Hunter O’Hanian in Conversation with Eric Segal, Director of Education and Curator of Academic Programs at the Harn Museum
posted by CAA — Sep 04, 2018
CAA’s executive director, Hunter O’Hanian, recently visited the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville, Florida to speak with Eric Segal, the museum’s director of education and curator of academic programs, about the role of academic art museums and Resources for Academic Art Museum Professionals (RAAMP).
A project of CAA supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, RAAMP aims to strengthen the educational mission of academic museums and their parent organizations by providing a publicly accessible repository of resources, online forums, and relevant news and information.
Watch and read the interview below.
Hunter O’Hanian: Hello everybody. My name’s Hunter O’Hanian and I’m the director of the College Art Association. I’m very pleased today to be with Eric Segal, who is the director of education and curator of academic programs here at the Harn Museum in Gainesville, Florida. Hello, Eric. How are you?
Eric Segal: Hunter, I’m doing well. It’s great to have you here in Gainesville.
HO: Well, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s been great to be spending time here and to go through the museum. Before we start, tell us a little bit about your background. I know you’ve been a CAA member since you were in graduate school, but tell us a little bit about your professional background.
ES: Sure. CAA since 1993.
ES: I actually started my college career as a computer engineering major. So, it was a big change when my sister made me take an art history class and that led me into art history, and I studied American art subsequently at UCLA, Masters.
HO: And, I think you won a Terra award, too.
ES: I was really fortunate to have a Terra award in 1999.
ES: And that was very exciting for me and helped me in my studies. Following the completion of my doctoral dissertation, I took an assistant professor position here at University of Florida. So, I was in the art history department teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in American art, African American art, illustration and even occasionally about museum theory. Later, in 2010, a position opened up in the museum where I was able to take on museum practice a bit more. That position was the academic programs position, which had just been created as the museum realized it was important to draw closer to the university. At that time, before the position opened up, there were perhaps a few dozen courses using the museum, because there was no one doing the outreach to work with faculty across campus.
Since that time, about 10 years, we’ve maybe increased that tenfold. The number of courses, the number of faculty, the number of disciplines and students using the museum—we’ve been really delighted to expand that quite a bit.
HO: That’s great. So, [the] University of Florida here in Gainesville, about 50,000 students here on campus.
HO: You have an art history department here. And do you have a studio arts department as well?
ES: It’s a combined school of art and art history and they’re both very robust. There’s a faculty of about seven in art history and the tens, twenties in art and they’re all great colleagues. In fact, in 2019 we will have the studio art faculty show here at the museum, which comes [around] every five years.
HO: Wonderful. So, the Harn Museum has been around since 1990. Roughly, how big is it? How many square feet is the facility?
ES: The museum is about 26,000 square feet.
HO: That’s big for an academic art museum.
ES: It is. We have all of our storage onsite. We have great galleries devoted to five collecting areas. We collect in African [art], in Asian [art], in photography, in modern and contemporary art. And we have a curator in each area. So, we’re very lucky. Many academic museums don’t have such a robust curatorial staff. And we also have classrooms where we can do teaching, where we can bring objects out from storage in order to connect with academic classes on campus if we have a theme we want to try to address, say, “urban imagery.” It may be better just with works that are in storage, rather than those that happen to be on view at a given time.
HO: And 11,000 objects in the collection?
ES: That’s right.
HO: Wow. And so how do you go about procuring objects for the collection?
ES: Right. So our curators are very active along with our development officer and our director in building relationships. So, we do have an endowment for acquisitions, but many of our acquisitions do come through gifts from donors, and that would be in all areas.
HO: I noticed too in going through the museum with you that you also have a fair number of Florida artists in your collection. Can you speak about some of them?
ES: We have Florida artists from the 19th century through the present. Some of them are former faculty at UF with international and national reputations, and some include folk artists who work locally and are widely collected and whose work reveals unexpected and inspiring perspectives on our own community. So, we have both highly-trained professional artists and amateur or untrained artists.
HO: It seems to me also that you’ve done a lot of work in your role as far as inviting members of the local Gainesville community, people who are not part of the academic campus on or into the museum through different programs. Can you talk generally about how you’ve been programming in trying to bring the local Gainesville community into the museum?
ES: Sure. So, as curator of academic programs, I obviously personally focus a lot on the academic community, but I’m also director of education as you mentioned, and I have a staff with whom I work to engage the community. I also consider that my responsibility as well. We have public programs that I think of as creating layers of access. There’s programs that are traditional museum programs of lectures and educational docent tours, which have immediate appeal to people who are familiar with museums and have a museum-going experience and know they might want to learn something about an exhibition, but we also have our whole range of activities that invite the community in perhaps for a first time. We’re creating museum goers out of our local citizenry.
So, those might be experiences that sound more fun and social, but include informal learning opportunities. We have a museum nights event once a month which is open in the evenings. So, lots of programs such as that, but we also think it’s really important to reach audiences that aren’t even looking at the museum as a possible venue for leisure or art experiences and we find it’s really effective to work with the local public schools. All children go to schools and we’re able to work with them to provide transportation and rich tour experiences and programs that engage children and parents as well. Creating the opportunity to connect with families that might not be thinking of the museum, but may learn from the children that it’s a really welcoming, relevant, and meaningful space.
HO: Overall for the whole museum, how big is the staff here?
ES: The staff, including security and frontline staff, is about fifty.
HO: Wow. Great.
ES: So, it’s pretty robust.
HO: And for academic programs and education, how big is that?
ES: In education, we have six full-time staff and a number of part-time staff who support programs and activities. So, we’re also very lucky. There are smaller museums that are working on a narrower range of staff resources.
HO: What challenges do you see for the education programs here at the Harn Museum going forward?
