Scott Shields (PhD '04)
Associate Director and Chief Curator
Crocker Art Museum
The Franklin D. Murphy Distinguished Alumni Lecturer for 2016 was Scott A. Shields. Scott is the Associate Director and Chief Curator at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, and received his PhD from KU in 2004 with an emphasis on American painting from 1825-1940. He has twenty years of museum experience in the Midwest and California. Having curated more than fifty exhibitions, he has been the primary or sole author of numerous exhibition catalogues, including Artists at Continent’s End: The Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875–1907; Edgar Payne: The Scenic Journey; A Touch of Blue: Landscapes by Gregory Kondos; Armin Hansen: The Artful Voyage, and David Ligare: California Classicist. He is currently curating three traveling exhibitions for 2017 with accompanying publications: Full Spectrum: Paintings by Raimonds Staprans; E. Charlton Fortune: The Colorful Spirit; and Richard Diebenkorn Beginnings, 1942–1955.
Briefly describe your career path from graduate school to your current position – and what motivated you to follow that path.
In graduate school I was fortunate enough to do an eighteen-month internship at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts. At this time, the de Young Museum was opening an exhibition titled Facing Eden: 100 Years of Landscape Art in the Bay Area. I remember thinking how little most people—even those in the field—knew about these California artists and decided to gear my own research in that direction, as I find it more satisfying to work on artists who have been less explored. After completing my Ph.D. coursework, I accepted the position of Fine Arts Curator at the California Historical Society while at the same time writing my dissertation on the Monterey Peninsula art colony. Nearly three years later, I became Curator at the Crocker Art Museum. I have since become the Crocker’s Associate Director and Chief Curator. I don’t typically feel like I am following a path so much as I try to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. And, in the realm of art in the American West, I have more projects looming than I will ever be able to realize.
What was the most important thing you learned as a graduate student that helped prepare you for your career?
I’m always relying on what I learned about the broader context of art history, even though I’m not typically working on artists that I studied in graduate school.
What do you wish you had learned as a graduate student that would have helped to prepare you better for your career? -or- What do you know now that you wish you had known as a graduate student?
The importance of relationship building, especially for someone going into museum work. This is certainly true of organizing exhibitions, which require numerous collaborators from co-authors, editors, publishers, institutional partners, collectors, photographers, funders, etc. It is also true in terms of working with donors and potential donors, which occupies at least half of my time. It is also critical to be able to work effectively with the internal museum staff, especially the development, education, and marketing departments.
What advice do you have for today’s undergraduate and graduate students regardless of their career aspirations?
Take as many internships as you can. Try to avail yourself of opportunities and make the most of them. And, be flexible by taking on projects that might actually be realized as an exhibition or publication instead of pursuing ones that won’t. Finally, if possible, never burn a bridge.
What is the biggest adjustment that one has to make in transitioning from life as a graduate student to a working as a full-time professional?
In graduate school I had a rather rosy idea about how I thought things should be. That gets shorn pretty quickly in the real world of too many projects and not enough time to do them all.
How has the museum profession changed since you entered it over eighteen years ago?
The way one does research has changed immensely. The internet has opened up so much in terms of archival sources—almost too much sometimes, and it can become overwhelming. We have come a long way since microfilm. On the other hand, sometimes one just has to say enough, as you could research forever based on what is available now.
What has been your greatest professional challenge?
A lack of a great art library close at hand. I miss so much just being able to go downstairs to the Murphy Art and Architecture Library and get practically anything I needed. Now, it requires travel to one of the university libraries, which requires travel time (in traffic), parking hassles, etc., and I just don’t have the luxury to do much of this.
What do you consider to be your one or two greatest professional accomplishments, and why?
Steadily producing publications on California artists long overdue for recognition and building the Crocker’s collection. The latter is especially satisfying, as when I go through the galleries I have very personal memories of acquiring more than half of the pieces now on view.
What question do you wish I had asked you, but didn’t?
I think, perhaps, “What did graduate school not prepare you for?” When asked by students what I do, I often say, “I write thank-you notes.” Academic programs do not really teach future curators how to effectively interact with donors, their colleagues, and the public, and it’s an enormous part of the job. The ability to work with so many different personalities, often for years or even decades, is critical.
(From a September 2016 email interview)