Dina Ibrahim is Exhibitions Manager at the ‘world’s leading museum of art and design’, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). But she started out right here in Brisbane with a UQ Bachelor of Arts (Art History) followed by gallery assistant positions at the Queensland Art Gallery and IMA, and an Assistant Curator position at UQ Art Museum. Then Dina went global – she won a coveted curatorial intern position with the Guggenheim and found herself working on the Abu Dhabi Project, she was a Curator with ArteEast, Associate Director with The Third Line, Assistant Curator at Hayward Gallery and Exhibitions Project Manager at Royal Museums Greenwich before she assumed her current role with the V&A. So how does someone, who started out working in computer science, do a complete 360 to follow her passion with such resounding success? Dina has generously given us an insight into the key decisions that shaped her career and her advice for students thinking about their futures.
Q: You completed a Bachelor Science (Computer Science) at UQ before embarking on your Bachelor of Arts (Art History) – what prompted the change in direction and has your Science degree been beneficial to your arts career?
A: My passion always lay in art from high school. However, I followed my interest in logic, pragmatic thinking and Maths (as well as parental pressure to favour a more career-oriented field) and studied computer science, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Yet after graduating I found things on the job front quite unsatisfactory. For the three years I stayed in the field, I wasn’t at all passionate about the work. While I knew it was time for a change, it was a tough decision with financial implications. At age 24, I thought going back to uni was the end of life as I knew it. But of course it wasn’t! I decided to take a soft approach of “let’s give it a go”. I chose to work full time while studying full time to make ends meet and so as not to lose touch with the technical job market. It was definitely the best decision I ever made, because when your heart is in it, you excel and feel fulfilled, no matter what you’re doing. If you wake up in the morning dreading going to work, it’s time to make other plans!
Q: What are some of the key decisions you’ve made that have shaped your career?
A: Certainly choosing to follow my passion of a career in the arts has been seminal. However, I think a real turning point for me was my very first Art History course Looking at Art with Sally Butler. I remember getting my first A and thinking “I love this. I can do this”.
I knew I wanted a job in the ‘arts’, but at that point had no idea what kind of job. So I started talking to literally everyone to find out what the options were. I volunteered at the IMA in Brisbane and got involved with the UQ Art Museum in a variety of formats. From there, I got a summer job at GOMA working at the Children’s Art Centre. All of those experiences combined gave me a great overview of the different departments and what they do. In my last semester of Art History, I applied for a curatorial internship at the Guggenheim in New York and was accepted, which is a career highlight in itself, but it also helped me secure my first job as Exhibitions Coordinator at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai in 2011.
I had wanted to be a curator, but following that role, which was a combination of curatorial and practical, I found myself more drawn to exhibition work. I spent four years managing exhibitions across three spaces as well as all the galleries’ international art fair representation, learning as much as I could about logistical and registrar aspects of exhibitions and working directly with artists. When I moved to London in 2014, I started looking for opportunities that required someone with experience in exhibition management, a creative background and direct experience working with artists – this narrowed the scope to contemporary art spaces. I applied for an assistant curator role at Hayward Gallery and was accepted. Again, my Dubai experience was quite valuable as the exhibition I would work on, Carsten Höller: Decision, was ambitious in terms of scope, scale and budget and required a strong practical background, and the ability to work very closely with the artist. It required someone with acute awareness of artistic and creative briefs, and an understanding of how to practically realise the artist’s vision, while also keeping control over financial and logistical limitations. It’s a tricky balance and requires diplomacy and first-class stakeholder management. Moving on from the Hayward to my next role was a matter of strategic career placement. I knew I wanted to specialise in exhibitions management, so I targeted roles with that job title. I secured a role at the National Maritime Museum and delivered two new permanent galleries as part of a multi-million dollar capital project. This experience propelled me to my current role at the V&A, an institution with an international reputation for exhibition management.
In short, there is not a single key decision that everything rides on when it comes to your career, but rather a ladder, where every step is a key decision for your next opportunity – a far less daunting and flexible approach. You can steer your career and take steps in any direction at any time, as long as you have a vision. It’s also okay to amend the vision, as is evident in my case, just not too often!
Q: Tell us about the work you do as Exhibition Manager at the Victoria and Albert Museum – what does a regular day look like? And how does your experience in previous roles support the work you do now?
A: An exhibitions manager’s role is a multi-faceted one. You manage budgets, project teams, external contractors, stakeholders, schedules and designers, reporting to senior management, and act as the main point of contact for the project. Ultimately, you must deliver exhibitions and projects on time, budget and scope to the highest museum standards, all while working closely with artists and curators to ensure the artistic creative vision is communicated and the visitor experience is positive – that is at the heart of all you do. It’s a delicate balance and requires acute diplomatic and project management, as well as creative problem-solving skills.
A typical day will be divided into meetings with various departments and project team members to monitor progress and discuss deliverables, and carrying out exhibition management duties such as organising artwork transport, indemnity and insurance, conservation and photography, liaising with touring venues, loan negotiation, design liaison, display preparation, updating budgets, risk registers and critical paths. The exhibitions department is at the heart of the museum and we work with everyone from interpretation, technical services, to security and health and safety to bring it all together – so working as part of a team is paramount. I believe my experience working in a curatorial capacity at the start of my career gave me the awareness to understand and interpret curatorial narrative, paired with my project management experience, which enables me to translate abstract ideas into tangible deliverables. I also value my science background, which contributes greatly to my analytical approach to problem solving.
Q: What do you love most about your job/your field?
A: The scale, ambition and variety of projects I get to work on are definitely a highlight of my role as Exhibitions Manager. Whether it’s managing exhibitions of priceless Botticelli paintings or staging immersive multi-media blockbusters like Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, each day brings a new challenge and your problem-solving skills are really sharpened. Knowing the educational, inspirational and cultural impact of putting on a successful exhibition, diversifying audience outreach and receiving positive visitor feedback, is definitely what I love most about working in the museum sector, despite its challenges.
Q: What advice would you give students who have their sights set on an international career in the arts?
A: Build a strong CV. Spend some time during your studies exposing yourself to all the different roles in your field and find out what you’re interested in. You can do this by talking to lecturers or professionals in the field. Once you’ve narrowed it down, try and secure some internships or work experiences. It’s hard working for free, but I would highly recommend securing relevant roles for some days a week and complementing this with another role to pay the bills. I found this to be more fruitful than any ‘foot-in-the-door’ type of job option. If you know what your dream job is, find someone doing that job, find out how they got there and what it takes, and follow a clear progression path.
By the time you graduate, consider practical experience vs. post-graduate studies. Internationally, work experience is greatly valued in exhibitions roles, though if your interest lies in curatorial, for example, subject specialisation is a must. Find a way to set yourself apart from the crowd and nurture that side. For example, my first internship at the Guggenheim, I applied for the Middle Eastern department, using my ability to speak Arabic as an edge, which paid off.
Take yourself and your skills seriously. If you have a masters and work experience, DO NOT work for free and DO NOT take on gallery assistant roles. Place value in your own work because you are valuable.
In short, spend some time locally to build a solid skill and experience base that allows you to compete on an international scale, which can be very competitive – so be prepared. Once prepared, don’t ever be discouraged to go for big opportunities because you absolutely can. I would also say be savvy and hustle!
UQ resources are great, and there is always a lot of help and support with CVs, job applications, etc. Use them.
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