Lisa and E. Gerald O'Brien in front of Douglas Argue's oil canvas work, Untitled, affectionately known as the "chicken painting."
Jerry O’Brien was an undergraduate art history major at the University of Michigan when he got some thrilling news from Sotheby’s in New York City. The venerable auction house had awarded him one of its coveted summer internships. In fact, the human resources director told him, two different departments wanted him, and he could have his pick. Elated, O’Brien, who was working as a guard at the University of Michigan Museum of Art to help pay for his education, asked for a few days to think it over. Then, almost as an afterthought, he asked if there was a difference in pay between the two internships. “No,” the woman said. “They’re both free.”
“Free?” he said. “I think you might be misusing the word.”
The woman said, “Well, Sotheby’s is looking for people who love art for art’s sake.” And O’Brien said, “I love art for art’s sake, but I work for pay.”
Nearly thirty years later, O’Brien, who with his wife, Lisa O’Brien (Ph.D. ’04), funds the Weisman Art Museum’s E. Gerald and Lisa O’Brien Curatorial Fellowship, remembers the conversation well and laughs as he recounts the story now, but he was disappointed. He ultimately abandoned art history for a successful career as an institutional investment manager, first at Cargill and most recently as president and CEO of O’Brien-Staley Partners, but the experience stayed with him. Ten years ago, he and Lisa decided to provide art history students with a way to advance in the field—and make a living wage. The O’Brien fellowship was born.
Fellows are given a $25,000 stipend and work in the museum for one year, typically assisting senior curator Diane Mullin, and, most valuably, curating an exhibition on their own. According to WAM director Lyndel King, it’s a win–win. “It gives our students a bonus when it comes to getting into graduate school or getting jobs in museums. And we get a person who provides curatorial assistance, who’s eager to learn, as well as a backlog of great exhibitions that we can slot into our Carlson Gallery at a future date. But having an intern is not just having free labor,” she says. “You’re being a mentor, you’re being a teacher. We expect a lot of the intern, and we get a lot.”
Former O’Brien fellow Laura Joseph (Ph.D. ’15) agrees. She was finishing her doctorate in art history at the University and was looking for additional fieldwork experience when she began her O’Brien fellowship in 2014. “The WAM staff allows fellows into the fold, meaning you’re not in the back room sorting through files,” she says. “You’re not given busy work. But you’re invited to all the meetings,and encouraged to take hold of a project that’s of interest to you.”
Mullin asked Joseph to be the coordinating curator for a touring photography exhibition, Siberia: Imagined and Reimagined. From negotiating the contract to writing the gallery labels to planning the related programming to working with the media, Joseph got to make the project hers. The stipend helped, too. “We don’t often like to talk about money in the arts,” Joseph says, “but regardless of whether or not you love something, your work needs to sustain you. The fellowship places a value on the work you do.”
Joseph is now a consulting curator in the Twin Cities. She teaches at MCAD and Macalester College and is working as the curator for an upcoming WAM exhibition for 2020, Harriet Bart: Abracadabra, and Other Forms of Protection.
The O’Briens, who have three school-age children, have an affinity for the arts and for the University and feel a responsibility to give back to organizations that have made a difference in their lives. In addition to the Weisman fellowship, their family has established a fund at the University of Chicago, where Jerry earned his MBA. Lisa is board chair of Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. Jerry served six years on WAM’s advisory board. They call the Weisman their “adopted museum.”
And they credit the Weisman’s staff for making the fellowship a success. Says Jerry, “Do you remember playing the kids’ game, ‘Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors, see all the people’? The Weisman has a fantastic building—everyone knows it, they recognize it, it’s right on the river. The Weisman has a very deep collection. But the people at the Weisman are incredible—the camaraderie and the cross training and the team—that’s what I’m proudest of.”