Monday mornings, Aleksandra Bursac often starts her day with a coffee followed by a leisurely stroll through the empty galleries of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. For her, being alone with masterpieces is a powerful and moving encounter.
“It’s such a privilege to have that one-on-one experience, to be able to walk through the quiet galleries and really take my time looking at the works,” she says. “It’s such a nice way to start the morning. There’s nobody standing in front of you or taking a picture. You can stand in front of a painting for 20 minutes. Honestly, there's nothing like it.”
Bursac, PhD candidate with the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Art History, is halfway through a year-long internship with the world-renowned art museum and savoring the experience of being a part of a thriving arts community.
“I love being surrounded by other people who are as nerdy about art as I am,” she says. “And I love being so close to the objects.”
About 30 graduate internships are awarded each year to assist one of the Getty’s various departments — Bursac works in the paintings department. Her cohort of fellow interns are in various departments such as drawings, photography, sculpture and decorative arts, manuscripts, antiquities and others.
If you haven’t been, the Getty Museum is massive. It houses more than 125,000 artworks across dozens of collections. And it’s far more than just a museum. It’s a bustling hub for art research, conservation, scholarship and acquisition.
In addition to the museum, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and the Getty Research Institute (GRI) are also part of the J. Paul Getty Trust. The GCI focuses on conserving and preserving cultural heritage, including artworks, archaeological sites and historical structures. The GRI houses a massive library that’s considered one of the world’s best resources for art historians.
“It's not often that you get to work for a museum with the resources that Getty has,” says Bursac. “They're still buying on the market. I've never had the chance to work on an acquisition report before — in my experience, most museums are given things through gifts. But here, they focus less on that. If they want something — and the circumstances are right — they make a serious effort to buy it, and that’s unreal.”
So, what does Bursac’s workday look like after a quiet and contemplative Monday morning?
“It's not the glamorous life of a curator, it's a nine-to-five office job, but every day is a little different” she says. “Some mornings start with moving paintings in the galleries, depending on what is going out on loan or perhaps into conservation, and what the curator decides to put up in its stead.
“And then the day is often peppered with various meetings: either in ‘design’ where we talk about layouts for an upcoming exhibition or working on labels and didactic material with the interpretive content team. I also love to pop into the conservation department and see what they are up to. I do a lot of reading and research, and I’m also working on a scholarly essay for the Getty website.”
Bursac also loves learning from the steady stream of scholars and curators visiting from around the world.
It was incredible. You'll never see a painting like this unframed unless you're invited to study it. It was amazing, no light, no reflection. It’s just you and the work. It is a completely different experience of the object, and much more intimate.
“They're here using the GRI resources and writing and working on their projects,” she says. “Every week or so, a scholar presents their research.”
One scholar, working on the artist Edgar Degas, gave Bursac an especially memorable experience. Partnering with the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, the two museums hosted a two-day workshop on the French painter, who also happens to be the artist Bursac is studying for her dissertation.
Bursac was shoulder to shoulder with prominent scholars and curators with a passion for Degas’s work and she felt like she hit the art world jackpot. She even gave a presentation from her dissertation which examines Degas’s “intermediality” — a term describing the transpositions between, combinations of, and references to different media, such as sculptures, drawings and paintings that Degas used in his depictions of subjects like dancers, bathers and laundresses.
A highlight for Bursac was examining two paintings out of their frames, with nothing between her and the canvas.
“It was incredible,” she says. “You'll never see a painting like this unframed unless you're invited to study it. It was amazing, no light, no reflection. It’s just you and the work. It is a completely different experience of the object, and much more intimate.”
Just as amazing are the collaborative opportunities and camaraderie among the scholars, conservators and curators at the Getty. “There's a ton of teamwork across institutions,” she says. “Everybody's excited and passionate!”
And if all of this wasn’t enough, Bursac also feels quite at home in Southern California.
I’m only a third of the way into the internship but the things I’ve seen and the discussions I’ve had have been incredibly generative for my research and dissertation.
When she has time, she heads to the beach, her favourite being Topanga Beach near Malibu, for some sun and surf. She’s also waiting on spring to take surfing lessons.
“For now, I just enjoy just putting down my chair, reading my book and watching all the surfers on a sunny day,” she says. “It’s the wind, the way the light hits the waves. It's just magical and very therapeutic.”
Bursac will return to U of T this fall with not only a suntan, but new skills, a broader scholarly network and a wealth of experience she hopes to build on in her studies and future career.
“And definitely a renewed passion for Degas!” she says. “I’m only a third of the way into the internship but the things I’ve seen and the discussions I’ve had have been incredibly generative for my research and dissertation.”