5 Questions with a Curator: Eileen Owens, Philadelphia Museum of Art

We were so thrilled to be able to chat with Eileen Owens, currently a Research and Exhibitions Assistant in the European Paintings Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She curated the exhibition ‘Biting Wit and Brazen Folly: British Satirical Prints, 1780s–1830s', which opened at the museum earlier this year. The show will be on view for a few more weeks, until December 5th, so we highly recommend that you go and check it out!

Connoisseurs, 1799, by Thomas Rowlandson. Hand-colored etching. Given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Carl Zigrosser, 1974.

Connoisseurs, 1799, by Thomas Rowlandson. Hand-colored etching. Given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Carl Zigrosser, 1974.

Installation view. Photo credit: Joseph Hu.

Installation view. Photo credit: Joseph Hu.

Talk about your background in art and art history. Was it something that you were always interested in growing up?

Yes and no. I grew up in the southeast of Ireland, in a medieval city that was steeped in history. I would visit Kilkenny Castle often (my sister and I could probably still recite the tour now, decades later!) and loved learning about the city’s history. So, I had an appreciation for art in a very broad sense, but I didn’t visit my first art museum until I was a 17. When I moved to New York State, my high school offered an art history class, and I was immediately intrigued--I could actually learn about all these paintings I only vaguely knew about from TV or magazines. Taking that class, and having opportunities to visit the Met and MoMA on field trips, truly unlocked something in me. It was as if I was suddenly in on this secret new world--one I felt profoundly connected to.   

Even with this passion though, the understanding that I could have a career working in an art museum came to me fairly late. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Rome my junior year of college that I committed to adding Art History to my major. The cliché of falling in love with art in Rome is true for me. I challenge anyone to live there for three months and not contemplate how important, enlightening, and continuously relevant art is in our shared history. Not to mention the sheer thrill of seeing so much beauty in one place! It was impossible to ignore.

You went on to study at Temple University for your MA in Art History. What was your focus and what did you enjoy about the program?

I studied nineteenth-century French art, with a focus on prints and print culture. I felt really supported by the faculty at Temple. The size of the program made it easy to develop solid mentor relationships with professors and some great friendships with fellow students as well. Being in an art history program that is part a renowned fine arts school—where people are creating and exchanging ideas in real time—was really appealing to me too.

Temple’s connection to Philadelphia and its arts and culture scene was also a huge influence, not only for access to exhibitions and arts institutions, but for internships and post-grad job applications, too. Being able to capitalize on that network really helped me get my foot in the door.

Tell us about how you ended up at the PMA! That must have been an exciting transition out of grad school.

It definitely was! I was very fortunate to have gotten a fellowship right out of school and to still be working at such a valuable institution now. I was selected as the Suzanne Andre Curatorial Fellow in Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, which is a two-year fellowship that I began in 2016. In grad school, I developed a love of works on paper—how they were made, how they functioned in society, who collected them—and this was my first museum position where I got to interact directly with these objects on a daily basis. Running the department’s busy study room, preparing for acquisition meetings, completing condition reports, taking courier trips—it was all vital training in the daily tasks of a curator.  

Monster Soup Commonly Called Thames Water, Being a Correct Representation of that Precious Stuff Doled out to Us, William Heath, 1794%2F95 - 1840 Gift of Mrs. William H. Horstmann, 1955.

Monster Soup Commonly Called Thames Water, Being a Correct Representation of that Precious Stuff Doled out to Us, William Heath, 1794%2F95 - 1840 Gift of Mrs. William H. Horstmann, 1955.

As part of your two-year fellowship you had the opportunity to curate an exhibition. How far in advance did you begin planning for it, what was the process like and what did it entail?

All in all, from concept to opening day, the show was in planning for the better part of a year and a half. I started throwing around potential exhibition ideas pretty much as soon as my fellowship began. I had a standing interest in caricature, having researched French satire for my masters’ thesis.  The museum’s holding of caricature, specifically British caricature, is so rich it just made sense to showcase these fantastically funny and perpetually relevant images.

I spent a long time looking through the more than 300 British caricatures in the museum’s collection. Early on, I made the choice to focus specifically on social satire, intentionally leaving out political works that might be less relevant (or understandable) to a modern audience today. What was so revealing, and actually pretty heartwarming, was how similar our collective sense of humor is now and then. What Londoners in the 1800s found funny and what we laugh about today really hasn’t changed that much. There are so many relatable threads running through the comedy of these centuries’ old prints—from anxieties about new technologies and environmental issues to the struggle to keep up with the latest fashion.

The Gout, James Gillray, c. 1745 - 1818. Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949.

The Gout, James Gillray, c. 1745 - 1818. Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949.

The show has been up for several months and has been extended until December, congratulations! What are you working on now or what's next?

Thank you! It has been so fun to share the exhibition with visitors. I love sneaking in the galleries and watching people, young and old, giggling at the prints!

I was fortunate enough to stay on at the PMA once my fellowship ended. Currently, I am a research and exhibition assistant in European Painting, working with curator Jenny Thompson on an upcoming Impressionist exhibition that will open in April 2019. In addition to the exhibition, we are planning a reinstallation of the PMA’s nineteenth-century permanent collection galleries too. Both are exciting projects that I’ve really enjoyed digging into!

*Photo credit for all exhibition installation images: Joseph Hu.