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Workshop class offers balance between traditional college experience and on-the-job training

The art history Museum Studies Workshop, one of many interesting courses offered at Mills, is a great opportunity to explore the behind-the-scenes work that art museums engage in and gives students a head start in pursuing a career as a museum curator.

Limited to six people and for undergrads only, the course offers trips to local museums and concludes with a student curated exhibition at Mills’ own art museum. In other words, it is not only hands-on training in a future career, but also gives resume experience.  

Cassidy Schmitt is a senior at Mills who is taking the class and is double majoring in studio art and art history. Schmitt described how the workshop curriculum relates to current events.

Lots of the issues we are dealing with in this class are difficult to discuss, as they are very sensitive topics that affect all of us, and reach beyond the boundaries of the art world. Most recently we were discussing the accusations of sexual assault that have come up against many practicing artists that are well known, such as Chuck Close, who is also a teacher,” Schmitt said.

Close’s exhibition in The National Gallery of Art in Washington was postponed indefinitely in January due to sexual harassment allegations. According to The New York Times, this is an unprecedented decision, given “centuries of men like Picasso or Schiele who were known for mistreating women, but whose works hang in prominent museums without any asterisks.” The workshop’s integration of sexual assault into its discussions reflects the national focus on the issue.

“Thinking about the exploitation of power dynamics that have been going on for so long in the art world between teacher and student, artist genius and model, is incredibly unsettling and disturbing,” Schmitt said. “But even though they are very rough subjects, they are vital to our education and will hopefully allow us to be better prepared to fight injustices such as these when we go out into the art world after Mills.”

Most recently, the students in the workshop visited the Oakland Museum of California, which provided a chance to put their curatorial critical thinking skills to the test.

“The trip to the museum was very unique—part of the visit was an assignment to analyze the museum not on the grounds of whether we liked the art or not, but on how we felt about the curatorial decisions that went into creating the exhibits that we saw,” Schmitt said. “Instead of just going in and observing and thinking about the art itself, like I tend to do in museum spaces, it was a really neat and useful opportunity to think critically about the space itself, the layout of the works, and how it all came into conversation together.”

Given how expensive college has become, some high schoolers choose to go straight into the workplace, while others attend vocational schools, also known as trade schools, that train them in the skills necessary for certain jobs. A study by the National Assessment of Vocational Education (NAVE) in 1990 found that 35 percent of all undergraduate postsecondary enrollments were to vocational schools. According to Forbes college costs have “been rising roughly at a rate of 7 percent per year for decades.” 

The Museum Studies Workshop falls somewhere in between the liberal arts experience and that of trade schools, combining the usual college writing assignments with on-the-job training and exposure how the workplace operates. Sometimes there can be a disconnect between college and the real world, and students often don’t know what to do after graduation. Classes like the workshop bridge that gap by offering a compromise for young people to start carving their path in the world while also engaging in the traditional pursuit of knowledge that colleges offer.

I think having specialized courses such as this are incredibly helpful to students, especially ones like me that are trying to get our foot in the door in both studio practice and museum/art historical work,” Schmitt said. “Being able to learn more about the behind the scenes of what makes a gallery run, how shows are thought up and created, and how to be more inclusive and accessible when preparing exhibitions are all super important for all of us in this class and in the department to learn.”