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Alumni Stories

Kyle Medley (BA '99)

My introduction to the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan was on an elementary school field trip to the University of Michigan Museum of Art. A museum docent sat our class in front of a large, beige, abstract painting (it may have been Ocean Park No. 52, by Richard Diebenkorn) and asked our group why this painting was hanging in the museum. I immediately raised my hand to answer and the docent looked delighted that there was a volunteer – until she heard my answer: “To make the other art look better!” My classmates thought this was very funny. The docent was not amused.

Years later as a freshman at Michigan, I took an introductory survey course in history of art and was hooked. I managed to keep my wisecracks to myself in that course, as well as many others, and double-concentrated in history of art and French, earning the Henry P. Tappan Award for Outstanding Student in a Double Major. After graduating from Michigan, I worked for the French Government teaching English at a French high school near Paris. The pay was terrible, but the hours were great, and the job came with an excellent perk—free admission to all French national museums. I would often go to the Musée D’Orsay, the Louvre and others an hour or so before closing time (when the hordes of tourists had gone for the day) and wander around the galleries. I was once in the Mona Lisa room at the Louvre with one other person (the guard, of course) for about five minutes.

After a year working in Paris, I went to law school in New York and have been a practicing attorney ever since. I am a partner in the New York City office of the Chicago-based law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP. While my law practice is quite varied, I primarily represent insurance companies in disputes with other insurance companies over coverage of large-scale, multi-million-dollar losses. I had not planned on becoming an attorney when I started at Michigan, or when I decided to concentrate in history of art. On reflection, I believe that my undergraduate studies at Michigan did prepare me very well for a career as a litigation attorney. Litigators require many of the skill sets that were taught and honed in my courses at Michigan, including critical and creative thinking, excellent writing, and debating viewpoints. My studies at Michigan, and particularly my history of art courses, more than prepared me for the rigors of law school and the courtroom.

When I have described my educational path to others, there is sometimes surprise that a history of art and French major went on to become an insurance litigator. However, if I had to go back and do it all over again, I might have changed my childhood answer to the docent’s question, but I would not have changed my pre-law educational path. Go Blue!

-Kyle Medley

Using skills learned in history of art classes to excel as a litigation attorney.

Lauren Halilej (BA '15)

Lauren Halilej (History of Art major, 2015) is currently working as a Product Support Specialist with Collectrium, a digital collection management platform. She writes:

Growing up, family vacations always included stops at famous and not so famous museums. What struck me, even from a young age, was not necessarily the forms of the art mounted on the wall but the circumstances in which that work of art was created: what was the artists’ background? Where did they come from? Why did their art look a certain way or evoke a certain feeling? And how, by geography or time period alone, could artworks be classified and quantified as a part of history simply by an artist’s picking up a paintbrush? The decision to study the History of Art at Michigan came easily to me and after enrolling in my first art history course with Professor Howard Lay (HISTART 271: Origins of Modernism) my interest only grew stronger.

After graduating, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the arts so I searched for jobs in New York City that had an art-related component. I worked for a small art advisory called ArtW that promotes women artists (www.artw.org), and in January 2016, was hired as an intern in the South East Asian Art Department at Christie's. What I value most about History of Art as a major is that it is completely interdisciplinary and stresses breadth. Undergraduates are required to broaden their studies beyond a particular region or time period and as a result, the major produces well-read and worldly students who have a robust and diverse knowledge of art. I didn’t have a background in South East Asian art, but I had taken a class on the depiction of yoga in Indian paintings and sculpture (HISTART 304 Art of Yoga) with Professor Nachiket Chanchani that gave me a solid foundation to leverage during my interview for the departmental internship. After working at Christie's for five months as an intern, I was hired to work at Collectrium. The great thing about Collectrium is that we are a Christie's company -- we were acquired by the British auction house in 2015 – but we continue to operate independently, while utilizing our relationship with Christie's to reach a larger range of clientele. 

Collectrium is a company that markets a digital collection management tool specifically designed to help collectors organize their art and luxury collectibles. The Collectrium platform is able to integrate the whole experience of collection-care and management through a tool that is comprehensive, engaging, mobile, and secure. In my position as Product Support Specialist I assist clients and orient them in the use of the platform. I interact with clients all over the world. Being a History of Art major at Michigan not only encouraged my love of learning about other cultures, but also gave me the skill-set to work with and understand the interests of our global clientele. I am able appreciate our collectors’ desire to find pieces they are passionate about, while at the same time I can assist them with maintaining their records of the items already in their possession. My appreciation for art, and my ability to think critically and quantitatively is a product of my time in the History of Art department at Michigan.

