Applying Perspective: Art History Alums Reflect on Their Career

In today’s increasingly competitive market, the job search process is always demanding. It can seem especially intimidating for students in humanities fields such as art history, where there’s not always one set career path.

But UChicago art history majors should take heart; they are equipped to tackle a highly diverse range of professional challenges. Art history majors learn how to approach problems through a wide array of disciplines, linking artwork to its historical, literary, and sociological contexts. Art history majors entering employment in the ‘information age’ come equipped with the ability to communicate multidisciplinary solutions to complex problems. Take the examples of three recent art history graduates: Ayla Amon, Michael Scalzo, and Christine Shang-Oak Lee. Each of them regularly leverages their cross-disciplinary skills in their professional roles.

Christine Shang-Oak Lee (AB’14) entered her first year at UChicago intending to study hard sciences, and only signed up for an art history course to satisfy her Core requirement. “I just chose a class that had seats open, which happened to be Greek Art and Archaeology…I remember standing in front of an ancient Greek vase at the Art Institute of Chicago for more than half an hour, which was exponentially more time than I ever spent scrutinizing any other artwork. I found myself jotting down pages and pages of notes for my paper. The more I looked at the artwork, the more I could see.” Christine was hooked. As her studies continued, Christine expanded her exposure to the discipline through a Federal Work-Study position at the Visual Resources Center (VRC) in the Art History Department. The VRC manages the University's ever-growing digital library of artworks, which professors and students use for research and presentations. “My job was to scan images of artworks and to add them to the database with detailed information. During my time at the VRC, I must have come across and learned about thousands of artworks.” Being immersed among art and artifacts became Christine’s passion and led her directly into the role she has now: Research Assistant for the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings Catalogue Raisonné and the Lee Ufan Catalogue Raisonné at Artifex Press. “A catalogue raisonné is the definitive, comprehensive, annotated compilation of all the known works of an artist either in a particular medium or all media. It is one of the most important resources for art historians, especially when they are studying a particular artist. I spend a lot of time going through exhibition catalogues, as well as old archival records of museums and galleries, to verify details about the artworks and the artist's career.”

Christine credits the rigorous and interdisciplinary nature of the UChicago art history program for preparing her so well for her career. “Writing my thesis was a huge learning experience, and the skills I developed during that process continue to be greatly influential in my career…It required expertise and advising from many different professors both within and outside the art history department. The opportunity to craft such a personal project gave me confidence in my voice and my own ideas.” Christine’s writing process was in fact so involved that she pursued Career Advancement's PRISM Research Grant and the Department of Art History's Visiting Committee Travel Fellowship, with which she travelled to Seoul and Tokyo during the summer between her third and fourth years to perform library and archival research and to see some of the architecture in person. Of her research she says, “I learned how to keep track of the different materials I collected over the year-long process, how to think creatively when I met certain barriers in my research, how to present my ideas to others, and how to incorporate feedback as I pushed my project along…I am now confident in my abilities to design and lead a major, long-term research project that involves many collaborators.”

Like Christine, Michael Scalzo (AB’11) entered UChicago intending to study science and likewise stumbled into a passion for art history. He enrolled in a Roman Art and Architecture course with low expectations but quickly found himself so enthralled that he added art history as a minor and then a major. Though still intending to pursue medicine, Michael saw no conflict between his varied interests. He remembers his father, an oncologist, going through stacks of art history books with him as a child for fun. Michael carried this memory with him to his studies, and appreciated how biology and art history used different parts of his brain.

Today, Michael has a Master’s degree in public health and works as a Clinical Effectiveness Associate at athenahealth where he collaborates with practitioners to improve healthcare management software systems. This position might seem a long way off from delving into historical and literary contexts of art, but Michael is quick to share how his art history degree has served him in a myriad of ways. “As much of what I do is science and clinical, there is also a huge communication element. The biggest parlay is that UChicago and art history taught me to be an excellent writer and communicator, and this is important no matter what you do. In the art history department, unlike other fields, it is multidisciplinary. So you are not just looking at things through one lens, but expected to be reading other texts and applying them to the context. Even in the healthcare setting, I really value these skills.”

