Ph.D. in Visual Studies
Vice President of Research and Interpretation at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, Class of 2013
Amy Scott graduated from UCI Visual Studies in 2013. Her research looked at mass media and the arid West. We discussed how her PhD helps inform her curatorial work, how she got her start in curation, and the importance of always “keeping your ear to the ground.”
Tell me about your job. What’s your day to day look like?
I’ve been the curator of art at the Autry going on 20 years. At the end of 2018, I was advanced to the Vice President of Research and Interpretation, a new position the museum created to facilitate the production of content underneath a certain interpretive framework. I oversee curation as well. A big part of my job is figuring out how to thread these two departments together and to get them to be more cohesive. It's sort of a connecting-the-dots position.
What department were you in at UCI?
During grad school, how did you prepare for this sort of work?
The UCI experience has very much informed my curatorial practice. I did a lot of work in both 19th and 20th art, but also film and photography. My major takeaway from the experience was that visual studies is about leveling the field when it comes to what types of imagery are worthy of study. It doesn’t distinguish between high art and low art, it looks to break down those categories and understand them, as opposed to reify or naturalize them. It's a much more horizontal, interdisciplinary approach in and of itself.
Tell us about your dissertation.
My dissertation was on "mass media and the arid West.” I looked at new visual technologies — new at the time — like lithography, topography, geography, cartography — that are looking to understand the surface of the landscape. I wanted to understand how the circulation of these images affected perception and actual policy, whether its homesteading practices in the late 19th century or the rise of these sort of mythic West conservation policies. The idea is that imagery as it is widely circulated affects experience on the ground.
How did your dissertation research inform your curatorial practice?
When I was working on my dissertation I was redesigning the art galleries at the Autry from a variety of perspectives and with different artists from across the West. The UCI Visual Studies mantra was really useful for reimagining the collections from the 30,000-foot perspective. I wasn’t taking apart, but setting aside, that classic art historical method, in which it’s a linear chain of influence consisting mainly of white men. The visual studies model begins with a very different premise entirely, which was very useful in constructing these new galleries. Curatorial authority isn’t a single viewpoint. That is a good thing.
How did you get your start in the museum world?
I had a couple of formative experiences prior to the Autry and prior to the UCI. I did an internship in the mid-to-late 90s at the Nelson Atkins museum in Kansas City. They have a significant collection of American historical art. The curator I was working for really pushed me to look at some of the late 19th-century genre painting. In particular there was a collection by John Douglas Patrick which made me really interested in the idea of art history as this lens that takes apart these broader social and cultural narratives.
Then I went from the Nelson to a gallery in New Mexico that specialized in historical art. I became very interested in western and representational art and the narratives it contains, which are often embedded in the work and not necessarily visible on the surface.
How did the Visual Studies program prepare you for this work?
When I started at the Autry in 2000 I had an MA. After I finished my first major exhibit, I knew I needed a PhD to better inform my work, and so I was very lucky in that the museum gave me the time to go back and do it. I never had to go through the uncertainty of applying to jobs.
That said, it was a humbling experience in part because all the other students in Visual Studies were so different and so bright, and many of them very intensely focused on potential academic futures.
As a curator you're often thinking in a very material sort of way, the UCI experience was very theoretical, ton of critical theory, lots of philosophy,
Are you glad you got a PhD? Why or why not?
So glad. Primarily, it lets me have intellectual agility. A horizontal interdisciplinary approach that visual studies encouraged is critical at this intra-cultural and inter-cultural institution. It helped me see cultural and artistic production as something of a flow rather than a static, singular moment.
In my position, you're still a researcher but you're also more and more a facilitator. And the UCI Visual Studies department was really instrumental in helping me figure how to facilitate those conversations to elicit the best results.
What advice would you give to current graduate students in the humanities?
Keep your ear to the ground when it comes to institutional and artistic responses to both history and to things that are happening now. Somebody who is informed about the evolving role of museum authority is going to be of use. It’s important to be someone who can use the tools of media, digital and otherwise, of the 21st century to help museums rethink not only their historical collections and contemporary collections but to speak to that arc.
Every object has a story to tell about class and society in a way that is probably instrumental to what is happening now. Even historical objects can speak to the present in ways they might not be designed to, but a talented curator that's of the moment can tease out. You don't get to just pull things out of the basement and put them on the wall, you have to think much harder about what you're pulling out and why.