Working at Collectrium has made me realize there are many other types of collectors besides fine art collectors (we support non-fine art categories such as wine, watches and automobiles). It has also afforded me the opportunity to view firsthand the inter-connectivity of art and technology. The partnership between new technology companies like Collectrium and storied art institutions like Christie’s makes me excited about the future, and if I will always find the art aspect of what I do to be the most interesting, there is no doubt in my mind that technology will play a role in art’s future. Whether it is through increasing availability of information on art like the website and education tool Artsy.com, or expanding the scope of how technology can benefit collectors like Collectrium, the paths of art and technology will continue to intersect and I feel fortunate to that my degree in History of Art at Michigan has afforded me the opportunity to be a part of this growing phenomenon. 

Marketing a digital collection management tool to help collectors organize their art and luxury collectibles.

Rachel Bissonette (BA '16)

A few months after graduation from UM, at the end of the summer 2016, Rachel Bissonette landed a position as a conservation technician at the Library of Congress. The LoC's Conservation Division is the oldest and largest conservation lab in the United States for the care of book, paper, and photographic materials. Fully aware that art conservation is a highly competitive vocation which requires years of lab experience and intensive coursework in art history, chemistry, and fine arts, she sees this position as the first step in her chosen career as a conservator of eastern manuscripts. Pre-program experience is essential before a prospective student even thinks of applying to prestigious conservation schools.

Rachel sees her work in Washington D.C. as a natural extension of her undergraduate studies at UM. She knew she wanted to study art history even before she applied, one of those rare students ready to declare her major upon arrival. Four years of studying with “passionate professors” and taking challenging courses, she says, only affirmed and deepened her original love of the field.  She learned how social and political information can be unlocked through the study of material culture. A decisive moment came when, to fulfill a distribution requirement, she enrolled in the survey of Islamic Art taught by Prof. Christiane Gruber. After this class, she was completely hooked on Islamic Art. Her favorite course on this subject was HISTART 689 which focused on the Islamic Book Arts. A graduate level  seminar offering instruction in codicological method, it was jointly taught by Professor Gruber and Evyn Kropf, the curator of Islamic Manuscripts at the UM libraries. Each class was split into two parts: the first was devoted to discussion and the other was spent at Hatcher Library where students were able to work with original materials firsthand. Rachel remembers she frequently lost track of time and would stay past the end of the class period to continue studying the manuscripts.

Rachel’s focus on Islamic Art led to the opportunity to work as a summer intern at the Freer and Sackler Galleries (The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art) in Washington, DC. The UM History of Art Department and the Freer|Sackler have longstanding relations – including joint publication of Ars Orientalis, one of the premier Asian art history journals in the country. Rachel took up the task of investigating the infancy of the journal and used the Tappan Archives, as well as materials at the Bentley Historical Library and the Detroit Institute of Arts to explore its early history. She discovered that the core of Ars Orientalis was owed to Mehmet Aga-Oglu, a professor at the University of Michigan in the 1930s. Aga-Oglu was responsible for establishing “The Research Seminary in Islamic Art,” making the University of Michigan the first institution in the United States to have a special unit devoted to the study of the history of Islamic Art. Rachel brought her research to D.C. and shared it with the staff at the Freer|Sackler.

The knowledge Rachel accrued from her classes and research experience helped as she embarked on a senior thesis concerning an Islamic text on medieval automatons preserved in many illustrated manuscripts. She participated in the two-semester History of Art honors colloquium instructed by Prof. Howard Lay. Rachel believes undergraduate students who want to pursue careers in academia should try writing senior theses. The process involved a massive amount of work and stress, but was ultimately the most rewarding part of her undergraduate career and confirmed her interest in the career she is now pursuing.

-Jennifer Lewis

Work in the Library of Congress Conservation Division as the first step in a career as a conservator of eastern manuscripts.

Emily Canosa (BA '06)

 

From arts & ideas to farming & sustainability: how one alumna
applied her liberal arts education to a career in sustainable living.


