Jenny Parsons, UVA PhD Recipient Realizes Curatorial Dreams
Jennifer Stettler Parsons earned her PhD in Art and Architectural History in 2016, and soon after, realized her longtime dream of working as an art museum curator when she was hired as Assistant Curator at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, CT. We caught up with Jenny to discuss her new position and the experiences and influences that helped get her there.
Talk about your current position at the
Florence Griswold Museum.
We call ourselves the home of American Impressionism. The museum is built around an artists’ colony that took root here in 1899. Florence Griswold opened her boarding house to artists who flocked here to escape the city and immerse themselves in the natural landscape, finding inspiration to paint en plein air, or outdoors. We are focused on the Lyme Art Colony, which was primarily Impressionist, but we also collect American art created by Connecticut artists and work related to the Connecticut environment more broadly. My primary job is to research and care for the collection, to make acquisitions that strengthen the collection, and to develop the exhibition program. I am currently working on what will be my first exhibition here, inspired by a natural history collection we own assembled by the Impressionist Willard Metcalf. The show is called Flora/Fauna: The Naturalist Impulse in American Art and it will run from June 3 to September 17, 2017.
How did you decide on the career path you have pursued?
I have known since high
school that I wanted to be an art museum curator. I was working on my Master’s
degree in Art History when I first met my doctoral advisor, Elizabeth Hutton
Turner. I was interning with her at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
when she became a professor at UVA. I knew that I needed my PhD to be
competitive in the field and reach my goal of becoming a curator, so I chose
UVA to pursue that path.
What did you find most helpful about the UVA experience?
What really attracted me to UVA was how many of the professors looked outside of the classroom to give us practical experiences. I wasn’t only sitting in a seminar room and looking at reproductions to write papers. Professors like Beth Turner, Matthew Affron, Howard Singerman, and Douglas Fordham held classes across Grounds to connect the scholarship we were reading with tangible objects. For example, they held classes at The Fralin Museum of Art and took us to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library to look at prints and periodicals. We even had the opportunity to curate a couple of exhibitions at The Fralin Museum of Art and the UVA Library. Professor Turner and Professor Affron utilized the exhibitions on view at the Museum, holding seminar discussions in front of works in the gallery and in the study room. They encouraged close looking and primary source research to motivate our critical thinking. That hands-on experience was really valuable in training me as a curator and helped to prepare me for what I now do day-to-day.
Is there a single experience that was particularly valuable to you?
The experience that made the greatest impact on me was a class I took with Beth Turner held jointly at UVA and The Philips Collection. We traveled up to D.C. on Fridays to hold seminars in their galleries. Each person in the class chose a painting to focus on for their research, and we were able to utilize the museum’s archives, collection files, and consult with the curators and conservators. We even had the opportunity to work with the conservators to mix paints just like the early 20th-century artists would have done, recreating the recipes for paints they mixed themselves. That really stuck with me – trying to put yourself in the place of the artist and imagining what it meant to be a modern artist and create something new at that time. We looked at paintings under microscopes and under different kinds of light to examine the underdrawing and see different stages of process. I use all of these skills today as I consider works for acquisition at the Florence Griswold. Upon completion of our research at the Phillips, we presented our findings publically at the museum’s Center for the Study of Modern Art, which was more good practice for all of the lectures and talks I do now as a curator. I chose a painting by Arthur Dove and ended up submitting my paper to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art Graduate Research Essay Prize contest. It won the inaugural prize in 2012 and remains published online at aaa.si.edu/essay/jennifer-parsons. I plan to build on this work and develop an exhibition of Arthur Dove’s work in the future.