Jay Buchanan (2017, BA Politics & International Affairs, Theater)

WashU, MA/PhD in Art History in St. Louis, MO
Jay Buchanan ('17)

Tell us about your current graduate program. How would you describe it to someone who may be exploring graduate school options? What is your current area of focus/research?

I am in the doctoral program in Art History and Archaeology at Washington University. I focus on modern and contemporary art. I’m particularly interested in queer art as well as the relationship between art and infrastructural technologies. The graduate program combines all the things I love most about art and school, centering visual and sensory engagement with art and relying on historical, theoretical, and archival rigor. WashU is a big, research-focused institution with a lot of resources to support student research and professional development. I’m learning that Wake Forest is a uniquely relational place, where people are recruited because they have a capacity to relate to others and trained to enhance this capacity throughout their lives. At times WashU might feel impersonal to a Wake Forest graduate, though I’ve found my happy place in both institutional cultures. I completed the MA in Theater and Performance Studies at WashU before I began in Art History. I would characterize both of these WashU programs as hyper-inter-disciplinary and reading-intensive.

What personal, professional, and/or academic experiences did you have prior to graduate school? How did these contribute to your decision to attend graduate school/your specific program?

I studied Theater and Politics, and first fell in love with art and art history as a participant in the ‘art buying trip,’ the immersion in student-led acquisition planning that identifies accessions to the Mark H. Reece Collection of Student-Acquired Contemporary Art. Before grad school I worked at Wake for two years as Manager of stArt Gallery in Reynolda Village. This experience shaped me deeply, helping me bridge my education as a theater kid with my training as an art historian and curator. Working at stArt made me interested in the ways that objects as well as people might perform. The job also tuned my attention to the ongoing performances of artists, both as they consider aesthetic and political questions and as they negotiate the pragmatic concerns of getting their work made and experienced by people. As a Theater and Politics double-major I typecast myself in the first round of grad school applications, initially applying to a slew of performance studies graduate programs. The MA program in Theater and Performance Studies at WashU provided the best package as well as a pledge to support broad-ranging interdisciplinary research in the arts and cultural studies. I moved to St. Louis in 2019 to start the MA, and took courses in dramatic and performance theory but also in media studies, poetry, art history, and African American studies during the MA. I also continued to work in arts institutions between 2019 and 2021, working at the Saint Louis Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art before starting the MA/PhD in Art History at WashU, and I helped teach courses on major modernist movements as well as Kanye West in that program. I landed in Art History at WashU in 2021 after establishing powerful roots in St. Louis. It seems that art history and the broad remit of the “historian of the present” is really where I was headed all along…

What has been the most challenging aspect of life after graduation and what did you learn from it?

I’m still learning it! The most challenging thing for me has been learning to manage my finances as an emerging arts professional and graduate student who isn’t living on generational wealth. I’m learning to take things one day at a time and not to let better, perfect, or more be the enemies of what’s good.

Have you been mentored by anyone at Wake Forest or in your post-graduate life? If so, what impact has that relationship had on you?

I’ve had so many key relationships in my career to date, and many of them began at Wake Forest. One particularly important mentor for me is Paul Bright, Director of Art Galleries and Programming at Wake Forest and my supervisor when I served as Manager of stArt Gallery in Reynolda Village (2017-2019). Paul was generous with feedback but never heavy-handed, and I always felt he respected my intellect and my goals. Paul helped embolden my voice and eye as a curator. It’s not the easiest line of work to find one’s fitting in, I’ll be honest, so the fact that I’m still doing this work is in many ways a testament to all he taught me. Two big lessons that resound from our work together. 1. We must remember that while the work we platform may be very serious that our jobs, done right, should be fun. 2. Simple, clear principles lead to the highest-impact work.

What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are considering the same graduate program as you?

I think that WashU is a good fit for many Wake Forest graduates, and I’d encourage students in the arts and humanities but also in the sciences to consider WashU after finishing up their time in Winston-Salem. They’d be in good company! There’s a strong Wake Forest contingent in St. Louis. At least I certainly see a lot of bumper stickers…

What are your future career goals or plans? How are you being intentional about working towards them?

I aspire to a career in art museums, or other spaces where I can help artists realize ambitious projects and help memorialize and historicize the arts practices of today. To that end I’m doing my best in school, but I’m also taking every opportunity I can juggle to organize exhibitions, work with museum and gallery professionals, and write, speak, or teach about modern and contemporary art. Working with a curatorial collective of WashU researchers, I organized Moving Stories in the Making: An Exhibition of Migration Narratives, on view at St. Louis’s The Luminary in Spring 2024. I organized an independent study for Fall 2023 with the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, shadowing staff in Curatorial, Executive, Facilities, Finance, Human Resources, Marketing and Communications, Production, Publications, Public Programs, Registration, and Visitor Experience teams and reflecting on these encounters periodically with Executive Director Cara Starke. In 2022 I curated The Grid in Millennial Vision: Selections from the Anderson Collection for stArt’s 5&Under program, and co-curated Ambivalent Pleasures: Advertiser Content in American Art for the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum of Art. I’ve always been driven to the find next exciting experience to learn.

Story published in January 2024. For current updates on Jay’s career path, visit their LinkedIn profile.