Alumni Profiles Series: Marianne Eileen Wardle

 April 12, 2014

Marianne Eileen Wardle

Tell us about yourself.

Name: Marianne Eileen Wardle
Title: Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Programs, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
City: Durham, NC
PhD, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Duke University, 2010
MA, Brigham Young University, Art History, 1997
BA, French and Art History, Utah State University, 1992

What professional or career plans did you have in mind as you were completing your graduate degree?

By the time I finished it was very clear to me that the traditional tenure-track job was probably not going to work for me. One reason is that I don’t like sitting alone writing…I find it isolating. I always knew that I preferred teaching over writing. I think when I first came to Duke I thought I could crank out the writing just fine in order to do the teaching. So I came to get a PhD, but every opportunity I could, I taught. [With another student] I got a mini-grant to explore teaching the survey [course in art history]. I taught a course through women’s studies. I took a second TA position from the Classics department.

I also worked part-time as a student assistant in the president’s office. I answered the phone and did the mail and did a lot of their deliveries around campus. I bought the groceries. I ordered supplies. I did that for a couple of years. I learned a lot about how the university works, which was helpful.

When my funding was all out [after three years], I got a women’s studies research grant. Then I was out of money after the fourth year and was a little ambivalent about my dissertation. I ended up getting a contract through a temp agency to work for the VA [Veteran's Administration] in their Employee Education Division evaluating an internship program that worked to recruit people in difficult to hire careers.

During that year it became clear I needed to either commit to finishing my dissertation or not. So I committed to doing it. I applied for grants to support doing a year’s worth of research abroad in Greece. I didn’t get any, so I had to fund it myself, and the nice thing was the VA paid me, really well, and I saved money and then I took out some student loans to cover the rest of it. I paid for a year abroad and I went to Athens to the American School of Classical Studies.

I came back and I picked up again with my job at the VA. After I finished out my contract there in January, a few months later I saw one of the women I had been working with at the President’s Office in the grocery store, who is now the director’s assistant at the Nasher. She asked what I was doing and mentioned there was a job at the Nasher open as front desk supervisor. So I applied for that and I got it, and I worked for a year as the front desk supervisor. Then I switched over to working in events — the hours were a little more flexible…I did that for four years. Honestly, that job led to this job [her current job as Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Programs]. I also became the editorial assistant for The Art Bulletin [Duke Professor of Art History Richard Powell was Editor-in-Chief of The Art Bulletin between 2007 and 2010]. And that was fantastic. I had my own office and I learned a lot about writing. I stayed for three years while working for the events coordinator at the Nasher. I learned that you have to write for an audience and what it means for your paper to have an argument.

What has your career path looked like since you graduated?

The job I was doing for the events coordinator at the Nasher was a student position, so I knew when I graduated that job was going to end…Because I had been focused just on finishing my dissertation, I hadn’t sent any job applications. I knew that would be too distracting. Shortly before I went home [after graduation, the former Curator and Academic Program Coordinator at the Nasher] left the position…They [the Nasher] asked me if I was available [to fill in]…Part of it was that I was a known quantity. I had been around long enough and they trusted I would at least be able to keep things going. I knew the people at the museum. I was familiar with the collection.  I came back and they said it was interim, they’d be posting the position, and that I’d be welcome to apply. I worked really, really hard for the next six months so that it would be harder to replace me than to keep me. And then they gave me the job.

Tell us more about your current job. What is your favorite thing about what you do?

I work with faculty and students to use the museum — the exhibitions and the collection — as a learning resource. Some of that is arranging for classes to come over, sometimes it’s working with people on research projects, sometimes it’s working with a class that wants to curate an exhibition as an alternative to doing a research paper.

People that I know say don’t you miss teaching? Don’t you miss doing research? I’m like no! I do teach, and I do research! Part of the job is just learning about the museum’s collections, so there’s always something to learn. A huge part of my job is teaching with the collection.

