Alissa Klaus is the current director of the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College of Louisiana. Throughout her time at Columbia, she collaborated with the Hokin as a Gallery Manager and the Business & Entrepreneurship department as a New Media Manager. These experiences led her to accept a position in August of 2021 as a director with an expansive vision for Meadows Museum’s future.
Can you tell me a little bit about why you chose a career in visual arts? Why museums specifically?
I feel like I stumbled into museum work by accident, but when I look back at my experience, it looks intentional! For my undergraduate degree, I studied Religious Studies and Art History/Visual Culture. I was interested in where those two subjects intersected, and completed internships in the college’s archives curating an exhibition and in the Meadows Museum researching artworks and writing and editing exhibition text.
I had my first experience working administratively with an arts organization the summer between my junior and senior years in college. It was a nonprofit that offered low-priced art and music classes, had scholarships for students who needed financial help, and brought classes to after-school programs and community events. It was the first time I really believed in the work I was doing at a job. I continued working there after graduating, and even served as interim director of the organization for 6 months before moving to Chicago. I learned so much from that experience and knew that I wanted to continue to work in organizations that connected people and art.
It took me a while to go back to school, but a desire to work in the arts led me to Columbia’s MAM program. I knew that a Master’s program that taught the practical skills of arts administration would help fill in gaps I had in knowledge and experience. While there, I interned with the development team at the Hyde Park Art Center and worked in the Hokin Gallery on campus. Working in the Hokin Gallery helped me visualize museum work as a career, and led me to apply for my current role – back at the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary!
How did your time at Columbia prepare you for this role?
Since I had previous work experience in arts organizations, one thing that was really cool was having a-ha moments in class when things I had done in previous jobs because “that’s how you do it” actually clicked and made sense. Even outside of the required classes, I focused on courses that I knew would give me practical skills in the field – Fundraising, Negotiation Strategies, Gallery Management, etc. With an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, I often felt like I needed to defend why my education was important or useful, so I was really drawn to classes that would be immediately applicable in the field.
And I use the skills I learned at Columbia all the time! I am the only person on staff at the museum – the rest of the workers that I supervise are Centenary students completing work-study or internships – so I’m wearing a LOT of hats. The MAM program taught me the fundamentals of accounting, marketing, fundraising, strategic planning, and negotiation strategies so that when I collaborate with Centenary’s marketing department, reach out to donors, or need to complete program reports for the museum, I know what I need and how to ask for it!
How do you see your career and perspective evolving with this position?
It’s been interesting to return to a place I worked as a student intern, now overseeing other student interns. I try to have their jobs align with their interests and career goals when possible, and seeing them thrive and run with projects has been great – for example, a student pursuing a career in art education and a design student worked together to create an activity guide for kids who come into the museum.
I also never thought I’d be working with a permanent collection, but it is a large part of this job. The original collection of 360 works given to the school about 50 years ago has grown over the years to include about 1,600 works. There is energy both on campus and in the community around bringing some of the works already in the collection back into the spotlight, as well as adding new pieces when they meet our collecting goals (we just added two this winter), which is really exciting.
What advice would you give current students trying to pursue a similar career path?
It took me until graduate school to have this mindset, and this was definitely not my attitude in undergrad, but treat your homework assignments like job practice. I think it helped that I had previous work experience in the field I was getting my Master’s degree in, but when I approached assignments with an attitude of “okay, imagine I’m writing this grant request for an arts organization next year and this is my opportunity to try and get feedback with no real money at stake,” it was a lot less painful than when I thought of assignments as a checklist to get through.
What helped me the most in determining what I like to do and don’t like to do, was trying it myself through jobs, internships, and practicum classes. While I enjoy fundraising, I learned that I didn’t want my only job to be writing grant applications within a large organization. Every week looks different with this job, and it is so fun to me to have a week of computer work followed by a few physical days of installing art!