As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I have actually wanted to be an art historian since I was ten years old when I first learned about the artists of the Italian Renaissance. Once I had accepted that being Mary Poppins or Belle wasn’t possible, I knew I wanted to work with art, preferably in an art museum. I grew up in Los Angeles, and my frequent visits to Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Museum were formative experiences. I want everyone to be able to feel welcome and inspired by art and museums, just like I was.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
The three courses that I would say were the most transformative were a sociology course called Introduction to Race and Ethnicity, a film studies course in Television and New Media, and Modernism in Paris and New York, a seminar in art history I took in my senior year. Introduction to Race and Ethnicity helped me realize I wanted include a focus on social justice and activism as a facet of my eventual career in the arts. Television and New Media made me certain that my interests in analyzing visual media extended to popular culture as well as traditional art history. Lastly, Modernism in Paris and New York provided a great opportunity to study Western art from Courbet to Pollock with future colleagues in my field.
You’ve described yourself as a “freelance arts and culture writer and curator-in-training.” What are your favorite parts about your current jobs?
I am the curatorial assistant at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, where I assist the museum’s curators with exhibition research, label-writing, archival work, and other projects behind the scenes. I am most excited about our upcoming summer 2018 shows related to the Civil Rights Movement. I can’t wait for audiences to visit the museum and be surprised by what they learn, and inspired to fight for change through the arts. I also love working with the archives of the artist John Sloan, who painted through the first half of the twentieth century—reading and fact-checking his diaries is both educational and hilariously entertaining.
As for my writing, I started an arts blog when I was a sophomore in high school and continue it to this day. I also contribute to a number of online arts and culture magazines, writing reviews and essays on visual art, television, music and literature. My favorite part of discussing and analyzing arts and culture is when I can change how people think.
Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and an arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?
I believe that an education in both arts and sciences is extremely important. It’s a cliché that science asks “how,” or “can we,” and the humanities ask “why,” or “should we,” but it’s true! Especially as technological innovations become more automated, it’s the role of the humanities to focus on the human costs of technology and to pose questions about how science and technology are changing society. Science and the arts go together, and even as people question the value of studying the arts and humanities, it’s really crucial that we remember that we need both kinds of knowledge. Phi Beta Kappa is an important organization partially for this reason—it understands the value of both the humanities and sciences and recognizes people who have excelled in them.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
I don’t have a specific nugget of advice, but I really value my conversations with my friend Paul Cato, a fellow Swarthmore alum who’s now a PhD student at the University of Chicago. Aside from providing commentary and suggestions on writing better academic papers, he constantly challenges me to rethink my preconceptions on pretty much every topic we discuss—from feminism to popular culture and everything in between—and reminds me to be honest about my motivations and behaviors, and to consider how my actions impact others, whether in writing or in everyday situations.
What book are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any TV shows? Anything you'd recommend?
I just finished Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. The characters and their complicated family relationships are so well-written, and it’s interwoven with really sharp social commentary that makes the novel feel like a classic. The prose and pacing are also really engaging.
I like to juggle several books at once, so I’m also a few pages into The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp, which is a fantastic blend of fantasy and reality, and several chapters into number9dream by David Mitchell—I loved The Bone Clocks and am hoping to work my way through everything he’s written.
As for television, I’m currently obsessed with The Alienist on TNT—the performances and the mystery are gripping, and Riverdale on the CW, which is my guilty pleasure show. I also loved The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon, and I can’t wait for it to return.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have a few meaningful possessions, but what are actually more valuable to me are the important experiences I’ve had. For example, my Fulbright year in Vienna, Austria (September 2016-July 2017) was an incredibly enriching time in my life. I learned so much beyond my research topic (Jewish and Roma contemporary artists)—I learned about Austrian life and society from the students I taught, and I learned a lot about myself, and about thriving in a foreign country by being self-sufficient and open-minded.
You can follow Deborah on her website, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.