AS: It’s okay to take time with your answers. If you rush into your response, you might not say what you really wanted to. If a question catches you off-guard, take a moment to breathe and search your brain for the words you want to use. Avoid using ‘um’ and ‘uh’ as well!

DL: How do you like living and studying in Austin? What is the art scene like there?

AS: Austin is a very cool city, with lots of energy pulsing through the air. We have Austin Art Fair in October which always brings a buzz; the gallery scene is expanding quickly as well. There’s also a prevalence of live music- even at my local grocery store on the weekends. Austin is called the live music capital of the world, and they’re very dedicated to this distinction.

Austin is sprawling like LA, so you need a car here. The traffic can be pretty bad, which reminds me of home but is obviously more frustrating than comforting. It’s definitely a cool place to move.. I wish there were more Wake alums here! It’s a very lively place and everyone is excited to be here.

DL: What’s the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on, or currently go by?

AS: Be open! Don’t limit yourself or think you’re set in something. When changes come your way, accept and roll with them. If you keep your heart and mind open to new experiences, you’ll gravitate toward the things that interest you along the way naturally. Don’t ever allow yourself to feel stuck or stationary- change is always a good thing.

Spotlight Interview: Kate Miles

Kate Miles: Interior Designer

Charleston, South Carolina

WFU Class of 2007

Major: Art History

Minor: Sociology


Kate Miles has traveled various paths leaving Wake Forest, including work in galleries, auction houses, interior design, and most recently, starting her own business. We caught up with Kate to learn all that's happened since undergrad.


DeacLink: What did you study at Wake? How has your career unfolded since?

Kate Miles: I majored in Art History and minored in Sociology. I did not go to Wake thinking I would do that. Honesty, I didn't know what I would study when I got there. I took a lot of liberal arts classes, and really enjoyed an Art History class. I had previously been interested in fashion, and I thought that I wanted to work in New York in the fashion industry. I dId an internship with Nicole Miller when I was at Wake, and I realized that’s not what I wanted to do.

Once I got into art history, I was thinking I would work in a museum, but I wasn’t really sure. But eventually, art history led to interior design. My parents were building on a house in Kiawah Island, and they hired an interior designer that went to Wake, Tammy Connor.  She has been very successful. I started working with her, and I was watching the process and really liked it. After Wake, I figured I would do an interior design program. I applied to SCAD and a few others, and heard good things about the about Sotheby’s Institute. I was accepted there, and moved to New York to do the Sotheby's year long Masters program in American Fine and Decorative Arts. I learned a lot about antiques, and I spent time at the auction house. I was also able to meet well known people in the industry. During the program, we traveled to London, Boston, and Charleston.

After the program, I decided to move to Charleston and write my thesis on one of the historic homes there. I focused on the Aiken-Rhett House. I wrote about the textiles and how the family selected them in the 1800s and their inspirations.

While I was in Charleston, I decided to start taking design classes at the Art Institute in Charleston. Then I moved, and I transferred to Art Institute of Raleigh in 2011.

Soon after I got married, and my husband took a job in Las Vegas. I had a hard time finding a job since Vegas was not a great market. I was looking at small design firms, and then I started looking at the arts in general. I ended up getting a job at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. I worked there and gave tours. There was a Monet exhibit most of the time I worked there, and it was a really cool experience, but it was not what I wanted to do.

When I got offered a job at Ethan Allen, I immediately accepted.  I would have preferred to work with an interior design firm but I figured it would be a good experience and it definitely was!  I was there for two years, and then we were transferred to Memphis, and I was able to transfer with Ethan Allen for two more years. Sadly, the market in Memphis wasn't quite as good. It was commission based so i wasn’t as successful in Memphis as I was in Vegas.  I took a break to have my son in 2015, and then we moved to Charleston soon after. I have been home with my son for the past two years, but my neighbors recently asked me to help them redo their kitchen. After working on that project, they recommended me to another client.  I have started my own business, Kate Miles Interior Design, which will hopefully continue to grow!


DL:  Would you mind telling me more about the interior design practice you are starting?

KM: I plan to focus on residential interior design!  


DL: What’s the hardest part about starting your own business?

KM: Getting clients is a big thing. I haven’t totally delved into that yet, but I have been lucky with word of mouth so far.  Getting my ducks in a row has been the hardest part, and it hasn’t always been easy to feel confident and ready to do it!  I saw a quote recently that really spoke to me.  “Great things never came from comfort zones.”


DL: How much did your time at Wake inform your career path?

KM: I do think it definitely did. I was able to take a bunch of different classes, it it was great that the school gives you two years to decide on a major. Studying art history was very fulfilling. I feel well versed on art and I enjoy going to museums and being able to appreciate art.  I also did a summer business program, which prepared me a little bit to be ready to do accounting and think about owning my own business.


DL: How have you found the different jobs you've had?

KM: I would say networking has been the primary way. I mentioned Tammy, who worked on my parents house. I interned with her for a month in Birmingham. She connected me with another person in Charleston. Ethan Allen was an application or email or email process. They weren’t hiring, but I just reached out and said I was job searching. My first job for Ethan Allen was more of a front desk role, and not a design job. However, I just took it since i knew I wanted to work in the industry and I needed to start somewhere.


DL: The interior design field seems to be a popular career option for art alums. What is the hardest part about breaking into this field?

KM: Your education gives you the background and the fundamentals, but working with someone gives you a look into the ins and outs of what you should be doing. In this field, people see the end product and just think it's fun. But the crunching numbers, researching, tracking, and logistics can be a hard part of the job.


DL: What’s the one kernel of advice you would give to current students?

