Izzy Kent graduated last year, having studied History of Art at Trinity, and has already found herself in her ‘dream’ role at the Wallace Collection. Her job varies hugely, from giving last-minute lectures to working in the conservation of the museum’s collection. Here she talks about applying for positions you don’t think you’ll get, the surprising things you learn on the job and the joy of turning the lights on.
Interview by Xanthe Fuller
So, what do you do now?
I’ve just started as the ‘Enriqueta Harris Frankfort curatorial assistant’ at the Wallace Collection. The Wallace Collection is a national museum in the heart of London. It’s relatively small but is up there with the heavy weights (National Gallery, British Museum etc.) in terms of quality. My job is a new position funded by the Centro de Estudios Europa Hispanica. As this suggests I specialize in the Spanish art at the museum including some sublime paintings by Velazquez, Alonzo Cano and Murillo.
How did you get there?
There’s a short answer and a long answer to this:
The short of it is I saw the job advert during my revision for finals and decided to apply. I really didn’t expect to get it as they wanted someone with a MA and fluent Spanish but it was such a dream position I thought I might as well. Then I went for interview and a couple of days later received a phone call saying I’d got the job.
The longer answer is a little more sentimental. I am incredibly lucky to have something that I am really passionate about, which is art and culture. There was never a moment, a lecture, book or exhibition where it all clicked and I knew it was what I wanted to do; I just can’t remember a time when I didn’t love it. So really, I’ve just been following my nose and trying to learn as much as I can wherever I can. I’ve done a lot of internships in different areas of the arts so by the time it came to applying for this job I was ready and knew, to an extent, what to expect.
Describe a typical day.
It sounds cliché but there isn’t really a typical day. It’s a small number of people looking after a large collection so I end up doing all sorts of jobs. I generally start off the day by doing a ‘gallery check’, going round all the rooms in the museum and checking that nothing is damaged. I’m usually the first one in each morning, which means I turn on all the lights to reveal the amazing art works – it may seem mundane but honestly it never gets old! After that it really depends. Currently I’m doing a lot with the conservation department, deciding which pictures need treatment and organising a major conference on Murillo happening in May, and giving tours and lectures. I’m also rewriting the gallery books (basically object labels), making audio guide recordings and researching our Spanish paintings.
What do you like about it?
I love the diversity of the work. I’ll be handling a 400-year-old Mughal dagger one day, and researching a Velazquez painting the next, or visiting a conservator and seeing our paintings under the microscope. My colleagues have also been so supportive, teaching me about their areas of expertise and what it takes to look after the collection.
… and is there anything you dislike about it?
I haven’t found anything yet. Even the seemingly ‘mundane’ stuff like working with electricians to change the security sensors in the cases ends up being fascinating. I’ve learnt all about fiber optics and different security methods; things I’d never considered before starting this job.
How did your Cambridge experience prepare you for it?
I think the intensity of the Cambridge workload has really made this transition easier. I have a lot of deadlines and some projects have a very short turnaround, so being able to research quickly and efficiently has been invaluable. It also gave me the academic foundation I need for my work.
It’s obviously early days, but do you miss Cambridge? If so, why?
I haven’t really had that much time to miss it but there are moments when I pine. It’s generally the academic atmosphere I miss, though I’m trying to go to more evening lectures at the Courtauld, SOAS and UCL. Lots of my friends are in London now so that hasn’t been too much of a problem, but I definitely miss being able to chill out in someone’s room until 3am. I also really miss sleeping in!
What are your hopes for the next year?
I think just keep on learning. That’s all we can ever hope for.
What’s your pipe dream?
I don’t really have a dream position, more an aim. I want to remove the highbrow perceptions surrounding art and museums. Museums in the UK are fundamentally public spaces but many people don’t feel comfortable visiting them. There are many reasons behind this and I think the ways of combating it are manifold and certainly not limited to curation. I’m interested particularly in employing social media and other virtual spaces.
Name three women you look up to and why.
Frances Morris, current director of Tate Modern – she’s a strong advocate for women in the arts and was the force behind the new 50/50 gendered hang in Tate Modern’s Switch house.
Enriqueta Harris, Spanish art academic – She was the foremost authority on Spanish art at a time when academia was even more dominated by men than it is today, if that’s even possible (she’s also the namesake of my fellowship)
Claude Cahun, surrealist photographer – she was just so badass! Just google her! She and her partner single –handedly undermined the Nazi occupation of Jersey…
Even though you only graduated last year, do you have any words of wisdom for students or recent graduates about to enter into the working world?
It’s ok not to know everything – I know it’s hard to believe when in Cambridge but as long as you’re open to learning then everything will be alright.
That whole shtick about ‘loving what you do’ is pretty important too.
Find Izzy on Instagram & Twitter: @Izzy_Kent