Erin McDonald was an international student studying remotely from abroad in Canada. Now she's the manager, of Art Collections for the Government of Alberta and Alberta Foundation for the Arts.
Interview with Erin McDonald
Can you tell us about your time at Deakin? Is there anything you especially remember?
As an international student studying remotely from abroad in Canada, I was unsure how connected I would feel to Deakin during my studies. I was impressed by the program, the access to the instructors, and the genuine understanding of the fact that I was working full-time half way around the world as I was completing my Degree. I remember fondly the feedback and support I received from my instructors, especially Dr Linda Young. The program was both rigorous and flexible – exactly what I needed.
What has been your journey since finishing your course? Briefly outline your career path prior to your current role.
I was already working full time in the sector when I began my Master’s degree with Deakin. I funded much of my degree through grants from the Alberta Museums Association and some support from my then-employer, TELUS World of Science – Calgary (now TELUS Spark). Following my degree, I was able to secure a position as Collections Management Advisor at the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services. In that role I was able to work with 29 academic collections, which included materials of all types: herbarium sheets, zoological specimens, works of art, classical-era artefacts, archaeology, musical instruments, and more.
Since 2014 I have been the Manager, Art Collections for the Government of Alberta and Alberta Foundation for the Arts. I provide strategic and operational leadership for the development, documentation, care, and access to all Government of Alberta art collections in alignment with the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA) Act, and the ministry’s business plan. The scope of the position includes oversight of the management of multiple acquisition, placement, loan, and exhibition programs; works with multiple external stakeholders to advance collection priorities; and, ensures the continued Category ‘A’ Designation by the Department of Canadian Heritage. The Director maintains the currency of the Collection Development Plan, to guide the exhibition and curation of the collections, and the annual Collection Management Plan, to guide collection management and preservation.
What has been the biggest influence on your career?
The biggest influence has been continuous education. Whether it has been informal learning and finding mentors, to my academic studies, each program I have completed has given me insight into myself, my skills, and how I work. Participating in not only courses that are directly related to my field, but also participating in leadership development programs – Getty Leadership Institute – Next Generation (2006), for example – changed my approach to that of a strategic, servant leader, in addition to being a content expert in my field of professional collections management.
Have you always wanted to pursue the kind of career you have embarked on? If so, when and how did you realise?
I was in the early part of my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto when I realised I did not want to continue to pursue a law degree – my originally intended path. At that point I realized I needed to find another plan, and recognized that I often spent my free time at the Royal Ontario Museum – they offered free access for students at certain times. I remember sitting in an exhibit and setting an intention that, one day, I would work in a museum. I was not sure how to get to that goal, but I knew that it was a field I could find rewarding. At that point, I identified a number of potential paths to securing a career and embarked on the next steps in my studies.
What advice would you give graduates wanting to pursue a similar profession?
Be willing to take risks and not focus so much on a title or specific job, but be open to the opportunities the sector presents. Participate in conferences, attend lectures at museums, galleries and universities, join the professional association, and volunteer in the field. The job opportunities will follow.
What do you believe Deakin University has shown you/given you as a person?
Deakin gave me the professional credentials I needed to succeed in my sector at a leadership level. The knowledge I gained through my studies supported my previous learning and work experience, and allowed me to expand my knowledge and apply the principles taught to my real-world profession. The way that I undertook my degree also taught me how to balance work, education, and a personal life. It wasn’t easy, but if I managed to complete my Master’s I’m certain that anyone willing to put the time and effort into it can achieve their goals.
What are your passions outside your work?
I am a big supporter of animal rescue. I have opened my home many times to foster animals who need care, love and rehabilitation. Many of the animals I have cared for have health or behaviour issues, or they are seniors. As humans, we have invited these animals into our lives and it is our responsibility to ensure they are cared for and treated with love and understanding.
How would someone describe you?
Hard-working, sincere, and dedicated to the things I value.
Is there any advice you would give to a person who is starting out in your career?
The path you take may be one that is winding – and the journey is as important (if not more) than the destination. Many people imagine a specific title when they think of a career, such as Curator, but those roles are few and far between. My advice is to set your sights on the sector, and take an inventory of your unique skill set and strengths. Then find organizations that need support in the areas you are strong in as a volunteer, through contracts, or part-time work if no permanent full time positions are available. Join the membership organization and put your name forward for committees, working groups, juries, or the Board. Be involved, and show that you are committed to the sector and not just yourself. Make yourself invaluable and the opportunities will follow.
What’s your favourite website?
I am a big fan of Coursera.org. I believe in life-long learning, but we can’t always pursue a professional designation or degree. I like the variety of courses available, the flexible program, and the fact that you can audit most of the courses for free. It serves as a great amuse-bouche on topics you may have a passing interest in and want to know more about.
What’s your least favourite word?
My least favourite word is ‘can’t’ or ‘cannot’. When I speak to people who feel stuck or unmotivated, this is often a word that they use frequently. However, in most cases the actual world should be ‘won’t’. Most people are held back by fear of taking a first step. For me, it’s important to keep moving and always remember that there is another way. It’s about thinking creatively, constantly applying yourself, and not giving up.
What is something that amazes you?
The vastness of the universe. During my undergrad I took an astronomy course for my science credit and I was amazed at the sheer unknown out there beyond us. I’m fascinated by the concept of quasars, dark matter, and the theory of the origin of the universe.
Is there anything else you’d like to add we haven’t covered?
My career path and dedication to my profession has been a 15 year journey that I don’t expect will ever end.