Joelle Seligson is an associate editor at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art, America’s Asian and Middle Eastern Museums in Washington, DC. She writes for Museums magazine and plays a big part in the museum’s digital transition. She has worked in Washington and New York, and has much to share with Pace’s aspiring publishers. Read on to learn about art-world publishing, working within the government, and how she achieved her goals.
Jenna: What are the responsibilities of your job?
Joelle: I am associate editor for the Freer and Sackler Galleries. I edit anything that goes up on the museums’ walls, on our website, and in our catalogues and ephemera.
Jenna: Please describe your path to becoming an editor at the Freer and Sackler. Where did you study and your jobs or internships along the way?
Joelle: I studied journalism and art history at the University of Florida. That led me to a position as publicist at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. From there I moved to associate editor at the American Association (now Alliance) of Museums. Then I had a brief stint as news editor at ARTnews magazine in New York. Shortly after I lost my job in ARTnews’ second round of layoffs in 2009, I ran into a former colleague-of-a-colleague at AAM who had moved to head the Publications Department at Freer|Sackler. She needed an editor; I needed a job. Within a few months—miraculously fast for a federal government job—she created my position and brought me on board. I’ve been with F|S since January 2010.
Jenna: Can you describe the workflow of the way your office works?
Joelle: I am in the Publications Department, which is part of the greater Design, Publications, and Web Department. As with any museum, curators are responsible for generating the majority of content. A good deal of text comes from our Education, Public Affairs, and Development departments as well. In general, staff of these departments come to us with a project—exhibition labels, a brochure for an upcoming film series, an activity guide for a children’s program, etc. They submit an editing and design request. I then work with the content provider to edit the text and with a designer (web or print) to lay it out.
Jenna: How did you know you wanted to work in publishing?
I didn’t, actually! I knew I wanted to write, and I knew I was interested in art history. My first love was journalism; I still do quite a bit of reporting as freelance work. I enjoy editing, though, and seeing a book in print after months of work gives me a different level of satisfaction than seeing a blog post go up a few hours after sketching it out.
Jenna: As you know, Pace students are mainly studying in New York. Can you tell us how you made it work in the city and about your time here?
Joelle: Whenever I tell people I was unemployed in New York they look at me like I’ve survived a drone attack. In fact, I had the best year of my life. My family is from Brooklyn and now lives in Brooklyn and Queens; I also have good friends in the city. So, when I got laid off, I had a solid support system in place. I soon found a job nannying two fabulous girls for a fabulous family on the Upper West. I had a studio on 89th and 3rd, cash in hand, and a fairly free schedule, so another somewhat-unemployed friend and I maxed out on all the city had to offer. We called ourselves Ladies of Leisure and took off on a new NYC adventure at least once a week. We enrolled in trapeze class, ate at Shopsin’s, bowled at Chelsea Piers, fished (unsuccessfully) in the Hudson, hung out on the “beach” in Long Island City, and visited the then-new Highline, to name just a few of our outings. I was also training for a marathon, so I spent hours running through Central Park and did a 20-mile loop around the perimeter of Manhattan. It was a blast.
Jenna: What project are you most proud of and why?
Joelle: Besides completing said marathon… I’ve really enjoyed some of the long-form pieces I’ve written for Museum magazine. Writing stresses me out much more than editing does, but there’s a huge sense of accomplishment once I’m done with a piece I’ve created from scratch.
Jenna: How does your current job compare to other publishing jobs you’ve had? Can you ruminate on how differences in size of an organization, genre of publishing, and government vs. private can affect goals, expectations, and workflow?
Joelle: I haven’t done much else in publishing, per se. I can tell you that working at the Smithsonian is a much different experience than working at a private museum. Bureaucracy gives structure, which I like, and lots of hindrances and hold-ups, which I don’t. Still, I prefer the systematic approach that a bigger organization provides to the more chaotic and freewheeling system that some smaller institutions have in place. And, though our budget is still very limited as of late, there is more of an opportunity to take on Big Things at the Smithsonian than there is at small nonprofits.
Jenna: What do you consider some of the major differences between being an editor in the art world vs. working in a more commercial industry?
Joelle: What I most appreciate about my job is that I’m constantly learning. Having to translate academic content on art to text the layman can understand and enjoy means that I have to deeply understand what I’m reading. It’s like taking a college course. Of course, you could find this in a commercial industry, but it’s virtually guaranteed when you work in the museum field.
Jenna: How is your museum integrating new technologies into your scope of work?
Joelle: We launched our first blog in February. We’re also now in the process of creating our first app, tracing the development of our Korean art collection. At the same time, we’re putting together a guidebook on the Korean collection. It’s been interesting to experiment with how we modify the same text for use in an app versus an instructive printed book.
Jenna: Do you have any words of wisdom for our aspiring publishers?
Joelle: Make sure you’re interested in the subject matter. You’re going to have to immerse yourself in the content, so don’t take a job just because it’s in your field. If you have no interest in cars, don’t accept a position publishing the Blue Book. Hold out until you find something you’ll want to read and learn about every day.
Interview by Jenna Vaccaro
Jenna Vaccaro is the Graduate Assistant in Pace’s Publishing Department and a former publications’ assistant at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. She graduated from American University in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in Law and Society. She loves news media and pop-culture, and would love to find herself working with those topics in any form.