Simon Spier was the 2013-14 recipient of the Friends of York Art Gallery Research scholarship. He found that his experience at York Art Gallery gave him invaluable practical skills and access to a wealth of artworks. It also helped him to focus his career plans.
What are you currently working on?
"My project is on the pre-1900 history of York School of Art. Perhaps the most important art institution in the city’s recent history, it occupied the art gallery’s building for a period and much of the students’ work is hidden in the collection. The institution’s founding is often credited to the academic figure painter William Etty, but my research has encouraged examining the teaching and practical output of the school in the larger context of Victorian design reform, as well the role and reception of decorative and applied arts in the mid-nineteenth century. Additionally, the localist aspect of this project takes me to some interesting and unusual places, from the City Archives to York Cemetery via Aldborough Roman Site. This is definitely a constant pleasure – coming from a different undergraduate programme, the research process has been a fantastic way to integrate into life in York."
What experiences would you say have been most useful or unexpected?
"Parallel to my personal project I have been assisting Helen Walsh (Assistant Curator of Decorative Art) in some research into the collection of British Studio Ceramics. Before coming to York I had no experience whatsoever of ceramic art, but seeing the strong collection the gallery has really captured my imagination. The experience of working with this part of the collection has been useful as I feel I have learnt the ability to adapt – here to York Art Gallery’s own priorities – and be more flexible with my interests. I feel this is something I can take forward when searching for a career in museums and galleries."
Who do you work with and how does the institution make use of you?
"I work directly with Laura Turner, Curator of Art. We have regular supervisory meetings and her knowledge and expertise have been a huge help in directing the flow of my research. As this partnership is also committed to public outreach through the Friends of York Art Gallery organisation, I have worked closely with a number of great people associated with the Friends to provide public talks or contribute in some way to the fantastic events that they organise. Being in contact with the Friends has been an enriching experience – often they provide valuable comments on my research and as many of them are residents of York they are an endless source of helpful information."
What do you value most about your experience with the institution?
"The level of access that is granted by being affiliated with an institution such as the art gallery is invaluable. Through my position as Research Scholar I have been able to get hold of archival material and look at artworks that other students might find it much harder to see. I also feel I have gained practical skills that other graduates may lack, such as working with collection databases and object handling. These are skills that will give me an advantage when it comes to applying for jobs in the museum sector."
How has your work with York Art Gallery enhanced your studies at York?
"The crossover between my studies and my work with the gallery is vast. The assigned project is a gift for a unique dissertation project, and familiarity with the gallery’s collection of paintings, sculpture and works on paper has provided a fresh approach to a number of my taught module essays – it really depends on the student and how much you want to make of the great resources at hand. My position has allowed me close access to a number of artworks and primary sources, so I try to make the most of it."
Do you feel it has been helpful with career planning or improved your job prospects, and if yes, how?
"The research-focused nature of the partnership has really led me to consider further work in academic study, or perhaps a curatorial role that offers a blend of research and more practical tasks based around a collection. In a more general way I feel like I have gained a number of transferable skills such as collections management and public speaking that enable me to feel more confident in pursuing a different career if I were to decide to do that."
Would you recommend it to future students?
"I would recommend this partnership for anyone with a disposition for archival and object-focused research, particularly those who feel the benefits of academic research that is coupled with an extant art collection."