Elspeth Williams explains how she went from being a humanities student to an arts one, and where that journey has taken her now.
As a reserved and introverted child I was only ever really interested in two things; drawing and reading. Apparently ageing didn’t change me much and when the time came in my final year of college to enter the scary world of UCAS and apply to universities I only had eyes for either Fine Art or English. I realised that I didn’t really want to be an artist and, while I still enjoyed sketching and painting, I decided to apply for English and began the University of Southampton’s course in September 2012.
While that was definitely the right BA for me (I was seriously sad to graduate in 2015), throughout my three years studying I was still always sketching, visiting museums and art galleries, and battling a pull to the art world that I didn’t think I could access via the grad schemes that us humanities students were being pushed to.
Not knowing where I could fit in in the art world, or if it was too late to try without a more relevant degree, I didn’t even really know what I was looking for. But in my third year sought it out anyway and asked Southampton City Art Gallery if they had any volunteering opportunities.
I was lucky that at the time the volunteer co-ordinator was away, so I was given the then curator Tim Craven’s direct email address instead. For 6 months I got to work with him, the small curatorial team, and their incredible art collection for one day a week. I didn’t realise before I started what an incredible opportunity that would prove to be. With funding in the arts not what it should be, there was no opportunity for a paid internship, but I was happy to volunteer and felt that the knowledge and experience I was getting was making the one day a week more than worthwhile.
By the end of that year I had found a potential career path that seemed a perfect fit for me – curating (or literally any job in an arts organisation, seriously any, please). I also didn’t feel ready to finish studying and managed to enjoy doing my dissertation, so thought perhaps an MA in the arts would be a good next step. After a year of full time work I came back to UoS in September 2016, but this time to do an MA in Contemporary Curation at Winchester School of Art. I was somewhat insecure about my seemingly irrelevant undergrad when I began my MA, I have now come to really value my background in English as part of my curatorial practice, and it is a passion I still hold.
Over the past year I’ve been lucky to get some more great practical experience outside of my MA, undertaking two paid internships with ‘aspace’ arts. One of which was working directly on an exhibition with artist Sarah Filmer.
Wanting to keep up my enjoyment of writing, I decided to write a piece for the UoS Arts blog on my experience working at Southampton City Art Gallery. I then did another on Southampton’s contemporary poetry events Entropics, and interviewed Dr Sarah Hayden as part of that. My enjoyment of writing and desire to put my interests ‘out there’ meant that I was happy to do this in my spare time.
Through these somewhat chance encounters and keeping loosely in touch with the arts team and Sarah Hayden, I am now doing paid work for both as well as interning at the John Hansard Gallery, which I never expected writing a couple of blog posts could lead to.
I consider myself very lucky to have been able to finish my degree and find work in what I want to do, which was definitely not the case after my BA! I think I would put some of that luck down to always being enthusiastic and eager to learn about and do more of what I was interested in, which was what lead to my volunteering at SCAG. That experience was what sparked my drive to continue pursuing a potential career in the arts and led to many more opportunities.
Something like the Arts Ambassadors scheme, which is an encouragement for students from all backgrounds to pursue their interests in the arts, was what was missing when I was undergoing my BA and looking for experience.
I’d encourage any student to pursue interests outside of their degree. At the least it will benefit your CV, but more so it is guaranteed to be an enriching experience!