Just a few years ago, Stephanie Katsias and Jessie Cappello were classmates at the University of Virginia, studying how the world’s best art museums manage and showcase their collections.
Now, they are working together at one of those museums: The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The museum, affectionately referred to as “MoMA” in art circles, is widely known as one of the largest and most influential in the world, hosting not only art exhibitions and performances, but galas, classes and even the occasional film or television shoot. It closed for renovation this summer, but staff are already preparing for a grand public re-opening on Oct. 21.
Among them are Katsias, who works in the museum’s press department; Cappello, who coordinates programming and events; and fellow Hoos Courtney Schaefer and Caelan Fortes, who work with the museum’s members and donors; as well as two student interns, Emeline Callaway and Jackie Siegel.
We caught up with them to learn more about what it is like to work at such an iconic museum and which artworks or spots in the museum they love the most. Plus, we talked with alumna EJ Cho, who works at the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, South Korea and recently was featured in a New York Times article about visiting MoMA on its closing day.
At UVA: Katsias graduated in 2016 with a double major in art history and arts administration
Role at MoMA: Katsias, who has worked at the museum for almost three years, is now the building project publicity coordinator, focusing on press strategy around the museum’s re-opening in October.
“This project has been all-hands-on-deck, and it’s really exciting to collaborate with colleagues across the museum in this way,” she said.
When the museum is not undergoing major renovations, Katsias and other members of her team are each charged with publicizing exhibitions and programs. That includes fielding press requests, facilitating photo shoots and, occasionally, handling a red-carpet event or a film shoot.
“It’s always kind of crazy when we have bigger shoots or events, such as overnight film or TV shoots, or our annual red-carpet events that have a lot of logistics and moving parts to work through,” she said.
More than these larger-scale projects, though, Katsias loves the art.
“I love being in an environment where I get to interact with art in a tangible way every single day,” she said. “There are so many incredibly talented people who work here, and I’ve learned so much working alongside them.”
Favorite spot or work of art: Henri Matisse, “The Swimming Pool”
This mural by the famed Matisse is on thin, delicate paper, created by Matisse late in his career when he was wheelchair-bound and could no longer swim. “It’s such a delicate work,” Katsias said. “I always love when it is on view, because it is just so special and personal to the artist – he created an environment, originally hung in his dining room, to recreate his love for the ocean when he was no longer able to experience it as he once had.”
At UVA: Schaefer graduated in 2011 with a double major in art history and French and a minor in leadership.
Role at MoMA: Schaefer is the associate director of membership and affiliate programs. She works with the museum’s affiliate programs, which are their patron groups for donors. Her responsibilities include holding events, both at the museum and off site – from gallery talks and visits to artists’ studios to trips to other major cities. In May, Schaefer took a group to Washington, D.C., to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Glenstone, and other museums and private collections.
Aside from the affiliate groups, she also focuses on membership recruitment, retention and benefit fulfillment for the museum’s high-level members.
“We have an incredible staff that is extremely hard-working and passionate, and what our curators are doing is really inspiring,” she said. “It’s extremely rewarding to work in the art world, while also using my natural skillsets building relationships and putting on events. I have been able to cultivate some long-term donor relationships that have been very fulfilling on a personal level.”
Favorite spot or work of art: Like Katsias, Schaefer love’s Matisse’s “The Swimming Pool.” Her favorite spot in the museum is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, which she describes as “an oasis” in the middle of the city where visitors and staff members can enjoy art and relax.
At UVA: Capello graduated in 2014 with degrees in art history and economics.
Role at MoMA: Cappello is an events coordinator, working on everything from one of the museum’s four large annual fundraisers to exhibition openings or smaller events for donors, members or other groups. With the museum closed, she and her colleagues are now fully focused on the reopening events coming in October.
“It’s a really incredible time to be here,” Cappello said. “The renovation, and reopening the museum, involves everyone, and it’s very exciting.”
She started with the museum full-time three years ago, after completing an internship – with fellow Hoo Schaefer as her supervisor – during graduate school.
“I love how different every day is, especially in my role,” she said. “I’m surrounded by smart, creative, hard-working people and I learn something new from everyone every day.”
Favorite spot or work of art: Cappello highlighted a favorite moment – the early mornings and late nights when she is setting up or closing down an event.
“I co-run a meditation program called ‘Quiet Mornings’ that is really special to me, because you get to see the museum just waking up with security, art handlers, construction and operations,” she said. “It’s also a different time to be in the museum at night, after the last guest has gone home, and to see the space as the sanctuary that it is.”
