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Monday, May 27, 2024 — Houston, TX

Museum fellows talk art, academia and experiential learning

mfah-students-william-liu
courtesy of Orion Miller

By Noah Berz     4/9/24 11:49pm

On Monday mornings at 8 a.m., Ella Langridge walks upstairs to her desk at the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens and gets to work, sifting through photocopies of Americana and decorative arts with pasts unknown. Langridge’s job, as this year’s Jameson Fellow for American Painting & Decorative Arts, is to research these artifacts, uncover their histories and communicate their uniquely American stories to the collection’s thousands of annual visitors. 

“Decorative art is such a great way to engage with art history,” Langridge, a Lovett College junior, said. “It’s objects that people would have lived with every day [and] used in their day to day lives.”

An art history major, Langridge is one of three Rice students selected for this year’s Jameson and William A. Camfield fellowships, two programs in the art history department which allow selected students to gain work experience at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and its affiliated collections. Fellows are given the opportunity to engage in original research and curatorial work, Leo Costello, Rice art history department chair and Camfield fellowship faculty liaison, said. 



“One of the founding ideas of [the fellowship] is that it’s really substantive, that there’s no busy work involved, and the students are really plunged into the workings of a curatorial department,” Costello said.

“[I expected] to be doing things to get [my foot in the door], but I’m doing work that I find really meaningful already, which is a great surprise, and really encouraging,” Langridge said.

These fellowships are usually reserved for art history students, but sometimes require students with specialized knowledge in a specific field or artistic discipline. As this year’s undergraduate Camfield fellow, film major Ayla Davis works alongside MFAH film curator Marian Luntz to program screenings. Davis also writes program notes and researches the work of burgeoning filmmakers from Houston and beyond, but she especially loves interacting with museumgoers. 

“My favorite part is getting to meet the people who come to the movies,” Davis, a Lovett College senior, said. “People don’t always think to go to a cinema to see a movie because it’s so easy to stream movies nowadays, but it’s really great to see how many people want to come out and watch these movies that we’re showing.”

The fellowships also provide students with the opportunity to surround themselves with art and artists from the greater Houston area and around the world, exposure which fellows say is vital to their education as artists and art historians. 

“Being immersed in that kind of environment is really great for any type of art student,” Davis said. “You’re always meeting new artists … hearing artists’ lectures … getting to see a lot of different perspectives through the artworks and through meeting the people who work at the museum.”

Students involved in the fellowships also get introductions into the professional world, Costello said.

“It’s so important as early as possible to get outside the hedges, to get into a professional environment,” Costello said. “The fact is that in the not-for-profit world … a lot of opportunities happen through networking [and] through already having been someplace.”

Graduate Camfield fellow Eilis Coughlin said she cherishes the opportunity to physically interact with works she has spent so many years learning about. Coughlin works in the prints and drawings department at MFAH alongside curator Dena Woodall to write labels, set up exhibit mockups with images she helps choose and write acquisition reports on works the department wants to acquire. 

“I got to go to the Hirsch Library and look at all the books that I thought would fit well with this hanging that we’re going to do,” Coughlin, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Rice’s art history department, said. “There’s something personal about being able to hold the book and knowing that someone else did that before you hundreds of years ago.”

Fellows are required to tailor the skills they acquire in an academic setting to the world of public art, which many HART students will eventually find work in. These fellowships serve to bring students down from the theoretical world of academia and into the more immediate world of museums, Coughlin said.

“Label writing has taught me that I want my writing accessible to everyone, but readable at more levels,” Coughlin said. “I want a student majoring in art history to be able to get something out of it, [and to write] something that someone coming to a museum for the first time can get out of it too.”

“Sometimes being in academia, and being a Ph.D. student, you get buried in books, and you lose sight of the artwork that you’re actually dealing with,” Coughlin said. “In a space where you’re actually surrounded by art, it’s like, ‘Okay, this is what I’m talking about, this is what I want to interact with.’”

The Jameson and Camfield fellowships have been an integral part of Rice art history education for the past 50 years, and have helped launch illustrious careers for many. 

“The past fellows have done very well,” Manca, Nina J. Cullinan professor of art and art history, said. “Two of the past fellows became museum directors, and that’s the kind of thing it can lead to, because when you work there you learn about the objects but you also see how a museum works.”

What makes these programs most meaningful for Langridge and her peers, however, is the ability to bring what they learn in the classroom into the real world and positively impact people around them.

“I think that [art history] is most valuable when it’s accessible to most people,” Langridge said. “I love being able to … do art history in a way that can matter, be seen and affect more people.”



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