In a traditional Catalan restaurant in Barcelona I spoke with the charming Deirdre Haughey Barquin, Head of Visitor Services and Events at the Picasso Museum, and posed the main questions of this series of interviews with a wide range of Museum professionals; how did you get to your position and what advice can you offer to assist aspiring museum professionals to get to where they want to be?
In Spain we have similar issues to the UK, albeit even more intensified due to the financial crisis. We have people who are volunteering, selling tickets and working with the visitors who have many qualifications and are prepared for and want more but feel there is no pathway for them to move up.
In my case, I started volunteering whilst I was studying at university. I didn’t wait until afterwards as I felt that I would be losing too much time. I felt that volunteering is something I could start without having a great knowledge of something. So, during my last two years of university, I worked as a cultural volunteer organising all the cultural events for students at my university. After I completed my studies I approached the city council of a town called Sant Cugat del Vallés to work for Centro Cívico de Mira-Sol which is basically a cultural laboratory where people prepare different workshops, dance and theatre events. I was still a volunteer organising cultural events for local people but here I began to meet and collect many professional contacts who were already working in the cultural sectors. By organising and promoting events, contacting cultural people and businesses and working with the city hall I was able to see how things work. I had to work long, hard hours, but what I gained was pure networking.
When I was young my family moved around a lot and lived in many places. My father is Irish and my mother Spanish so we lived in both Ireland and Spain at different times. I lived in the USA for 6 months and then worked as an au pair in Galway in Ireland for a year. After I finished my degree and cultural projects in Spain I joined other students from around the world to study an Erasmus year in Siena in Italy.
I used to dance as a hobby and when I finished my studies in Siena, I contacted a business called Associazione Culturale Polimusica which was doing the productions for the Balletto di Roma amongst others. I offered myself for the year long productions and they invited me to Rome for an interview. I went for it and got the job despite a huge amount of interest, as is usual in the dance world. It wasn’t easy, it was very low pay and I had to share a flat with many people. Although Rome is not my favourite city for living it is a city packed full of culture which I could explore. So at the same time as doing the dance productions I became involved in organising a festival called Feronia Festival in the summer.
When I finished my job with the Balleto di Roma I returned to Spain and made contact with the Catalan government who were running a programme called Programmer Epsylon. This programme was based on the applicant finding a job with an organisation in any country and asking to work without being paid by the organisation, as they would be paid by the Catalan government instead. The government asked for a pitch to tell them why you are doing it and what skills you would bring back to Catalunya. I am not sure if this programme still exists as many programmes were stopped when the financial crisis occurred as there was no more funding available.
With this programme I managed to secure a role at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Palazzo Forti de Verona, in Italy. The museum was organising a new exhibition on Fontana. It was a small museum with just seven or eight members of staff. I wrote to the Director of the museum who was also the curator of the forthcoming exhibition, and said that I could work for free to organise the exhibition (the Catalan government was paying me every month). The government thankfully agreed to the placement as they could see the benefits, experience and skills I could bring back to Catalunya. I learnt a lot from this role in Verona and from the Director. I ended up doing lots more than I had imagined which enabled me to learn all the different roles required in a museum. I also gained the opportunity to work with one of the museum’s curators on an exhibition about Francis Bacon and I was able to work for a further number of months being directly paid by the museum.
After my time in Verona I returned to Spain where I began to search for my next opportunity. One night I was out with my parents at a premiere show of a famous dance company in Spain called Gelabert Azzopardi Companyia de Dansa. After the show I saw that the company was at the theatre bar having drinks. I didn’t know whether to go and present myself or not but eventually with a little bit of encouragement, I approached one of the the show’s choreographers and described my experiences at the Balleto di Roma. I didn’t know how she would react but she was fine and asked me to leave my name and contact details. A week later, they called me and said they liked that I had shown them something different by just coming over to talk. They needed someone for a few months as a Tour Manager, however I ended up working for them for three productions over three years.
In 2007, I started working as the Coordinator of the Visitor Services staff at the Picasso Museum. I was placed through an outsourcing business and stayed in the role for more than a year. Afterwards when the City Hall of Barcelona held a public contest for a Head of Operations Visitor Services at the Picasso Museum, I was ready as I had experience in the cultural sector and experience in the museum itself combined with Spanish, Catalan, English and Italian languages, and experience organising groups of people. When I read the job description I saw that it was all perfect for me as I had already been doing all of the requirements for a long time. However, it was seven or eight years of very hard work in the making.
My professional arts network began when I was twenty years old and I am now forty. Because I began to develop my network early it has naturally grown very big and continues to grow. I like meeting people, I like talking to people, I have a curiosity for people who are doing interesting and cultural things. If there is something going on in London or Berlin or Glasgow I will try and go if I can.
The key was to be open to all things. Twenty years ago it was not as easy to move around. No mobile phones. Erasmus was very new. Now everyone knows each other through LinkedIn, Twitter etc. The world is so small now. It is much easier to go to another country and start something new or experience something different for a while whilst increasing your knowledge and improving your CV and then take it all back with you, or stay, or find something else great in another new place. However, I have found that it is best to do all of this as soon as you can.
In the cultural world things can often be very institutional in its requirements of new staff; “you have to have a degree”, or “you have to have done lots of volunteering”, but, in the end, possessing these are not always the best way to find a good job. When I was working as Coordinator of the Visitor Services if I had to hire someone and one candidate had loads of degrees but nothing else, and another person had a variety of experiences I used to choose the second person. I knew that I could learn something new from that person. When I interviewed candidates to work in Visitor Services I used to look for candidates who could take the initiative and who were aware and engaged with the cultural reasons for being there. I like people who are proactive. During an interview I used to ask, “why this job?”, “what ideas do you have for it?”, “what have you learnt from other experiences that you can use here?”. I love people who have their own character. Normally it is easy to spot the candidates who are just answering the questions in a generic way. In Spain we always say “you never see what the person says but what the person does”. The person must be autonomous otherwise it’s not good for anybody; the manager has to keep giving instructions and the staff member has to keep taking orders.
If you choose the cultural sector you will know that you will not earn a lot of money. It is not easy, but if you really are passionate about the arts, you will love it. You must just go for it! A number of the Visitors Service staff I hired for the Picasso Museum have now left Barcelona and moved to LA, Sydney, New York, London, and many other places and never looked back.
My advice is that going to a different country is the biggest and best thing you can do. Yes it can be a bit risky but you just need to do it, you have nothing to lose. Of course there are fears such as “I won´t have enough money” or “I won’t find somewhere to live” however sometimes you just need to do it and you will find a way. Sometimes it is not important to have MBAs and Postgraduate degrees, it is more about being open to the world and what is going on within it. You have to take some risks, that is very important. And when you are young is the best time to take these risks.
Deirdre’s points are clear and simple: Learn languages; travel if and when you can; have as many varied experiences as possible; be passionate and retain your character; and finally, network. As fate would have it two weeks before I met Deirdre I rented my room in London out for the weekend. The lady staying in my room was a Professor from the University of Barcelona. We began to talk, in a mixture of English and Spanish, and I quickly learnt that the Professor knew Deirdre! Both women have now become contacts for me and are part of my own network.
Article also featuring: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/alexander-bowden/the-museum-series-an-inte_b_10753396.html