Meet the Professionals
Pronouns: She / Her
Place of work: Tate Modern
Salary bracket: £20,000 - 25,000
Undertaking research tasks and assisting the Director's Executive Assistant
BA French and Italian, University of Bristol
MA Curating the Art Museum, Courtauld Institute of Art
Migration Museum, Lewisham; Université Bordeaux Montaigne; Galerie Pierre-Alain Challier, Pari; Spike Island, Bristol
"If you don't think you are qualified enough for a role, don’t make that decision for other people, let them make that decision."
Notes and links
Tate Modern is one of four public, free galleries run by Tate, located on Southbank in London. The other three are: Tate Britain (also in London, over near Pimlico), Tate St Ives down in Cornwall and Tate Liverpool. Tate Modern shows international contemporary art and runs lots of programmes and events too.
Frances Morris has been Director of Tate Modern since 2016 which involves overseeing all the exhibitions, events, collections and management at Tate Modern specifically. The other three Tate galleries have their own individual Directors. Then there is one big overall Director of all of Tate, and that’s Maria Balshaw.
The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square in London and shows art from as early as the mid-1200s right up to the 1900s. It holds artworks that make up the National Collection of the country (artworks that are owned by the public) and it is free to visit.
The Migration Museum in Lewisham, London, explores how the movement of people to and from Britain across the ages has made us who we are – as individuals and as a nation. It is free to visit and has a really active education programme, putting the sharing of knowledge at the heart of all it does.
Bristol University offers tonnes of great courses! We would recommend looking here if you are thinking about studying Art History. Our very own Matilda also studied here, so we have it on good authority that it’s a great University.
Spike Island is an organisation in Bristol that celebrates the very best of international contemporary art in museum-scale gallery spaces, while also supporting artists to develop, produce and present innovative work throughout their careers. It presents and hosts exhibitions, commissions and events.
The University of Bordeaux is ranked among the top French universities for the quality of its education and research. A multidisciplinary, research-focused, international institution, it leads an ambitious development program with its partners to further promote Bordeaux as a “Campus of Excellence”.
The Courtauld is a University in London that specialises in HIstory of Art and Conservation. It does not offer any other subjects to study, and is accompanied by a National Collection of Art at the Courtauld Gallery for students to study from. All four of us founders of Hang it studied at the Courtauld, so if you have any questions, feel free to reach out!
Director’s Executive Assistant
An Executive Assistant is a great way to work closely with the Director of a company and gain insight into everything they do.
A museum’s blockbuster exhibition is usually a ticketed experience which attracts heaps of visitors. It usually takes years to organise, bringing together artworks from all over the world. They are super expensive to plan and deliver and these costs put the pressure on to get as many visitors through the doors as possible.
The job description is what you will usually be given in advance of applying for and then starting a new job. It will lay out the key expectations of you in your role, but often there will be other things expected of you that fall outside of this. A job description is a guide.
An art institution is an established space in which an artwork is viewed. In the UK, you will usually hear the word used to refer to public museums - spaces that are free for the public to access and do not sell artworks.
A commercial gallery is a gallery that sells artworks on behalf of artists. They will have a number of artists who they represent, but will occasionally show other artists in exhibitions too. Commercial galleries sometimes participate in Art Fairs, which are big events gathering together lots of galleries to make shopping easier for buyers - kind of like a temporary department store.
If an organisation is publicly funded it means it relies on money from the government, public or special sponsors in order to run.
Contemporary art gallery
A contemporary art gallery shows art by living artists creating art that is generally new and relevant to now. This can be a contemporary commercial gallery (selling art works) or a contemporary public museum (showing art to the public, often for free).
Many universities offer the chance to study or work abroad for one year during your studies. A year abroad can be a great opportunity to spend a year in a foreign country learning the language and gaining experience whilst being funded by the University! It is worth checking if a University offers this before singing up to the course.
A curatorial placement is like an internship or work experience opportunity but is usually organised by your university of school. It is often a requirement of the course which means it does not have to be a paid position. See our podcast episode on internships to hear more about this here.
A non-profit organisation that exists purely for public benefit, rather than with the agenda of a business that operates to gain profit for its owners. It doesn’t make more money than it spends each year, and puts all its money back into its own progression.
A PHD is a 3-4 year intense research process pursued by those wanting to become a real expert in a particular field. A PHD is much longer than a dissertation! and can often result in being published as a book. Most people look to get funding as it is an expensive undertaking.
Annie Birchenough: Hello and welcome to Hang It, which is a new online platform where 4 young curators try to navigate the art world and build a community through conversations with friendly people. My name is Annie and today I am going to be talking to the wonderful Debbie Meniru to find out what her job is in the art world and how she got there. So hi Debbie, how are you this wonderful Saturday?
Debbie Meniru: I am very well, enjoying the sun streaming in through my window.
AB: So really just to start off, the first thing that we want to know is where do you work, what do you do and, what does a day in the life of Debbie look like?
DM: So my job at the moment, I am an admin and research assistant at Tate Modern which is really exciting and so that involves 2 sides, which are kind of obvious from the job title, so admin and research. And the admin side is more Assisting the Director’s Executive Assistant so that will involve filing invoices, dealing with the post…
Fielding emails, that kind of thing. And then on the research side, it's been really interesting actually, so I have been looking into how Tate uses their collection also into the Blockbuster model and all things like that to see what Tate is doing now and I guess asking questions about what Tate will look like in the future. That’s all fed through the director.
AB: And that director is the incredible Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern specifically. But am I right in thinking that you started your job right in the middle of lockdown? So you actually haven’t been in the office very much?
