Get to know Master’s Program alumni in our new series Life After Graduate School. In our first of the series, meet Nicole Watson, a 2008 graduate from the M.A. in Art History program. Nicole is currently Director of The Catherine G. Murphy Gallery at St. Catherine University.
Why St. Thomas?
I completed my B.A. at St. Thomas in 2001, and I minored in art history. Based on my experience working with the department as an undergrad, I knew my graduate course work would be rigorous, rewarding and meaningful as well as valuable in preparing me for a career. I was also attracted by the opportunity to work with Shelly Nordtorp-Madson, who had been one of my mentors while I was an undergrad.
From a practical perspective, I was newly married when I started graduate school, and committed to remaining in the Twin Cities, so it’s proximity to home, work and family was very appealing to me at the time.
What was your favorite moment while a student at St. Thomas?
This is a hard question for me to answer succinctly because I can think of so many great experiences I had during my time at St. Thomas! Favorites include a road trip to Chicago with Victoria Young and our Midwestern Architecture class. We enjoyed a stop in Rockford, Illinois to see the kinetic architecture of the Starlight Theater; an architectural walking tour of historic skyscrapers in downtown Chicago; and the many works of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, Illinois. One of my favorite classes — which addressed the portrayal of medieval history in film — was taught by Shelly, and expanded my understanding of art history’s role in critical analysis of imagery across art forms. I’m also proud of the work I did for my qualifying paper (primary research on Marion Alice Parker, a local female Prairie School architect), and I feel incredibly grateful that St. Thomas connected me with Jennifer Komar-Olivarez, an expert on Prairie School design, who supported me in this important research. While all these “moments” made grad school gratifying, the most fulfilling aspect was the incredible network of friends and colleagues I discovered during my years of study.
What are you up to these days? How did you get to where you are?
I’m currently the new Director of The Catherine G. Murphy Gallery at St. Catherine University. Prior to this role, I managed Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, a job I began just a few months after completing my master’s degree at St. Thomas. Before grad school, I’d never really given much thought to gallery work — I thought I’d end up teaching or try to find work in a museum. When I was getting ready to graduate, I emailed everyone I knew to let them know I was looking for an arts-related position and a month later, I found myself interviewing for a position at Groveland. I was there for nearly eight years, and in that time, l learned every aspect of running a commercial gallery, from planning and installing exhibitions to writing PR, artwork handling, collection maintenance, budget management and events coordination. I employ all these skills at St. Kate’s, too, though my responsibilities are a bit broader here. In addition to running the gallery, I’m one of the curators and caretakers of the University’s Fine Art Collection; I foster and grow our Friends of the Gallery group, who provide additional financial support for exhibitions, events and students; and every spring, I team-teach a professional practices class for our graduating senior studio art majors. I lead them through the process of installing their exhibition, a process that is immensely rewarding.
How has the time you spent in our graduate program influenced your career and life?
The program certainly made my life richer through scholarship, expanding my network of colleagues and honing my writing, research and critical thinking skills. I became comfortable presenting my work in front of large groups of people, and I learned how to distill information to make it more accessible to others. All of these experiences prepared me for the work I do now.
Advice for new and current graduate students?
Grow your network. Graduate school is an opportunity to develop relationships with the people who will become your professional colleagues. It’s also the perfect time to explore career paths through internships or informational interviews. Want to work in a museum? Request an a meeting with a curator, a project assistant or someone in the education department. Curious about teaching? Sit-in on a few classes taught by art history professors at other universities. Finally, if you have the ability to travel to a conference to present your research, do it — you’ll meet scholars from other cities and learn about their work. Your network will keep you in mind for employment opportunities, write recommendations for you, seek you out for collaboration and possibly hire you someday.