Assistant Director of Sustainable Living Experience, U-M

Lecturer in Liberal Arts College for Creative Studies
 
Board Member The Agrarian Adventure

BA
History of Art
Double Major:
Arts and Ideas in the Humanities (Residential College)

MA
Japanese Studies

For many people, the path from college major to dream job is not a straightforward, linear one. Along the way, there can be twists and turns, starts and stops, and even a jump or a pivot. By threading together an array of acquired experience, and keeping an open mind alumna Emily Canosa created her own path as she proceeded from a double major in History of Art (LSA) and Arts and Ideas in the Humanities (RC) to a career in farming and sustainability. In the course of an interview with her, it emerged that Emily has come to feel that the major and the career need not necessarily align, but that a liberal arts education makes many things possible. In her case it was her UM training as part of a  multi-faceted journey of self-discovery, which involved experiential education, informal, learning and co-curricular opportunities, that led ultimately to a deeply satisfying career.

How did Emily move from a liberal arts B.A. to her current role as Assistant Director of the Sustainable Living Experience at UM? One of the earliest steps came when she enrolled in a basic introductory survey, Renaissance to Modern Art, taught that year by Rebecca Zurier. Here Emily was surprised to learn that the study of history of art fostered the investigation into complex social structures and political movements. It was not just a matter sitting in a dark classroom looking at slides of pretty pictures; close analysis of works of visual art provided revelations about social change over periods of time and across cultures.  She enrolled in more art history courses, not only because the content and subject matter were interesting, but also because the coursework was intellectually challenging. She remembers with pleasure learning about the impact artists and writers had on society in Howard Lay’s seminar Baudelaire’s Paris. It was inspiring to follow the ways in which works of art could shift the terms of social dialogue and effect political change.

After graduation, Emily decided on the path of adventure. She traveled to Japan where she taught English as a second language. It was during this period that she began to discover and cultivate her passion for sustainability while working on a permaculture farm. She fell in love with farming and when she returned to Ann Arbor, she continued this work, although in a different capacity, by participating in community garden projects and doing youth programming at Avalon Housing.  Simultaneously she kept up her work with the visual arts and secured a position at UMMA as a graduate researcher for the Asian Arts curatorial team. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled in the M.A. program in Japanese Studies at UM. It was then that the “twist and turn” came, but from Emily’s point of view, the switch from liberal arts study to farming was not as great as it might appear. Work on sustainability and issues around agrarian history and the supply of food enabled Emily to engage directly with topical concerns, involving her in social movements around ecology and community and allowing her to maintain her deep interest in effecting change.  While working on her M.A., she returned to Japan to study the sustainable food movement in the Kanto region. Upon her return, she managed to keep up her dual interests. After completing her graduate program, she moved to Detroit to teach Asian art history at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) and there found a working urban farm on her block. Her time as a farmer-owner at Singing Tree Garden – where she worked alongside a small group of her neighbors and RC graduates – ultimately led Emily back to her present career in Ann Arbor. 

In 2014, Emily accepted a newly created position at UM as manager of the Sustainable Food Program, where she acted as the organizational lead working with 13 student organizations, to monitor the activity of several campus gardens and the Campus Farm, thereby ensuring that knowledge would not be lost in the shuffle as students graduated. She served in this capacity for three years before being selected as the Assistant Director of the Sustainable Living Experience on campus which “strives to function as a microcosm of diverse students whose actions have generative and innovative impacts on the development of a more just and sustainable world.” In addition to this role, Emily continues to teach at CCS, is co-founder of The Hive, a sustainable living cooperative, and a board member of The Agrarian Adventure, a local non-profit that works with K-12 students to connect food, environment, community and personal health.

At a time when the liberal arts are under siege and people frequently question the relevance of degrees in precisely such subjects as History of Art or “Arts and Ideas,” Emily defends her training. She points out that even though she only teaches art history part-time, she utilizes the core skills she developed as an undergraduate on a daily basis in her sustainability work. History of Art provided the context in which she was able to strengthen her abilities in critical thinking, analysis, and communication: the rigorous coursework and classroom discussions honed her powers of observation and taught her how to articulate her own ideas and defend her arguments. She left the program with a strong ability to focus on small details without losing sight of the big picture. As any organizational leader or project manager can attest, these are crucial skills for success. On the surface, the steps along Emily’s path may seem to be somewhat tenuously linked, but she herself is acutely aware of the common denominator: the skills and ideas acquired through her liberal art studies and her history of art coursework. 


-Jennifer Lewis

From arts & ideas to farming & sustainability: how one alumna applied her liberal arts education to a career in sustainable living.