Alumni Voices: Dr. Frank Goodyear, Associate Curator of Photography of the National Portrait Gallery

Here, we offer some insights from Dr. Frank Goodyearcurrently the Associate Curator of Photographs for the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery. He graduated from UT with a Ph.D. in American Studies in 1998, focusing on 19th and 20th century photography. His books include Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924 (2009), Red Cloud: Photographs of a Lakota Chief (2003), and Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer (2008).

How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

I am a photography curator at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.  I enjoy my job because it gives me an opportunity to meet and work with people from many, many different backgrounds.  To give you an example, one day not long ago, I started my day giving a special museum tour to a group of D.C. kindergartners.  Thirty minutes is all that they were good for, but we had a great time looking at a large, colorful painting of LL Cool J.  One kid thought he looked like a king, which is a pretty fair assessment.  That get-together was then followed by an afternoon meeting with two researchers from Harvard who are working on a new book about Frederick Douglass’s public image.  It was interesting to share with them the different likenesses of Douglass in the museum’s collection and to discuss the role that images played within the abolitionist movement.

In my job I get to work with artists, conservators, collectors, dealers, other curators and scholars, and groups that range in age from five to eighty-five.  What was most valuable about my experience at UT was the time to read widely across the field of American cultural history.  Conversations with both the faculty and my fellow grad students were invaluable in gaining expertise in my area of concentration (American photography and visual culture), but reading and thinking so widely also prepared me to work with the great number of people I encounter as a Smithsonian curator.  At UT, I learned to look closely and to ask good questions, and that knowledge serves me well every day.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

This advice might sound quite shallow; however, my recommendation is to regularly attend get-togethers with colleagues and guest scholars.  Go to as many guest lectures, art openings, symposiums, and after-seminar happy hours as possible.  Go to the parties and other social functions.  I realize that everyone’s time is limited, but it’s vital to participate in the larger scholarly dialogue that goes on beyond the seminar room.  When possible, try to attend academic meetings, submit an abstract to a scholarly panel, and pursue a publishing opportunity.  Graduate students should be as pro-active as possible in getting out, finding their voice, and making a name for themselves and their research interests.  And there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun too.

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