I am happiest as a generalist. I like teaching the survey. I like knowing a little bit about a lot of things. As a scholar you focus in on one thing for so long. I don’t find that especially compelling. I get to talk about gender and stereotypes, representations of masculinity, how people express different aspects of themselves. I get to do lots of different things. There is some writing but it’s always for a point. Sometimes it’s just writing a label. I get to teach and interact with students. I get to work with faculty on things they’re interested in. I also get to touch things…I get to handle ancient art all the time. I get to do curatorial projects, which is nice. Last summer I curated a show on old master paintings and sculpture [The Human Position: Old Master Works from the Collection]. This suits me so much better than a tenure-track job. It’s a miracle that I ended up in the right job.

What has been the most surprising thing about it?

I’m surprised at how much time it takes up. When you really like your job you think of other things related to it, so it sort of expands.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

The best career advice I’ve ever received was “Say YES.” Say yes whenever anyone asks you to do something, even if you don’t want to do it or don’t know how to do it (in which case, say “Sure, I’ve never done that, but I’ll figure it out/I’ll ask/I’ll get more information/training/etc.”). Saying yes demonstrates you’re a team player, you’re willing to learn, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to do the job. And if you demonstrate competency and responsibility, you’ll be trusted to do more.

Do you have any interesting projects or professional plans in the works?

[As a former graduate student] I’m really conscious that our graduate students here don’t have any clear options to get career experience. So that is one thing I pitched in my interview. I am interested in developing a museum studies certificate.

There are some longer-term interdisciplinary projects going on, so that’s becoming more of my job. Right now I have a Bass Connections project [Art, Vision, and the Brain: An Exploration of Color and Brightness] with the Duke Eye Center and Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. They wanted to look at how vision and perception can be used as a diagnostic tool.

Also, over in electrical engineering they’ve developed a gigapixel camera, so they’ve started to take pictures of our artworks to test it out. It’s exciting to see what people are working on and to think about how it can connect to the Nasher.

Any advice you’d like to share with current graduate students at Duke?

You must find an advisor who has tenure. Not junior faculty, because they need to be concerned, and rightly so, about their own career and about their relationship with their colleagues. They don’t have political capital that they can necessarily use on your behalf and it’s a real risk for them if they do. And it’s not very realistic to expect them to do that.

Graduate students need to get some kind of work experience. Real life work experience that shows that they can work with others and that they have skills. One of the things that working for the VA really taught me is that I did have transferable skills. I interviewed people so I had communication skills. Then I had to take all of the data I had collected and write reports. Then I presented the reports at conferences in DC to the committee that makes the recommendation about whether the program gets funded or not. I was there long enough so that I even did the training for the next round of interns. I had presentation skills that you learn as a grad student from teaching and giving papers. I was working with people there who had PhDs and were applying them in a non-academic situation. They were really encouraging of me finishing. They were really interested in my dissertation topic, which had nothing at all to do with healthcare or serving veterans. They encouraged me to finish.

Get some work experience so you can demonstrate that you have skills outside of going to the library and sitting alone in a room. You can operate office machinery. You can solve a wide range of real-world problems. Normal stuff that normal people have to do.

What is one of your favorite memories of Duke?

I took a class from [Duke Professor of Art History] Caroline Bruzelius in South Italian Medieval Art and Architecture. For my term paper she assigned me to work on an arch [in the Nasher's medieval collection], and on the reverse side there is some ancient carving. The arch was carved out of ancient sculpture [spolia, or reuse of sculpture and architectural materials was common in late antiquity]. I looked at the object in storage — the museum was on East Campus at the time — and the storage was in the basement and it was kind of dank and it was really small…anyway it was lying on the floor and the guys had to flip it over for me so I could see it from all angles. They arranged to  have photographs taken, and then they also tested all the marble of both arches in the collection to find out what quarries the marble had come from. And then I identified the sculpture as the representation of a muse. So that was one of those moments that made me think, “Oh my gosh, I’m qualified to do real work.” That was one of those turning points for me as a graduate student.


Anna Kivlan
Anna Kivlan, Ph.D.

Recent Ph.D. Graduate