Chloe Austin, Exhibitions and Research Manager at Maximillian William, London
"You never know where something’s going to lead to. I didn’t think that becoming a zebra mascot would lead to me becoming an invigilator, which would then lead to making a lot of connections in Nottingham's art scene!"
You swapped courses, from Architecture to History of Art, in your first year. Why was that?
"I had decided when I entered sixth form, ‘Ok, I need to figure out what I want to do with my life’. I did physics, maths, art and chemistry for AS level. I was on an architecture track, that was the plan.
But obviously when you make a decision like that when you’re only 16, things change. For me, I realised I wasn’t that interested in design, I was more interested in the study of design. So then I had to ask myself, ‘What do I enjoy doing at this point in time?’. The module that I did really enjoy in architecture was architectural humanities. It kind of pointed me in the right direction."
What are the main skills that you gained from your course?
"Research skills, definitely. Then there's being able to self-motivate and being able to read and find my own path into things I’m interested in. I've also learnt to think critically about things and not take everything I read as correct.
The course taught me to understand ambiguities and that things aren’t all black and white.
I think sometimes people think studying history of art is all looking at Renaissance paintings and finding the secrets – like the Da Vinci Code! Sometimes, very rarely, it’s like that, but really it’s about understanding the intricacies of a social and political landscape through its visual culture.
The course definitely taught me to understand complex ideas and taught me how to write, which has been very useful. Oh, and how to edit myself. I’ve never had feedback like you get at university since graduating! I’ve missed having people being truly critical of my writing and pushing me to do better."
Did you have a favourite module?
"I did a placement module in my second year, at Surface Gallery in Nottingham, which I really enjoyed. It allowed me to go and actually work in a gallery. I was writing for a general audience and also understanding how an artist led space can run. I liked the fact that, because it was a module, I was then coming back and reflecting on what I’d learnt and thinking about my skills.
In my second year, Isobel Elstob taught modules all about the art of the Black Atlantic, and that opened me up to things that I’d kind of been able to experience through exhibitions in the city, but hadn’t been directly taught. It’s actually really hard to find anyone teaching in that specialism in the UK."
So many people want to learn about Black artists, but it’s not necessarily in the curriculum, it’s something they have to go out and search for. I was lucky that I was able to take those modules.
Any staff shout-outs?
"Everyone was so supportive. I remember when I was switching course, Lara Pucci was just so supportive from the beginning. She put me in touch with another student who’d switched course, which was really great. Now, I talk to students who’ve switched courses!
What I love about the department is the pastoral care is so good and they really care about their students. Lucy Bradnock was a great personal tutor and Gaby Neher does an amazing job of setting the tone for the department when it comes to prioritising student wellbeing."
Then there's Isobel, who is a great lecturer. She was my dissertation tutor and she was incredible. I couldn’t have written it without her. To have someone with that level of knowledge in my specialism is very rare within the scene of art historians across the whole country. That was huge to have her there.
What was your dissertation on?
"It was about Black British artists and how the critiques they received – whether from a very white art world, or from the Black communities – affected what they were making.
I was exploring how artists approach making work when they’re constantly being told that they need to do one thing or another because of their identity. How can you find what you want to do within that noise?
I really enjoyed it. I travelled up to the Making Histories Visible archive in Lancashire and met Lubaina Himid and Marlene Smith, and it was really great speaking to people who had been there at the time I was writing about. Since then I’ve been in contact with the studios and a couple of the artists I wrote about. It’s remained an interest."
Were you involved in extracurricular work, or societies?
"My second year, I was like ‘I’m going to do everything! It was a bit crazy'. I did the placement module at Surface, was volunteering at the Digital Transformations Hub, and I was also working as an invigilator at Nottingham Contemporary. I had been part of their youth collective, and then from there I got offered a job as the mascot, which was funny, as I had to dress up as a zebra! I then became an invigilator, which gave me a greater understanding of the gallery and its exhibitions.
I was also part of the Gospel Choir and I was on the committee, as Social Secretary, for a year. I worked at Lakeside Arts as well. In first year I was a volunteer, then in my final year I came back as a gallery art group trainee. The gallery art group was an art club for teenagers and children. I’d help the associate artist to run the sessions.
I was president of the Art History Society in final year, too. I know for a fact that I got the job I did after uni because they liked how I spoke about the Art History Society. I was talking about how I felt, at the time, there wasn’t much of a community in the university for Art History students. I felt there was such a good arts scene, I really wanted there to be more of a community.
I used these activities to complete the Nottingham Advantage Award. The modules fit quite naturally with what I was already doing and gave me a space to reflect on some of that work too."
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
"I like being surrounded by art and always having opportunities to talk about art with people. Whether that’s speaking to the artists that we represent about what they're making, or speaking with visitors. If someone comes in, I’ll walk them through the show and talk to them about the work. I really enjoy speaking about art with people and hearing their opinions."
What does success look like to you?
I think there’s a lot of pressure on young people nowadays to have a career. But success, I think, is just having a level of enjoyment in what you do.
"My mum always said to me, ‘It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice’. I don’t think success is about having a big job title, it can be enjoying who you work with, enjoying where you work, not working for the weekend."
Any top tips?
"Really take advantage of all the opportunities you’re given. Finding those niche paid jobs within the thing you want to do – like invigilating in a gallery for me – can also be a great way into networking.
You never know where something’s going to lead to. I didn’t think that becoming a zebra mascot would lead to me becoming an invigilator, which would then lead to me making a lot of connections in Nottingham's art scene! The people I met while I was a student have come back to me today with opportunities, we still have a relationship.
But don’t do everything – I made that mistake in second year! You do have to filter. Don’t do it all in one go!"
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