DM: Yeah exactly, so when I first applied for this job in January I think the job description was quite different to what it has ended up being because I started in April in the middle of lockdown as you said and so a lot of the research I guess has been informed by that, especially during the first lockdown which was this moment of pause and to think about what the future should look like. and I think it was quite a unique opportunity to make some big changes.
AB: I don’t know if that is an easy question to answer but what’s the thing in your job you have been enjoying the most and maybe something you don’t enjoy so much?
DM: So I think the thing I have been enjoying the most is probably some of the research I have been doing has been really interesting and pulling together different statistics about the collection l have really enjoyed and another one of my colleagues is a Collection and Displays Assistant and the same level as me and we’ve been working together quite a lot on pulling together those statistics and I have really enjoyed that.
I think I have just been really lucky because the admin side of my job is probably the thing that I like least, and a lot of junior roles in the arts are very admin focussed, so I felt like am really lucky this combines it with research, yep that is something I have been really happy to do.
AB: I would also be interested to hear what it is like to work in a massive institution. And for somebody who is thinking about going into the art world, what they might need to know in advance what it might mean to work in a big institution and the way in which your job might be different from working in that space?
DM: I did do a short internship in a commercial gallery, but it was very different. I think working for a big institution is very different because you are a very small fish in a very big pond. And so it’s amazing because Tate Modern for example is able to put on these amazing exhibitions and has this incredible collection that you are working indirectly with, in my case which is just really exciting but then you also have people who are really experts in what they do in all different fields.
Because it is publicly funded and it’s also a lot less reactive. Because it is so big, Tate Modern tends to plan exhibitions 3 or 4 years in advance. So before I worked at Tate Modern I worked briefly for the Migration Museum which is in Lewisham and it’s a really small team of about 10 people and I think that you are able to have a lot more influence on things and have a lot more responsibility because there are fewer of you and see what happens at all levels whereas at Tate you are kind of a very small fish in a very big pond. Sometimes it is difficult to know what is happening in different areas, especially when you are in a junior role.
AB: So now, I think it’s quite useful just to hear a little bit about how you ended up where you are. I know for example that you didn’t do History of Art for either A-Level or even for your undergrad so let our listeners know how you got to work in such an incredible institution like Tate.
DM: Yeah so I think I was always kind of interested in the arts, but I decided not to study history of Art, it wasn’t available as an A-Level at my school, and I think I didn’t really understand what it was even and in the end, I decided to study French and Italian at the University of Bristol and I did that because I read a prospectus and it sounded really interesting so that was great and it was really varied so it was still an arts subject so we did literature and history and film, all sorts of things, and then while I was doing my undergraduate degree the idea of working in the arts was sort of there, somewhere and I tried to get a little bit of experience so I volunteered for a small contemporary art gallery in Bristol called Spike Island.
Then I did a year abroad because I was studying languages so I worked for a commercial gallery in Paris for a short amount of time as well. Then I taught for 2 years at a University in Bordeaux. I had considered doing a MA in History of Art so I was just googling that and the curating one came up at the Courtauld when I was looking at History of Art at The Courtauld, and I just thought it sounded – it made so much sense to me. When I read what was involved I was like ok so it’s just like a more practical thing which just seemed something that would suit me better. And then I just applied and then I did it and it was amazing.
AB: And the rest is history!
DM: Yeah! *laughs*
AB: But you did do an intern... kind of curatorial placement at Tate Modern during your masters didn’t you?
DM: Yeah as part of the Masters all the different students got placed at a different London museum or gallery so I was lucky enough to get placed at Tate Modern and I worked on a couple of exhibitions. But you definitely don’t need that, but I think that inevitably by doing the MA curating and then doing that placement that did really help me to get my current job. It does seem that with the arts, it’s experience to get experience and I know that’s probably not the message you want to give.
AB: What would your advice be to a young person who is worried they don’t have that experience and how to get it?
DM: So, my advice would be, first of all just have a look at where ever you live, your local museum, art gallery, whatever thing is going on – arts organisation, because even if you live somewhere really small and boring there will probably still be something happening and just get in touch with whoever it is who organises that and see first of all if...if it’s a non-profit if it’s possible to volunteer – I know that’s not possible for everyone to do that – but also just see if they have any free day courses or projects that you can get involved with for young people, for example. But I think that these places really want to engage with younger people and so hopefully by showing your interest by contacting them they will either have already set something up which you didn’t know about which you can get involved with or maybe it will prompt them to think about that. Also just not to rule yourself of things.
AB: I think that’s really good advice, you fail at getting 100% of the jobs you don’t go for. *laughs*
DM: No it’s true though!
AB: And I think the final thing that we always want to ask everyone which is the title of this podcast is, do you need a PHD to do what you do?
DM: No. Definitely not. To be a curator you definitely don’t need a PHD. I’d say it definitely depends as well what you want to curate, so if you want to work at the National Gallery doing 17th century Dutch painting then maybe you need a PHD, but you don’t need a PHD for every job in the arts, and you definitely don’t need a PHD to go very far.
AB: Debbie, it has been as always, such a pleasure to chat to you, thank you, and to hear all about you know the incredible path you are on and we are excited to see where else you go in this strange art world that we are in. If people wanted to find out or follow what you are up to is there somewhere they can find you?
DM: You can follow me on Instagram, my handle is @debbiemeniru
AB: Thank you everybody for listening I hope that that was helpful and, as always, we will put a glossary of terms and any resources and links that have been mentioned in the episode on our Hang It website and don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @Hangitcollective and sign up to our newsletter for updates on all of the juicy content and fun new conversations with friendly people.
Debbie, thank you so much again.
DM: Thank you.
*End of transcript*