Then and now: Emily Isakson ’19

How has Emily Isakson’s life changed since she graduated from Mount Holyoke in 2019? She’s been centered on building a career focused on her love of the arts.

Emily Isakson has loved history and the arts since high school, which is when she volunteered at the Worcester Historical Museum. That opportunity led her to Mount Holyoke, where she majored in ancient studies with a focus in art history and archaeology and got the opportunity to work in the Archives and Special Collections department. It was there that she began to see how she could turn her passions into a career.

“I’d never considered the arts as a viable career opportunity because I knew I didn’t want to teach and didn’t have the skills to be a full-time artist,” she recalled. “But when someone from Archives and Special Collections recognized my name from the work I’d done in Worcester, it opened up a whole new world for me.”

One class in particular during her senior year showed her what a career with an art degree could look like and gave her the confidence to build connections in the field, which set her up for success. “Mount Holyoke’s art history and classics program was so wonderful and filled with a tight-knit group of helpful professors,” she said. “I took a class with Jessica Maier about how to make your way in the world with an art history degree. She introduced us to alums who worked in the art world and [also] taught us how to write résumés for the jobs we wanted. It was such invaluable information.”

After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 2019, Isakson lived for a while in New York City, where she got her master’s degree in decorative arts, design history and material culture at Bard Graduate Center. She also interned at the NYC Archaeological Repository, an experience a Mount Holyoke alum in her graduate program supported her through. Her work entailed researching an eighteenth-century tin-glazed French ceramic fragment found at an archaeological site in lower Manhattan. “Even since graduating, I’ve found that all Mount Holyoke alums have this instant connection, regardless of when we graduated,” she said. “It’s the traditions and world views the institution gives you that bond us to one another.”

Today, Isakson works for the Worcester Art Museum, a museum she has fond memories of visiting as a child. She serves as the development communications coordinator and is in charge of donor communications. This includes working with endowed fund creators and family heirs so they understand in what ways the institution is using their gift toward art.

“I grew up going to this museum, so I love that I’ve been able to see the community and museum grow and change over the years. I get to be part of this community in central Massachusetts that’s in a big boom at the moment,” she said.

She says studying art in college and her master’s program have both set her up for success in this role. “It’s really important to have an understanding of the art world in my work with donors. These people love art, and they know when you know what you’re talking about and when you don’t. So even when fundraising, I lean on what I learned in the classroom often. It’s helped me build connections and set me up for success.”

Eventually, Isakson says she’d like to return to school for a Ph.D. in art history so she can begin curating for a museum. For now, she’s happy to be learning the fundraising side of the art world and is thankful for the ways Mount Holyoke helped her get there.

“College taught me that I could be on my own and be OK. It helped me discover myself as an individual, away from the town I grew up in,” she said. “I knew I wanted to go into art history, but my love for curation came through helping to create exhibitions at Mount Holyoke. My professors were supportive and encouraging, and now I’m working in the field, sharing my love for this work with donors and visitors every day.”

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