NVAM FOCUS: Ask a Collections Specialist - An Interview with NVAM Collections & Exhibitions Manager, Megan Owoc
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE SPECIALIZED FIELD OF COLLECTIONS MANAGEMENT?
My formal background is in Art History. I’ve been a student of the practice since my sophomore year of high school. I didn’t go to a fancy private high school or anything like that…it was really your average Northeast Ohio public school that was somehow blessed with two incredibly knowledgeable art teachers that were also both trained Art Historians - one a Doctor of the Arts that went by “Doc.” She awarded me an Arts Recognition at the end of my senior year. I remember thinking that my graduation gown looked pretty silly with the single decoration, the Arts Recognition Pin. I was proud of it though – I’ve always found a “home” in the Fine Arts. From there, I continued my journey into the study of Art History in college at Ohio University through graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From the beginning of my studies in Art History I was fascinated by the impact of war on material and visual culture. My undergraduate independent study focused on the impact of WWI and its relationship to the performance of photography and the Readymade. In graduate school the impact of the New Order (1965-1998) in Indonesia and its relationship to contemporary performance art.
After graduate school, I ended up working part-time as a museum docent and later full-time as a Studio Manager for a local Chicago artist. The Studio Manager gig was a foundational professional experience for me…but near the end of my experience, I realized I missed working with objects – spending time with them, learning about their materials and the historical context they were created in. So I moved on to begin work in a private conservation firm in administrative role. It was a very “boots on the ground” professional experience. It involved a lot of onsite assessments, so determining an objects condition and coming back to the lab to liaison with the conservators to determine the appropriate conservation treatment and later communicate that with the client. I also traveled quite a bit to Disaster Response (DR) Sites where collections had been affected by the elements…floods, fires, and once even a lightning strike! Those were very demanding and fast-paced projects that involved inventory, assessment and coordination of transport for often large collections of work, some in the high hundreds of object count. I was definitely exposed to a lot of different types of objects, artifacts and artworks in varying conditions…some in need of minimal cleaning while others demanding onsite triage before they could even be transported.
Overall, I worked in the private conservation field as an account manager and collections specialist for roughly five years before joining NVAM full-time in November of 2019.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COLLECTIONS MANAGER AND A CONSERVATOR?
Conservators are highly trained specialists with either the educational background gained through formal training at university, or many years of apprenticeship under a Master Conservator. Simply put, they are the individuals responsible for the ethical repair, conservation, and restoration of historical artifacts and works of art. Collections Specialist are trained, often through working professional experience or continuing education courses on fine art facility and storage requirements, inventory and documentation, and fine art insurance. And if you are lucky enough to find the opportunity, conservation methods which allow the Collections Specialist to determine conservation priorities.
HOW HAVE YOU DONE YOUR JOB DURING THE PANDEMIC?
With the museum being closed because of the pandemic, I’ve been able to use this time to really take a deep dive into the collection and spend some quality time with the artworks and artifacts both in storage and on display – ensuring that they are properly maintained and cared with the best use of current resources.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT YOUR JOB?
The greatest joy for me during the time I have been at NVAM has been working with a permanent collection, which is very different than the setting of a conservation lab wherein objects are delivered for treatment and upon completion, returned to their owners. In those scenarios I had very little time to spend time with –and study— the artworks and artifacts that came through the doors for treatment.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE ARTWORK IN THE NVAM COLLECTION?
I've really come to know the artworks both aesthetically and conceptually. And I've also come to know the artists who created them through the study of their work. And for me, that's a very special, very powerful thing. There is material history here that acts as window into unique and often personal moments in time —whether that's from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam or Post 9/11 Eras— there’s a story, and it’s one that you should be listening to…you could get lost in this collection and I quite frequently do…I don’t think I can name a favorite to that end – I have too many! And each is special to me in their individual message and interpretation of the time period in which they were created. I'm honored and compelled to share them with the world, but also ensure that future generations can have the same experience that I get to have today.
ARE YOU WORKING ON ANY SPECIAL PROJECTS OR INITIATIVES CURRENTLY?
We are working on an exhibition that is scheduled to open next month featuring a selection of Works on Paper from the NVAM permanent collection. There will be a virtual component that functions as a “Behind the Scenes Look” at the process of preparing Works on Paper for exhibition and the collections care maintenance required for long-term storage.
I'm really looking forward to sharing our efforts and the educational aspect of maintaining a collection in a way that is also hand-in-hand with interpretation – so with future “Behind the Scenes Looks” we will not only be talking about routine maintenance; we'll also be learning more about the artists and their artwork.