On Having Supportive Parents

I’m on a self-imposed break this week, so here’s a post from the stash.

I’ve discussed my privilege on this blog before, and how being a white woman with a supportive family network has made career success easier for me to achieve. But that family support extends far beyond monetary resources or emotional stability. Today, I’d like to talk about how my parents take an active interest in my work, and how that interest has benefitted me.

My parents admiring a display of historic tools at Shelburne Museum, 2011. They’ve visited almost every museum I’ve ever worked at, often multiple times.

As far as I can remember, my parents have always been supportive of my interests. When I was a small child, my dad would bring home reams of discarded printing paper from the lumber company he worked at so that I always had drawing material available. When I started getting interested in playing the flute seriously, my parents paid for private lessons and drove me to my various concerts, recitals, and competitions until I got my driver’s license. When I went through an inexplicable Star Trek phase in middle school, they patiently listened to my ruminations on the series. Heck, they let me paint a giant mural depicting ocean life in one of our bathrooms because I thought that would be fun to do.

They’ve also supported my interest in art history. To be fair, a lot of this interest stems from the fact my family is full of makers. If you visit any of our homes, you’ll find they’re filled with paintings, prints, textiles, photographs, furniture, and other objects we’ve made for each other over the years. Yet outside of our immediate friends and family, we rarely collect art beyond posters and other reproductions. Before high school, moreover, I don’t remember visiting art museums with my family. Most of my museum excursions as a kid were school field trips rather than family outings, and we visited children’s museums, science centers, and aquariums rather than art museums.

And why would we? My parents are both college-educated but had majored in science rather than the humanities. My family appreciated creativity, but outside of school, museums and the so-called fine arts weren’t an especially significant part of our lives when I was younger. Growing up in Maine, we spent most of our family time at the beach exploring tide pools, and after moving to Arizona, we were more likely to take family trips to state parks than museums or galleries. I’m not writing this to complain, I loved going to the beach and we saw some really cool places in Arizona. I’m just providing context.

Detail of bathroom mural, ca. 2002-2003. My parents actually let me paint this with no supervision whatsoever.

That all started to change in high school, for two main reasons. First, my parents and I befriended a family that liked to go to museums regularly, so we started visiting them together more often. We’d go to the science center in Phoenix, of course, but we also started attending art exhibitions on a more regular basis. I think the first art exhibit I ever visited was a showing of Norman Rockwell paintings at the Phoenix Art Museum, when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. During our annual summer visits to see family in Maine, we continued the museum habit by exploring art institutions in the area. Some of these museums were places my parents had visited in their youth, others were new, but regardless, viewing art in museums was becoming a regular practice for me.

The second reason for my growing appreciation of art is that I took a class in art history during my junior year. I had signed up for it because I thought it would be a fun elective, but it ultimately changed the course of my life. I went from never having heard of art history to wanting to major in it. Indeed, it’s influenced every professional decision I’ve ever made.

And here’s why I want to talk about having supportive parents. They not only supported my decision to major in art history and helped me attain my professional ambitions by assisting with job relocations, they actively started learning from my example. During my time in college, they listened to what I had to say about my classes, and read my undergraduate thesis cover to cover. When I graduated from Williams, they not only drove out to listen to me speak at our student symposium, they stayed and listened to each and every presenter. They’ve continued reading my writing since then, from catalogue essays to peer-reviewed articles. They’ve also made a point of visiting every museum I’ve ever worked at, usually multiple times.

In February, a few weeks before the lockdowns went into effect, I took my parents to see the Edward Hopper show at the VMFA because I thought they would enjoy it. It’s one of my favorite recent, pre-pandemic memories.

Nor is their interest in art history limited to my work. Whenever they visit me, we’ll go to at least a couple of art museums in the area, regardless of whether I’ve ever worked at them. Pre-pandemic, they had also made visiting art museums on their own a regular habit, and have started venturing out to art exhibitions again during the last few months. Outside of museums, they’ve taken up reading books relating to art or art history, as well as watching shows or documentaries on it when they’re available. In short, they’ve made art part of their lives. To be fair, I didn’t initiate their art appreciation; it was already there. Yet my parents always remind me that my experience with art history amplified their curiosity about it, and encouraged them to learn more, both through me and on their own.

As a scholar, a curator, and an overall learner, I can’t tell you how much that means. It’s done so much for my confidence to see my parents take an active interest in what I’m doing and apply it to their own lives. For me, it demonstrates in a very immediate and genuine way that my work is important, and that it has an effect on the people around me. It’s a joy to know that I can discuss my interests with my family, and that we can share activities and interests like visiting museums or looking at art books together.

My parents visiting the Magical and Real installation at the Michener Museum of Art, 2018. It later traveled to the Roswell Museum.

That’s not the case for all graduate students. In conversations with my colleagues at William & Mary and other institutions, I’ve learned that in many instances parents are often indifferent to their children’s academic interests. For me, it’s been the opposite, and I’m deeply grateful for that.

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