Majors On Site: Katrina Arutunyan at The Met

My name is Julie Hamon (#FordhamArtHistory Fall 2018 Media Intern), and the following is the the first in a series of on-site interviews with Fordham Art History majors: a series about art, NYC, and the Fordham Art History experience. We start with my fellow Lincoln Center senior and good friend Katrina Arutunyan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Julie Hamon: We’re at the Met with Katrina. Katrina, thank you for being here today. Can you start us off with a little introduction?

Katrina Arutunyan: I came to college as an Art History and Pre-Med double major. I really thought that I would be able to balance both, but I ended up dropping Pre-Med. First, because I definitely couldn’t balance both, and second, because I realized it wasn’t what I was passionate about. I wanted to devote more time and most of my life to art history. And so, with that I got started with an unpaid internship at a gallery, which got my foot in the door, and after that I was lucky enough to intern for the Islamic Art department here at The Met. I had already been interested in Islamic Art in high school, and in sacred geometry. Working for the Islamic Art department at the Met further solidified my interest. A lot of my research since then has focused on Islamic Art, although I’m not pigeonholing myself. I might change my mind later and I’m perfectly okay with that.

JH: Could you take us to your favorite piece at The Met?

KA: I’ve brought you to the Goa Stone and Gold Case in Gallery 463. It’s in a display case full of really luxurious things and the Goa Stone is definitely my favorite. If you’re in Senior Seminar and you watched Samyu’s [Samyukthaa Saiprakash, FCRH 2019] presentation you know what it is. Other than that though, I will give my brief summary. Basically, there were things called bezoars, which were made of conglomerations of hair and other organic matter found in the guts of various animals, and historically they were used for medicinal purposes. After that—they were so rare yet so popular—Jesuit priests in Goa, India started to make man-made versions of the stones, which had a combination of the organic material of hair and entrails but also a lot of precious metals and minerals, and they eventually sold those off to Europe.

The Goa Stone and Gold Case, Late 17th-early 18th Century

JH: I wanted to ask you, why this piece? Why is this your favorite, or one of your favorites?

KA: I think that this piece really represents everything I like about art, and everything that I enjoy about the field of art history. It’s so me; it’s an intersection of Islamic Art, or just art history in general, and medicine, which are the two things I’ve been focused on for my entire life. It’s really interesting to learn about what different cultures have historically considered to be healing, and how they’ve used healing objects; including such specific elements such as how they actually believed that the gold case made the medicinal aspects stronger. It’s really cool how art and medicine are inseparable from each other in this one piece, and that’s something you can look at in medical manuscripts too. However, this is actually the art and medicine happening at the same time.

JH: A physical object embodying those two things. I think that’s part of the beauty of being passionate about art and studying art history, especially in a place like The Met and NYC. Since art history is so broad, there’s probably something you can find that does embody your various interests. I have experienced that, you have experienced that, I’m sure a lot of other people can relate to that too.

KA: Yes, and it’s also just so ornate, so fun to look at: the filigree on it, the tiny little carvings. No matter how long you’ve already looked at it, you’re always going to find something else. There are animals and little plants hidden all around it. Rosettes, and symbols of different dynasties…like an entire book of history in this tiny little object. Something that has always fascinated me about Islamic Art is the attention to detail and patterning and the intricacy of carving.

JH: That’s very true. Now that we have discussed your favorite piece, I would like to shift the conversation a bit. I hope for our readers to be able to gain a better sense of the kinds of things we do as art history majors. Tell me what your experience has been as an Art History major at Fordham. Can you speak more to your experience in New York City?

Katrina: Definitely. When I was applying to colleges, there was absolutely zero question that I wanted to be in New York, specifically because I couldn’t leave The Met. I grew up on Long Island, so I was coming here for most of my weekends, and I just couldn’t imagine not having this physical encyclopedia of art history in front of me at all times. But Fordham specifically has been really great for two reasons. First, the fact that we have the Core Curriculum, which some people love to complain about because it is really difficult to fit it into your schedule.

JH: Do you see it as a positive thing?

KA: Oh definitely! I took a class called Medicine and Healing in Islam. It was my EP3 [Eloquentia Perfecta 3], and it’s a theology class, and I would have never taken a theology class so enthusiastically if I didn’t take Faith and Critical Reason first. It opens a lot of doors into different angles of thinking; it makes you able to not only fill the holes in your own argument, but it gives you such a wider, more meaningful understanding of any field that you’re studying. The Core Curriculum is really great. The second thing is that I’ve only had female art history professors, except for one. Which is really encouraging in a field that is historically male…

JH: Male-dominated.

KA: Yes, and it’s not just that they’re women, they’re extremely strong and successful women, which is such a great image to have in a field that is not medicine, that is not business, where there is no guarantee of a huge, solid salary for the rest of your life. It’s really great to have role models like that. They’re also really open to talking with you and giving the best and most honest advice. I actually just thought of a third thing.

JH: Go for it.

KA: This is not Fordham-specific, but it’s Fordham people-specific…

JH: Yes, which is I think is huge to our experience.