Role at MoMA: She works in the museum’s membership department, responsible for managing events, member correspondence, gift processing and coordinating the “Artist in the Collection” program, which honors artists in the museum’s Permanent Collection. She recently finished planning “Member Day” on June 16, allowing members to see the museum after it closed to the public for the summer – an occasion Fortes called “a goodbye party for my favorite place and 5,000 of its closest friends.”
Fortes, who grew up in nearby Queens, set her sights on the museum long ago.
“After taking an art history class in my sophomore year of high school, I made a promise to myself that I’d end up working at MoMA,” she said. “I think everyone who works here feels lucky to be at a ‘dream job’ and it gives us a get-out-of-bed feeling that makes the quotidian fun. I like working in membership specifically because I’m selfishly able to get people excited about what excites me.”
Favorite spot or work of art: Tania Bruguera’s “Untitled (Havana, 2000),” which was on display temporarily and “completely transformed one of our galleries into a disturbing political fun house,” Fortes said. The work includes a pitch-black room lined with milled sugar cane, with four nude men and a television playing footage of Fidel Castro. It was originally produced in a military bunker used as a jail during the Cuban Revolution.
At UVA: Callaway is a rising fourth-year student, double-majoring in economics and art and minoring in art history.
Role at MoMA: This summer, Callaway is interning in the museum’s retail department, working with buyers to order stock for the museum’s design store and organize product information. She also works with the department’s licensing team, which collaborates with other brands to create special products for the museum.
“I help choose artworks from the MoMA collection that would work with certain products, design presentations for client meetings and assist in choosing product photography to advertise the new collection,” Callaway said. She called it a “dream job.”
“The people I work with are incredibly nice and helpful, and always willing to teach me new things about the art world,” she said. “I also love that I am experiencing a particularly interesting part of the art world – product design, fine art and business. It’s the perfect combination of what I study at school and what I am most passionate about.”
Favorite spot or work of art: Callaway’s current favorite is American artist Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #1144 Broken Bands of Color in Four Directions,” which has remained up during the renovation. It reminds her of another LeWitt drawing that hung at The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA, where she has worked as a student docent.
At UVA: Siegel is a rising fourth-year student, double-majoring in art history and French.
Role at MoMA: Siegel is a summer intern in the museum’s communications department, assisting with press previews, television shoots, media requests and press coverage for upcoming exhibitions and events.
“MoMA has been my favorite museum since I first came to New York and visited in the sixth grade,” she said. “Not only is it a leading global institution, but its seminal exhibitions have created a canon of modern art that continues to shape the field.”
So far, she has loved the chance to see what goes on behind the scenes at one of her favorite museums.
“Already I have learned short- and long-term communications strategies and gained insightful exposure to the inner workings of MoMA, both within the communications department and throughout the whole museum,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn and understand arts administration, especially at such a unique time with the museum in the midst of major expansion and renovation project.”
Favorite spot or work of art: “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh, an iconic painting that Siegel wrote about in her UVA admissions essay.
“Early one morning, before the museum’s doors opened, I walked through the empty galleries and stood alone in front of van Gogh’s masterpiece,” she said. “It was a surreal moment and one I’ll never forget.”
At UVA: Cho graduated from UVA in 2006 with a double major in art history and East Asian studies.
Role: Cho manages communication efforts at the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, including social media, digital content and external relations. She also runs programs and tours through the museum’s collections, which range from traditional Korean art dating to the Bronze Age to modern and contemporary art by both Korean and international artists.
“I enjoy being exposed to works by some of the biggest names in the art world on a daily basis,” Cho said. “At any given time of day, I can walk into a gallery just seconds away from my office and immerse myself among ancient national treasures created by my ancestors hundreds of years ago, and even see them juxtaposed alongside a modern piece created by an artist closer to my lifetime and from the other side of the world, like Alberto Giacometti.
“To have the responsibility of taking this exposure and creating content out of it in a way that will resonate and communicate with the public, whether through digital or personal interaction, is a meaningful and thrilling job,” she said.
Favorite spot or work of art at MoMA: Cho remembers visiting the museum shortly after graduating from UVA. Standing at sites like the pedestrian bridge overlooking the Marron atrium brought back “images and emotions that continue to overlap with memories of how I grew an ambition for beginning a career in the arts,” she said.
Some of her favorite works are Alexander Calder’s “Lobster Trap and Fishtail” and van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” In fact, she recently painted her young son playing amid those works, a testament to how much both pieces have lingered in her memory.
Sculpture Garden photo published under Creative Commons.