by Cara Gallo
After brushing the desert dust off myself, I was promptly anointed with enthusiasm by the splashy drive from Seattle airport – inspiration sparkled as we arrived at the glistening Murano Hotel. The streets aligned with trees of fiery tones illuminated through the shrouding fog, their autumnal hues and aromas began to feed this Jersey girl hankering for fall’s change – absent from my life in the arid southern California desert for the past many years.
Several months prior in early summer, within 48 hours of my job loss and a looming end to my apartment lease, I received an uplifting email with notification that I had been selected to receive the Wanda Chin Scholarship, which made it possible for me to attend the 2018 WMA Annual Meeting. This forum could be my buoy in the storm, as I was navigating for a new place to relocate and had not yet explored the upper west corner of the U.S. I pointed my compass due North, toward a conference themed INSPIRE and right as rain, I needed it!
I set out to inhale some crisp air, fresh scenery, shed my stale leaves, and hoped to hydrate my parched career outlook with optimistic perspectives. I arrived in Tacoma starved for professional inspiration after several difficult years and a recent discordant layoff from my job of 7+ years at an art museum – my passions for the profession more than a bit burned out. Onward and upward, the blanket of puffy fog hugging the downtown harbor did not dampen my hopeful anticipation, and I found it eerie but curiously engaging.
While Mount Rainier played hard-to-get in the encompassing thicket of fog that curtailed our morning tour of the Puget Sound, it was no less enlightening as a docent sincerely educated us on the history of the waterway and community. Through swallowed tears she spoke of a memorial park erected for Chinese immigrants who built this maritime town and of Native residents, the peoples of the Puyallup (S’Puyalupubsh) tribes whose cultural mantra “generous and welcoming behavior to all people (friends and strangers) who enter our lands” is sustained despite their diaspora. These groups of peoples endured and stayed afloat through the atrocities of ejection and near genocide.
We then pensively glided by an enormous structure beaming from the shoreline like a lantern through its gorgeous facets of pane glass windows. What is now the Foss Waterway Seaport Maritime Museum was amazingly engineered in 1900 with a skeleton of immense wooden beams from gargantuan trees. I was enthused to learn the backstory of Thea Foss Waterway, named for an innovative and bold woman who in 1889 invested the minimal money left by her husband when he ventured far to find work. In his absence, she bought and rented boats to fisherman, and expanded to establish one of the largest tugging and towing companies on the Pacific Coast - which still thrives to this day.
Toot toot hooray lady Foss! You go, woman!
Though the history of this industrial coastline does have some seriously dark truths, I was inspired by the story of these early settlers and immigrants, especially those of Asian descent who overcame ill-treatment and adversity. I found their struggles to be cause for pause, with gratitude and encouragement. If those who were oppressed and hard trodden can overcome horrible circumstances, I can tread through my own professional heave to ultimately glow like molten glass in the Hot Shop.
Later that day I took an ample amount of time meditating through two honorable exhibitions at Tacoma Art Museum, Native Portraiture: Power and Perception and Immigrant Artists and the American West - How art relates and responds to personal and political issues around immigration. I again gave thought in grateful recognition for my own immigrant grandparents and those who toiled in a different country, so that I could have a better life. May the road rise up to meet those still suffering through strife! Namaste.
On Monday morning, the autumnal colors swirled their way indoors as a packed conference hall listened to the eloquent keynote speaker. Creative Director Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham kicked-off the conference with confetti as she illustrated the paths that lead her to Co-found Museum Hue. Full of zeal afterward, I said a thankful hello to this beautiful east coast “home-girl” and a fellow alumni of my alma mater Rutgers University.
While I wanted to attend the entire program list, I sat in on sessions aligned with my current state of mind, status, and circumstances. I arrived early to ensure a seat for Trending Now: Exodus from the Museum Field where I learned of a few alternative options – innovative professions and thriving companies gainfully employing creative specialists as team members whom they appreciate and reward. That’s certainly motivating, but realistically from my current vantage point it seems that I may have to leave the museum profession to support myself.
Over the past many years, I have always weighed the feasibility and value in continuing my education to earn a master’s degree relevant to the museum/arts field. During the session A Critical Eye on Museum Studies, I was frankly relieved to hear that JFK University has closed its on-campus museum studies program, as it is indeed quite unattainable for many who lack certain privileges, and has admittedly flooded the field with professionals clambering for few lucrative positions. However, there is still an online program that is relatively more affordable if one is poised to do so. I extend kudos to Wilson O’Donnell, Associate Director, Museology Graduate Program, at the University of Washington where a paid internship program has been established. Mr. O’Donnell stated aloud that it is “unethical of any institution to ask anyone to work for no pay.” Thank you, sir! But I must ask, where does this leave those of us experienced and seeking work in the profession who aren’t enrolled students or recent graduates, and therefore don’t qualify for an “internship”?
How can any museum get onboard the “inclusion movement” if they aren’t sincerely allowing everyone – old and new staff of various status – to participate and gain growth opportunities? The session Beyond the Plexiglas® Ceiling: Women’s Roles in Exhibition Preparation and Installation welcomed me to engage and voice my experiences and perspective while harmonizing within an outspoken and vibrant group of mostly but not all, women professionals. Over the past many years, while supporting the careers and successes of others, I have thirsted for inclusion and to use my honed talents with more direct participation in art installations and exhibition design. Alas, in my recent job I had not been granted chances to share my ideas, creative skills, or to gain experience in this realm – rather than empowered, I felt discouraged by the egos and the women in charge therein. However, within this session I found empathetic and successful women professionals who encouraged me to seek out better opportunities.
A grateful invitation to the Storytellers' and Supporters' Luncheon allowed me to not only fill my stomach but also to feed my ethical morals while gaining further indelible inspiration from a presentation of the touching and emotional, 2018 Redd Award-winning exhibition by the Presidio Trust, EXCLUSION: The Presidio's Role in World War II Japanese American Incarceration. As an east coast transplant, this a topic on which I had not been previously well versed, but for which I have great empathy and interest.
Later that night, after a warm evening at the luminous Museum of Glass, I walked briskly with the rumble of train containers and metal wheels grinding through the dense fog. I was reminded of home back east, having grown up riding trains and contemplated the history of the railroad, and the hearts and hands that labored to build the connecting lines of commerce and communication. Walking solo in the night, it felt as if Humphrey Bogart would step out from a misty doorway and ask “So, how do you like Tacoma kid?” – To which I would most certainly reply “It's swell!”
On the final day, I pulled open the curtains in the 21st-floor windows to wake myself, the fog had lifted, and Mount Rainier presented itself in a new light, welcoming those who wish and risk to climb. I returned to the desert to pack up all of my belongings, and exit toward the next phase of my western adventures – with hopes that it will include a new role at an inspirational museum!
Cara Gallo was a grateful recipient of WMA's 2018 Wanda Chin Scholarship. She served most recently for over 7 years as an Administrator and Curatorial Assistant to the Director of Art and the Chief Curator at an art museum. Cara earned her B.F.A. with a concentration in printmaking and sculpture, paired with a boatload of art history and academic studies at Rutgers University. A lifelong artist and emerging museum professional, she is currently venturing for a new and fulfilling position and is eager to continue to share her talents and passions with anyone who enjoys learning about various cultures, artists, diversity of peoples, and their particular and inspiring contributions to our planet.