How I Got My Art Job: The Met’s Costume Institute Conservator on Getting Her Dream Gig Without the Perfect Resume
Preserving the Met's world-class costume collection presents unique challenges.
From fabricators to mummy conservators to private collection managers, the art world is full of fascinating jobs you may not have realized even existed. In artnet News’s column “How I Got My Art Job,” we delve into these enviable art-world occupations, asking insiders to share their career path and advice for others who wish to follow in their footsteps.
This week, we spoke with Sarah Scaturro, head conservator for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Education: As an undergrad, I studied Italian and ancient history at the University of Colorado Boulder. I got my Masters in fashion and textile studies at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Right now, I’m a PhD student in material culture and design history at Bard Graduate Center. It’s a lot extra work, but it allows me to approach my work with a fresh eye on theory, which is very insightful.
How I got into the field: After school, I worked at an education nonprofit for about five years. I was taking continuing ed classes in pattern-making, dressmaking, and tailoring at FIT. I eventually decided to apply for the masters program there. As luck had it, they required applicants to have taken courses in chemistry, art history, and a foreign language. Serendipitously, I had all three.
On entering the museum world: As I was graduating, I realized the probability of getting a full-time permanent job was not super high. I knew I had to create my own opportunities: doing fashion archiving for designers, taking on temporary contracts at museums for exhibition installations, upgrading storage, and other work.
Eventually, I got to know the head conservator at New York’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. She hired me for a long-term contract position and eventually there was an opening in her lab. Unfortunately, now students have to take on thousands of hours of unpaid internships to work in the field. I’m lucky I came into conservation at a point when that wasn’t yet standard practice!
How I got the job I have now: When this position opened up at the Costume Institute, I didn’t apply right away. I only had about half as much experience as they were looking for, but people who worked there kept telling me that I had a shot. So I said, “Why not, this would be a dream job!”
I met with everybody from [former Costume Institute chief curator] Harold Koda to [current Costume Institute head] Andrew Bolton all the way up to the director’s office. They offered me the position after four interviews.
The biggest adjustment I had to make: The biggest change was the extremely fast pace, high volume, and monumental scope of the projects here.
Also, the Cooper Hewitt is a design museum. The work I carried out was more aligned with preventive conservation, rather than restoration. It was okay for objects to have aesthetic flaws as long as they still illustrated the design narrative.
At the Costume Institute, there’s much more of an emphasis on presenting fashion as art. As a conservator, I have to manage lengthier treatments aimed at restoration. We have to foreground aesthetic quality.
My favorite part of my job: Being able to tour the museum when it’s empty is so magical and special. It is the most transcendental experience.
What my typical day looks like: Luckily, never dull, and never the same. I could be doing something mundane, like answering a million emails or sitting in a dozen meetings. Sometimes it can be gross, like finding an insect in a garment and dealing with that—or I could be doing something sublime, like looking at new acquisitions, dressing mannequins, or walking through our costume storage.
The coolest thing I’ve done lately: Last week, for our “Visitors to Versailles” exhibition, I was examining Marie Antoinette’s dress and assisting with the suit Benjamin Franklin wore to the Treaty of Amity in 1778 [on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC]. I also got to go to the sacristy of the Sistine Chapel to view the pieces from the Vatican for [the upcoming exhibition on Catholic fashion] “Heavenly Bodies.”
My biggest challenge: It’s an oxymoron, trying to preserve fashion, which is in essence ephemeral and temporal. In order to display fashion as art, you have to be sure you’re creating the right silhouette, with the right hair and accessories. It takes time and skill putting garments onto a mannequin, because mannequins aren’t soft like the human body, and can stress the object. I actually took a mannequin-dressing class as a requirement at FIT!
My most influential mentor: Harold Koda has the best eye of any curator I have ever known. He can see in a millisecond what is wrong with any object. He also found my unique dual identities as curator and conservator to be an asset. Museums typically silo you, but both he and Andrew enabled me to curate an exhibition, “The Secret Life of Textiles: Synthetic Materials.”
The best tip I ever got: When I got the job at the Met, I told Denyse Montegut, the head of the fashion and textiles program at FIT, how nervous I was. It was a lot of pressure, stepping into this role of a preservation advocate for the best fashion collection in the world. I just remember her saying, “Don’t doubt yourself; you can do this—after all, it’s just dresses!”
Advice for those who want my job: I joke, but I do believe that New York City rewards the hustle. If you come to New York to work in the arts, as long as you work hard with that in mind, it will happen. Take every opportunity that comes up, even if it’s not exactly where you want to be, because you never know who you might meet. And if you can’t find your job, then create it.
One thing I wish I could tell my 22-year-old self: All of your interests make you who you are. You will someday find a career that combines all of them. I didn’t even know what conservation was at age 22!
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