ES: Well, you did ask about our connecting with community audiences and our challenge is to continue to grow that and be relevant and to let audiences know that we are welcoming. We want to reach audiences that have not seen themselves in museums. So, diversity in our audiences is something we’ve done a lot to improve with by partnering with local groups, with activists, with people in different communities. We’ve done a lot to improve our diversity of audiences, but we’re still expanding there. In staff, that’s another area where we really need to work hard and we have focused part of our strategic plan extension into 2019 to focus on developing new ways to build diverse staff members across the museum, including in senior staff, which as we know in museums in the United States is a real problem.
HO: If you were speaking to someone else in your position, maybe in a more rural location or a smaller facility, and they wanted to engage the community more, what advice would you give them?
ES: That’s a great question. I think that it’s really important to let audiences know that they’re welcome and to my mind, the best way to get that message out there is by being out in the community, attending community fora on relevant topics, being part of discussions of education and educational resources, being part of discussions on how universities are trying to engage—the local university or college may be trying to engage the community, both on campus and in the community. Being a face in the community makes you somewhat approachable and starts to build the relationship that’s hard to build with an advertisement in the paper that says, “Everyone’s welcome. Admission is free”. Hopefully.
So, that would be one of the first steps that I think I would try in that position is to really be part of the community and to make contact with community leaders who already have authentic connections to different members of different areas of the community.
HO: We’re going to be recording some video practicum about different areas in the museum and we’ll get into some more of those details later, but it also seems as if you’ve developed good relationships with different departments within the college itself. Can you speak a little bit about doing that and how you go about being successful there?
ES: Some of our failures in doing that have been—not that I wouldn’t continue to do it—you know, I go and give a talk to the faculty senate and I send a letter to all faculty and I get a lot of emails back, if I’m lucky, that say, you know, I saw your email but I didn’t read it last year because you sent it to everyone. So, the hard work is making individual contacts either by email but also being out there again on campus. I try to serve on committees, be it in the international center or on undergraduate curriculum, wherever it might be useful, seeing that the museum could be a resource that can be built into emerging programs and projects. So, being at the table is important. And then building the individual connections to faculty. One faculty member in a language and literature department can be your ambassador to other faculty members.
HO: And, of course you’re familiar with RAAMP resources for academic art museum professionals, and the Harn has been one of the original stakeholders, and this has been a great project that CAA has worked on with the Mellon Foundation.
HO: We’ve been very happy with the success. As a resource out there, how have you been able to use RAAMP and also were there any changes you’d like to see to it or more things you’d like to see us add to it?
ES: Yes. RAAMP is a great resource. It’s been wonderful to see it grow and the website has, for anyone who hasn’t visited it recently, really been improved in the last year, making it searchable in a way that it wasn’t before. So, it’s a resource where you can actually find the materials that are there pretty easily now and that makes it especially useful. So, for me, it’s been great as a source of inspiration when I come up against a problem such as “How do I…?” I haven’t found this one yet, but one of my problems is how do I connect with low temperature physics? I’ve never solved that problem, but when someone posts that to RAMP, that’s where I’m going find it.
HO: Great. So, for any of you out there who have an answer to that quick question as to how to deal with low temperature physics, please post it on RAAMP now.
ES: That’s right. But, it’s really a great source of inspiration [for] problem solving and models that exist out there. It’s also I think increasingly going to continue to serve the role of [a] point for conversations, which is something that I’m really looking forward to, because sometimes someone hasn’t posted on low temperature physics, but they may have already done it. And so it’s a chance to get feedback and ideas. I’m also really looking forward to in the future ideas about building diversity, as we discussed earlier. How it’s being pursued at other museums, both in terms of audiences but also in terms of staff. I think as a community academic program officers in museums need to come together to build the pipeline of museum professionals. That includes recruiting students when they’re young. I’ve been working with high school students in the past week to just tell them that museums are a career and that’s important.
It includes supporting internships. I think that discussion can happen in RAAMP about how we can sort of strategically create a pool that we’re all going draw on to diversify our staff. I’m also looking forward to learning from RAAMP more about ideas for academic programs working with development offices.
HO: Interesting. The fundraising piece.
ES: Yes. The fundraising piece. We’re all challenged in our budgets. In the past year, we’ve developed a program on early learning that we built with the college of education, and we built a really robust project, and someone said: “You need to do a video for this.” And that video has been helpful for us in developing private funds to continue to pursue this program that provides education for headstart students.
HO: Which is great, because it gives potential funders the opportunity to see what the programs are really about and be able to see that.
ES: It is. And that’s the kind of thing I’d love to share on RAAMP and also learn from others their strategies for taking our programs and having them be tools for building our funding.
HO: Yes. I’ve been recently reviewing the session proposals for the upcoming CAA conference in New York in February of 2019 and there are a lot of sessions that are coming up for professionals in academic art museums, because I do think it’s a growing field that a lot of PhD students or PhD holders and Masters will be going into it in the future. So, there will be a lot at this year’s conference in February.
ES: That’s really great to hear. And I hope that non-museum professionals, hope that artists and art historians will attend those as well, because their voices are really useful to be part of those conversations that art museum professionals are having. I was thinking about the sort of professionalization that another area of RAAMP is going help us connect on is going to be evaluation. Museums are always challenged in terms of evaluation. We know it’s important to prove that what we do is effective. Evaluation is time-consuming or expensive or both, and sharing expertise and ideas in that area I think is going to be something that’s going to really help us to build our case in the future.
HO: Yes, I mean, ultimately all museums are educational institutions, and we have to be able to quantify how that happened.
ES: I think that is the case.
HO: Eric, thank you so much for your time here. It’s been great to tour the museum and I really have appreciated it. And so good luck with all your work going forward.
ES: Thank you, Hunter, for sharing your interest of the museum with our RAAMP audiences.