Michael says that one of the greatest assets of the UChicago education has been the high expectations set in UChicago classes. “You would be in a room with a professor who has written three of the books you are reading. When you first experience this it’s a little daunting, but that professor expects you to bring something to the table. I think I bring that over into my industry because, though working without an MD or RN, I’m still expected to function at the level of others on our team. I have to rise to the occasion just like I did when I was in those classes.” Through his multidisciplinary coursework, Michael developed the ability to adjust his mode of communication to his audience. “I think UChicago students are incredibly adaptable. You may not be an econ major, but your social sciences classes will teach you some basics and you will be able to carry on those conversations for the rest of your life. For me, I could be talking with an OBGYN one moment and then a cardiologist the next, and from a clinical perspective they do really different things. You have to be ready to adapt immediately. There is no time; they just want to talk about what they need to talk about. There is a finesse to the people management side of the work. I can jump from setting to setting. UChicago has taught me to me to be multiple things to multiple people.” Michael does not deny that learning this was hard work, but also feels extremely grateful for this skill set. “When people find out I went to UChicago, they think that it must have been really intense. I say, ‘Yes, it was the hardest four years of my life, but I wouldn’t ever trade those experiences.’ They have prepared me for grad school, for tough work environments, and I’m so thankful.”

Ayla Amon (AB’10), in contrast to Michael and Christine, entered UChicago knowing she wanted to dive head first into art history. “I figured that out on a school trip to a museum in seventh grade,” she remembers. For Ayla, “it was not only a passion for art, history, and culture that lead me here, but a love of research, historical puzzles, and the desire to constantly learn new things.” Even so, she wasn’t sure whether a Ph.D. was in her future, or what she would do with her major in a professional capacity. These doubts faded, however, when she was introduced to Islamic Art. “I was immediately hooked. It has lead me to multiple languages, jobs, travels, and experiences that would not have happened otherwise.” Through her studies in Islamic Art, Ayla developed a deep appreciation for objects and how we interact with them across cultures. “Art history was like a crash course in learning to look at a piece of art or an object of culture and think, ‘Who made this? Why? What did it mean to them and the socio-political context in which it was created? Most importantly, what story does this object tell?’ That kind of thinking, that dissection of the object into a million component parts that add up to more than a whole, has decidedly influenced how I look at objects now. Material culture touches on so many facets of the human experience, and the flexibility to take classes in everything from linguistics to economics enriched my understanding of that. I think the scope of my education overall is what has allowed me to find a position in a museum and help me keep challenging how I think about objects, museums, and how people experience both.”

Today, Ayla works as a Research Assistant at The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Already, the multidisciplinary nature of her degree has proved invaluable to her work. “Almost everything I do is collaborative, and I have gotten to work with people in almost every department of the museum. My main responsibilities involve background and provenance research for objects in our collection, authentication and documentation for objects we might want to bring into the collection, and researching concepts and statistics to help frame the exhibition I work on, Slavery to Freedom…. I have to take those small facts about objects, connect them with other facts, with philosophies, beliefs, meanings and use them to tell stories that matter. That gets people to stop and think ‘Oh, that makes a lot of sense’ and then apply that thinking to other aspects of their lives.” Drawing these connections between disciplines was one of the most valued skills Ayla learned at UChicago. “A lot of people disparage taking classes outside of their major, or devalue disciplines they see as external to how they will professionally engage with society (e.g. a math major having to take a Humanities class), but I think the cross-disciplinary approach is absolutely essential to functioning in a society that is always looking forward; you have to also consider the past and how it has created the present. Not only do I use my art history background, but I use chemistry (determining the types of varnishes on wood, for example), foreign language skills, and not a day goes by that I don’t think my way through problems using the scientific method. I approach objects like a social scientist, artist, and economist in order to get a richer understanding of what they mean and what they meant. Objects were not created in a void, and the common core helps us understand them in the same expansive manner.”

Taking this idea further, Ayla encourages fellow alumni to continue pursuing interdisciplinary learning beyond school. “It is important to stay engaged in your field, but the creativity, innovation, and yes, dedication come from existing apart from a work environment and being involved in a wider array of things. Learn a new language, try a new recipe, or take up running. Being a more well-rounded human will make you a better employee and more employable.”

As the stories of Christine, Michael, and Ayla demonstrate, the interdisciplinary nature of the art history degree trains students to approach challenges like an artifact in a museum, studying it from different angles, and considering it in light of broader contexts across different fields. But the advantages do not end here. Art history majors are also trained to take their observations and communicate them well. Good communication only grows more valuable as culturally we press on into the future. All told, if art history majors are asked the question, “What are you going to do with that?” they can confidently reply, “Everything.”