KA: You and I talk about this so often, and our Senior Seminar class talks about it a lot amongst ourselves. I don’t know if it’s just because we’re seniors and graduation anxiety is looming, or if it’s because we’re in a huge city with bigger schools like Columbia and NYU around us…but we’re all really insecure. The best thing that has come out of being an art history major at Fordham is that with a small community, and especially with Senior Seminar with every single major together, this is the semester when everyone starts to talk to each other about their insecurities. I think Senior Seminar is a wonderful class and it’s really important and foundational for our careers, but it’s also very stressful, and it’s a culmination of our entire academic career so far, which is a mind-boggling concept. That puts a lot of pressure on people, as does the thought of finding a job or going to grad school. I think everyone thinks that everyone else is so much smarter that they don’t want to open up and share their insecurities out of fear of looking stupid. So we’ve all been going around pretending we know exactly what we’re doing out of this fear of looking worse than our peers, when really, everyone feels a bit lost. The one thing that I have learned is that everybody thinks they aren’t smart enough. The truth is we’re all really smart,

just insecure. It’s great being able to share that with your peers. It is important for sanity! Also, because I’ve allowed myself to confide in my peers, I’ve made more art history friends this semester than I have in my entire time at college.

JH: Me too.

KA: Which I love, because now I really genuinely feel like I have a network of peers.

JH: I agree! What advice do you have for someone considering art history as a major or a prospective Fordham student, and what have been the benefits and positives of your experience?

KA: If you’re a prospective student, and are considering coming to New York, of course do it if you can afford it. New York City is the one city in America that you need to go to if you’re studying art history, because every other city you go to has one or two big museums but New York has more: there are so many galleries, private collections, theaters…this is the place to be. If you’re going to look at schools in the city, I can tell you I applied to NYU and Columbia but chose Fordham because it’s small. Having smaller classes means your professors really know you and are able to devote more attention to individual students, to the point that you’ll do better in the classes. There’s definitely such a real sense of community at Fordham, especially Lincoln Center, whether it’s everyone bonding over what they’re complaining about or what they’re happy about, but there’s definitely a sense of community.

JH: Yes, I agree with that.

KA: For current students, my main piece of advice is, which I got from Professor Ruvoldt: you cannot be an art history major at Fordham and only take your classes on one campus.

JH: Yes, be aware of that early on. It’s just something you have to figure out in your schedule, and it’s not bad!

KA: No it’s not bad at all! I regret not looking into that earlier. I didn’t take an art history class at Rose Hill until Junior Year…there are so many more classes than you can imagine.

JH: And people too, such as Rose Hill art history majors that you maybe would have never met that end up being your friends.

KA: My other piece of advice is if you’re seriously considering this as not just a major but as a career, get your foot in the door as early as you can, and be relentless. Especially if you’re a woman; I think we actually learned recently that women will wait until they’re 100% qualified to apply for a job where men will wait until they’re 60% qualified. You’ve got to get over that fear, no matter what your gender identity is. Get over that fear, try to get your foot in the door. Go for it. You’d be surprised at who will take you and the things that you’ll learn, and even if you change your mind about what you want to do in a job, you’ll learn things. I applied to nine jobs, and I got the one job that I have now that I love so much. That’s just how it happens. It’s not necessarily that much harder to find a job in the humanities, we just might need bigger application numbers than everyone else does.

Katrina under the Spanish Ceiling, 16th Century

JH: How is your current job going, and what are your hopes for next semester?

KA: My first job was as an unpaid internship in a gallery on the Lower East Side. I will say, it is unfortunately standard, and you should get comfortable with the idea of at least your first job being unpaid. The one good thing is that you learn a lot. You’d be surprised how much responsibility you get to have. You gain all of the skills that you need, so then after that I was able to get an internship at The Met, which unfortunately was also unpaid. However, it was made up for in other ways: The Met recognizes the shortcomings of the fact that it’s unpaid and they definitely make up for it by helping you set up a future. They’re very open with you being able to meet with literally anyone in the museum. You could meet with the director if you wanted to while you’re an intern here. They really make it a network for you. And even after: I’m still in contact with my supervisor from when I was an intern. She still helps me with my research, and she connects me with other people too so it’s really great. My job now is entirely different: I work for a company that deals antique European furniture and some African furniture. I’ve learned a lot from that as well. It’s my first paid job in the field. I love my boss and I’m very inspired by her because she’s a fierce genius. I’ve gained a lot of experience in talking to other people and other companies and just feeling comfortable as an established person in this field. I would say that’s the greatest thing that I’m getting from it.

JH: I know that your internships were very different from what you’re doing now, which reminds me of how it is really helpful to experience internships or jobs in different branches within art.

KA: For sure, when you’re this early on, you have no idea what you want to do for the rest of your life.

JH:  My first official internship was in the archival department of a museum, and now I’m doing media for the Fordham Art History department. With every experience you better understand your path, and it’s a good thing. Thank you for your time Katrina, is there anything else you would like to tell us?

KA: I would reiterate my advice from before to be bold and don’t be scared of getting your foot in the door with jobs, and don’t be scared of talking to the other art history majors. I wish I did it three years ago. I probably would have felt a lot better about myself and turned out better work, seriously. You have no idea how comforting it’s going to be and the kinds of deep connections you’ll make with people. How much better of a connection can it be than with someone who understands, truly understands, why you’re doing what you’re doing?

JH: Right, because they’re coming from the same place.

KA: As a final word: make friends in the art history department, and just be honest with yourself and with other people. Be unapologetically bold and you’re bound to get somewhere.