Alumni Profile: Orin Zahra

Interview conducted by Hannah Wier, MA student

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Orin Zahra. My primary field of study is late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European art, with a minor in modern and contemporary South Asian visual culture. My dissertation is titled “Cultural Encounters and Moral Geographies in Impressionist Paris, 1867–1889” (in progress). I am currently the Assistant Curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. 

What did you do in your coursework, and in the later stages of your doctoral work, that helped prepare you for this particular career path?

From the very beginning of my graduate study, I was able to integrate my interests in museums into my coursework. My seminars included examining the complexities of portraiture as a genre, globalization in contemporary art, collecting practices of major museum founders, and looking at artworks as living objects with ongoing biographies. I did an internship at the Saint Louis Art Museum conducting research for an exhibition on Impressionism. I had the opportunity to co-organize my own exhibition with a colleague for the Teaching Gallery at the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum, which was one of my first true forays into understanding the challenges of curatorial work. Through the support of my advisor, I participated in a seminar at the Center for Curatorial Leadership in New York and took a temporary position as curatorial assistant at the National Gallery of Canada the year after I completed my comprehensive exams. My mentors at WashU fostered an environment where I could cultivate a strong academic background in art history and pursue a career in the curatorial field.   

What are the skills or competencies you cultivated that have helped you most in this line of work?

A substantial part of my responsibilities in the curatorial department involves researching, writing, and speaking to members of the public, patrons and donors, and colleagues from other institutions. Through every course I took at WashU, I was able to hone and improve my skills in engaging the reader and visitor in the formal qualities of artworks and in communicating the works’ broader significance and value. The rigorous training we received in the department in articulating our ideas and arguments made me a more confident and competent presenter and curator.  

How did you, as a graduate student, benefit from departmental trips and from travel connected to seminar courses?

I have always been so appreciative of the fact that the faculty has been supportive and encouraging of travel, whether that’s for conferences, research, or through our departmental trips. I had the opportunity to visit key museum collections in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, and Arkansas. I also attended the CAA Annual Conference for the first time as a doctoral student and presented at a conference in the UK on a paper that resulted from one my seminar courses, not to mention the multiple trips I made to Europe for dissertation research. It gave me an incredible sense of fulfillment to visit iconic institutions, as well as archives and smaller collections that are not as well known, and also to hear our colleagues and faculty speak about works in their respective fields during those trips. For an avid museumgoer and aspiring curator, this was an invaluable resource offered by the art history department.    

Your current job at the National Museum of Women in the Arts involves working with contemporary art, a period outside of the focus of your dissertation. How does working in an area outside of your own research focus help you as a scholar and a museum professional?

While working at NMWA, I’ve grown to see first-hand that contemporary art does not exist in a vacuum; creators constantly respond to what has been done in the past. The crux of my interests – drawing out questions of gender and race – remain the same whether I’m working with the French Impressionists or contemporary artists. In many ways, seeing and understanding the persistence of these issues through the present day makes the historical art even more compelling and relevant for me. I think it has been a terrific learning experience working outside of my own research focus because I have learned to sew these common threads through history, so to speak.  

What are your plans for the future?

Curatorial work is my passion, and I plan to continue to grow in this field. Since arriving at the NMWA, I have worked on the exhibition Ambreen Butt - Mark My Words (Dec 7, 2018- April 14, 2019). In the near future, I will help to organize some other major upcoming exhibitions at the museum. For my long-term goals, it would be a dream to turn my dissertation on Impressionism into a meaningful exhibition project one day.