Alumni Profile: Sarah McGavran

Interview conducted by Hua Zhao, MA student

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Sarah McGavran, and I successfully defended my dissertation “Modernist Orientalisms: Klee, Matisse and North Africa, c. 1906-1930” in early 2013. My major field was modern European art (1848-1945) and my minor fields were Baroque art and Orientalism. Today I am a freelance editor and translator. My clients include the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. and the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland. 

What did you do in the year or two immediately following the completion of the PhD, and how did you pursue that kind of work?

After graduation I secured two consecutive post-doctoral fellowships. The first was a Volkswagen Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Johannes-Gutenberg University in Mainz. Networking in Germany during my doctoral studies strengthened my application, which required a sponsor at a German university. While in Mainz, I continued to expand my network; in the period between my postdocs, I also did some freelance translation. The second year after completion, I had a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis.   

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?

Before graduate school, when I was a Fulbright Teaching Assistant in Germany, I gained translation experience while volunteering at the local art museum. During my MA coursework, I took a graduate seminar on literary translation with Professor Gerhild Williams, which provided me with a strong theoretical foundation for my work. I should also note that my dissertation involved extensive translation of primary sources. Most importantly, during the two years I spent in Germany and Switzerland conducting doctoral research, my peers and I often traded feedback on academic writing—from conference papers and fellowship applications to professional correspondence. Eventually, my friends and colleagues began asking me to consult, edit and translate professionally.  

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

Exchanging work with my peers helped me to sharpen my editing skills and to better grasp some of the differences between the American, German, and Swiss approaches to Art History. Spending several years in Germany and Switzerland was also crucial; academic editing and translation involves navigating different academic contexts to ensure seamless cross-cultural communication.  

Teaching a writing-intensive course in Art History during my Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis also helped me refine my approach as a writing coach. The latter is something that sets apart my work as an editor and translator, as I aim to help my clients improve their writing as a whole! 

How did you take advantage of Washington University outside of our Art History program, and St Louis and its many cultural institutions, to move into this line of work?

Cultivating relationships with both professors and graduate students in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures was helpful during graduate school and remains so today—just this month I collaborated on a translation with an old friend from the German department!  

One of my regrets is not spending enough time getting to know the cultural institutions in St. Louis beyond the major museums. Art History graduate students might consider attending openings and events at the Regional Arts Commission, the Craft Alliance and galleries in Clayton, the Central West End, Cherokee Street and in Maplewood. It’s a great way to discover different approaches to exhibitions and to learn about careers you may not have known about before. You’ll meet people with extensive professional networks in St. Louis and beyond. And you never know who might put you on the path to a dream job you never even knew existed!  

Another great resource is the Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts, which offers workshops on business skills for artists. Their expertise helped me get my own business off the ground. Graduate students in Art History shouldn’t discount entrepreneurship, as it is also possible to make your own opportunities and work for yourself—especially in today’s gig economy! 

What are your plans for the future?

I’m happily pursuing a career in museum publications as I continue to grow my academic editing and translation business.