KM: Take a chance and follow your passion. I do think that the art history studies really prepared me for a lot of different things!


DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?

KM: Since I knew I would be doing a graduate program, I didn't spend too much time in the career office.  But, I would think maybe having people working in different industries coming to the art department to speak etc. might give students more ideas of opportunities in the art world!

Spotlight Interview: Douglas Fordham

Douglas Fordham: Educator

Charlottesville, Virginia

Associate Professor, UVA Art Department

WFU Class of 1995

Double Major: Art History & Economics

Douglas Fordham arrived at Wake Forest without any prior exposure to the arts. In the four years that followed, Douglas would realize his interest in both art history and creating in the studio. Now a professor of Art History at the University of Virginia, Douglas explains how his path has unfolded since undergrad.


DeacLink: Tell us about your current role at University of Virginia.

Douglas Fordham: I’ve been teaching at UVA for the past twelve years. I am an associate professor in the art department, which contains the studio and art history programs. My main field is Eighteenth Century European Art with a specialization in British art. My primary job requirement is to teach four classes a year, both undergraduate and graduate courses, and advise undergraduate and graduate theses. I’m also finishing up a book on printmaking and the British Empire in the Eighteenth Century.


DL: That all sounds fantastic. Could you take us through your journey to professorship since leaving undergrad at Wake?

DF: I graduated in 1995 and had no idea what I was going to do. I knew I wasn’t done learning and taking courses, and my experience in London studying art history had been particularly significant. I stayed in Winston to work in Wake Admissions for a year, and during that time I researched and applied to programs. I was grateful to have Professor Harry Titus’s guidance during this process, because I pretty much went into it blind. Looking back I believe the unique combination of my double major at Wake (Art History and Economics) helped me stand out; my undergraduate thesis combined the two and was a bit offbeat compared to the majority of applicants. Yale ended up being an obvious choice for me, given the funding opportunity and their incredible center for British Art.

The first few years at Yale were really hard, honestly. Compared to my peers my art historical background wasn’t terribly strong. However, the interdisciplinary work and research training that I received at Wake prepared me extremely well. It’s probably true for many people; you have strengths and weaknesses, and find a way to work it out.

I completed my graduate degree with Yale after seven years, and although they had career services it was still very stressful and difficult finding that first job. I applied to numerous positions. Anything that was remotely relevant. After interviewing for a few different posts, I was thrilled to accept a two-year Postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia in New York. While I was at Columbia I interviewed with UVa and received an offer to teach there.


DL: How much did your studies or Wake in general inform or drive your career path?

DF: I went to London with an Art History course led by Professor Bob Knott as an undergrad student. I had taken a few other courses in Scales before this point, including sculpture, and my semester in London ultimately sold me on the field of Art History.

Equally influential were my friends at Wake, many of whom I met through Dr. Tom Phillips, the Director of Scholarships. We all came to Wake on various scholarships, and were it not for these opportunities I doubt that I would have gone the route that I did. It’s interesting how many of my friends from that period are still working in the arts, including Phil Archer, Seth Brodsky, and Jude Stewart. A number of us started a fine arts house on Polo Road which served as an extension to the creative activities we were engaging with already. We did poetry readings, created artwork, played music… Seth was a phenomenally gifted guitarist (and now a teaches Musicology at University of Chicago) and held informal music lectures for all of us. He married Jude who was involved in the English department and is now a successful freelance author.

That Polo Road space was very important for us; it was an encouraging place. I actually had zero engagement with the arts prior to Wake Forest. I was raised in Jacksonville, Florida and attended high school in the suburbs of Atlanta. Nothing about my background had exposed me to art; in fact I think I had only been to one art museum before coming to Wake!


DL: It’s great that you discovered your passion during undergrad. Do you feel that Wake could do more to prepare undergrads like you for your next steps when they graduate?

DF: I think that Wake’s art department has done an extremely good job hiring junior faculty. Adding new fields and continuing to bring in quality people who are really connected to their field is the number one thing they can do for the success of the students who want to go on. The Venice and London houses also made a big impression on me, and helped to prepare me for a career in the arts. It is also beneficial for graduates to see a track record of success in the arts; I don’t remember such a resource for that while I was there.


DL: You mentioned the difficulty of getting that first job out of Yale. What resources were there for you during this job search period?

DF: Yes, I was on the job market for two years. Yale did have some career service help, but they also had a pretty grandiose sense of themselves saying, ‘Just apply and you’ll be fine.’ They’ve now devised a much better support system, from what I understand. People with PhD’s in the arts and humanities are getting jobs in all sorts of fields now, and they’re helpings graduates find employers who look for those credentials.

I essentially searched for jobs through CAA (the College Art Association), which is the professional organization for studio art, art history, and museums in North America. Jobs are listed by academic specialization, which can be quite narrow, so you apply to whatever makes sense. The CAA has an office in NYC but hosts annual conferences, sponsors publishing and research grants, and other programs. It’s kind of like the American Medical Association… a lobby, promotional, and conference organizing group.


DL: Now that you’re happily stationed at UVA, how do you like living in Virginia? What is your favorite institution to visit for exhibitions?

DF: I have to say the VMFA (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) in Richmond. I love that museum. They have an amazing permanent collection, host wonderful visiting exhibitions, and have a great team of curators. It’s such an underrated museum, and I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves. I take my classes there whenever I can schedule it.


DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on, or currently go by?

DF: There are no guarantees in the arts. You do this job because you love the research, the writing, and mostly because you love the people involved in it. I feel incredibly lucky to be in this area where every day I’m dealing with students and faculty that simply love thinking and talking about art.

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.