Rehana Abbas: Director of Philanthropy, Oakland Museum of California
San Francisco Bay Area, CA
Major: Art History
Rehana Abbas was certain of one thing upon arrival at the Forest- she wanted to work in the arts. From graduation, she completed internships, PR roles, an MBA at Yale, and development jobs for museums. Now Director of Philanthropy for the Oakland Museum of California, Rehana speaks about her experience getting to this position, and drops major tips for those aspiring to roles like hers.
DeacLink: What did you study at Wake? How has your career unfolded since?
Rehana Abbas: I studied Art History with an Anthropology minor. I knew I wanted to work in the arts before I got to Wake. In high school, I took a trip to Italy, and I fell in love with museums and the way that art related the story and ethos of the time it was created in.
My first museum internship was at Reynolda House, and I loved it. When you’re in an academic environment, you don’t have exposure to all the roles within a museum like marketing, education, and development. My internship exposed me to the many varied roles that made a museum work.. After graduation, I worked in an art gallery for a few months. From that experience, I realized I loved the arts, but I didn’t love the art market. I realized I was interested in the in arts because of the educational aspects and how a museum bring people together, not the intricacies of the art market with pricing and creating demand for an artist’s work. When I realized this, I knew that a museum would be a better fit for me than a gallery.
With that realization, I did a public relations internship at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Going in, I really didn’t know what a PR professional did on a day to day basis, but I saw the internship as a way to get my foot in the door at a great museum. I ended up really enjoying PR. I really appreciate that most of us who graduate from Wake Forest develop very strong writing skills. That ability to craft a narrative is essential to PR, and it helped that I could write about something that I was passionate about. After that, I got a job in PR at the Peabody Essex Museum. At PEM, which to this day is one of my favorite museums on the planet, I realized that a lot of the people making big, bold decisions had an MBA. I had never really considered a business degree but as I started to understand the skills needed to be a leader in a museum--management and leadership skills, understanding of how to balance what is important to the art field and what will drive attendance, and understanding finance, I realized that an MBA would help me achieve my goals. So after 2 years at PEM, I began my MBA.
I got my MBA from Yale. They have a great nonprofit management program. All of the nonprofit executives at school said, “If you want to be a leader in an arts organization, you need to know how to fundraise. Even if it’s not what you want to do long term, get some fundraising experience.” With that in mind, after graduating I moved to San Francisco and started working at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in development. It turns out that I really love being a museum fundraiser!.
I did briefly step out of the art world to fundraise for the UCSF Foundation. Fundraising for such a large hospital was like Development bootcamp, and it was a great experience, but . I missed the arts and wanted to go back to a museum. I found a job at SFMOMA. They were undergoing a huge expansion and campaign and I was part of the team that raised $665 million for SFMOMA during that time.. In 2017 I became the Director of Philanthropy at the Oakland Museum of California.
DL: Would you mind telling me more about this new role?
RA: In my new job, I am responsible for overseeing the team that manages fundraising from foundations, individuals and corporations. I also oversee membership and fundraising events.
The Oakland Museum of California is unique in that it is not only an art museum--we show the art, history, and natural sciences of California.his museum has a really bold and ambitious vision, and it is doing interesting work in terms of how museums can be a catalyst for social impact and really be meaningful to the communities we serve. It’s thinking about how museums can bring people together and create dialogue. Our country is more divided than ever, so creating safe public spaces for civic discourse is more important than ever. We have a bold vision that is pretty revolutionary for the museum field. Part of my job is to make sure we have the support to achieve this ambitious vision.
DL: What led you to get your MBA? How has that altered your career trajectory?
RA: There were two main reasons. One was that I was getting a little bit impatient. In museums, there is often not a lot of room for upward mobility unless you are in a very, very large museum, so you sometimes have to move out to move up. I saw a long path to get to a leadership role in a museum. Business school enabled me to jump a few rungs up the ladder more quickly.. And, as I mentioned, at the Peabody Essex Museum I saw that many of the innovators and collaborators all had MBAs. Those people were doing what I want to be doing.
DL: How have you found the different jobs you've had?
RA: Persistence! In the beginning, I didn’t have a strong network in the museum world, so I had to be very persistent.. When I was applying to my first PR job at the Peabody Essex Museum, I had applied online and didn’t hear back. But I felt strongly that the job was a great fit, and I knew that PR people will always open a FedEx envelope. So I FedExed my resume and cover letter directly to the PR manager, and from that, I got an interview, and ended up getting the job.
With SFMOMA, I reached out directly to the Director of Development to apply. He told me I wasn’t qualified, but I followed up with him when I noticed the role was still open a few months later. He gave me an interview, and I got the job. With in a few years I had received 2 major promotions. Because I was persistent, I got that interview and unparalleled career opportunities.
Networking is also very important. I found a great mentor at the Peabody Essex Museum, and he has been instrumental to my career. When I worked for him I had no idea that I would ever live in San Francisco, but it turns out that he was at SFMOMA earlier in his career. And, he worked for my current supervisor, the Executive Director at the Oakland Museum of California. Even though I haven’t worked for him in over 10 years, he’s still my strongest reference. I always make time to see him when I’m back on the east coast to maintain that relationship. Establishing a strong network and maintaining your professional reputation is so important as you continue on in your career.
DL: Development seems to be a very popular career path for art alums. What is the hardest part about breaking into this field?
RA: Development is a lot of fun because you get to work across all areas of the museum. The work my team and I do enables our colleagues to make brilliant ideas turn into realities, from access for underserved communities to exhibition development. All ideas need financial resources to become realities. I love that my role is to help bring those bold ideas to life.
DL: How do you like living in the Bay Area? How is the art scene out there changing?
RA: The art scene here is blowing up. Some very large galleries, like Gagosian and Pace, are opening locations here. We have the FOG art fair here in January.. With that fair, we have amazing dealers from around the country coming to town. When fairs are successful, satellite fairs pop up. Untitled San Francisco popped up in 2017. Those two fairs go on at the same time... plus two galleries opened last week as a part of San Francisco Art Week.
One big issue with the arts in San Francisco is that this city is so unaffordable. Artists and smaller galleries are being priced out. But the good thing is that there are newer organizations like the Minnesota Street Project. It’s a donor funded space that has more affordable space for galleries and art programming.
SFMOMA’s reopening last year was huge in the art world. The museum is an incredible contemporary and modern art museum. And all of these things have been happening in the last 12-18 months. San Francisco arts are having a moment. For museum employees, one challenge living here is that the city is so expensive and the pay doesn’t always make it possible to live here comfortably.
DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?
RA: At the highest level, running a museum is like a business. I wish I would have had a better understanding of that when I was at Wake, and of really understanding how a museum works. I wish that within the department requirements, there was something business related. For example, I think that it is so great at Wake that business majors have to take liberal arts classes--in hindsight I wish as a liberal arts major I was forced to take economics. In order to develop these skills at the level I wanted, I pursued my MBA and it was a very steep learning curve when I started my MBA program. My advice to art history students would be to take some econ or accounting classes as that knowledge will be very useful, no matter what career path you pursue.
DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?
RA: I have a few things I would pass on as advice, and some I mentioned earlier. Build and maintain your professional network. Diversify your knowledge by taking classes that are practical and outside of your major, such as business classes. And for current students, if you can, study abroad. As an art history major,why learn from slides when you could learn by seeing art in person? I studied abroad in Florence through a UNC Chapel Hill program and loved every minute of it.Studying abroad is also one of the greatest things you can do for yourself from a personal development perspective.