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NU Alum Describes Career Path from Block Museum to MoMA

By Jacob Nelson

Before she worked at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Sheetal Prajapati worked as a Northwestern undergraduate at the Block Museum.

She had been unsure what to study at school, coming in as an engineering major, then shifting to history until finally settling on gender studies. It wasn’t until she did a senior year internship at Block Museum, however, that she realized she could have a career in museum education. Now, as the assistant director of learning and artists initiatives at MoMA, Prajapati spearheads a long-term collaborative project to develop open and experimental experiences for museum visitors. She also oversees MoMA’s adult learning program.

“A lot of my work is focused on working with artists on a short term and long term basis,” Prajapati said in an interview last week. “The approach we’re taking at MoMA is unique nationally, there’s not another example of artists working with education departments long-term to do residency things for programming as opposed to art making or exhibiting.”

Prajapati will be discussing her museum career at the next Masters of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises speaker series event, which will be held Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 5 p.m. In addition to describing her current focus, she said she’d likely focus on how the current path to a museum job differs from the path she took. Prajapati worked at MCA for three years after she graduated, then returned to Block to become its head of education. In 2010, her boss at MCA took a job at MoMA and asked Prajapati to join her.

“I decided the right thing for me was to move to NY and work for her again,” Prajapati said. Her career arc was unusual because it involved working at different places but always because of invitations from the same few people she worked with early on.

“I found really good leaders and mentors in my bosses, so at certain points in my career it made sense to go back and work with them because I had more to learn from them,” she said.

Her path also took place before masters programs like MSLCE and others more focused on museums existed. This made things less obvious, but it also made the field less competitive.

“It just wasn’t as competitive,” Prajapati said. “There weren’t thousands and thousands of students coming out of MA programs.”

As a result, Prajapati says it’s more important now for applicants to museums jobs to stand out.

“You have to think about how you specialize and how you stand out in a pool of applicants,” she said.

Though it’s a tougher time to find a job, it’s an exciting time to be in the field. Prajapati pointed to Queens Museum in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the SFMOMA’s On the Go exhibit as examples of innovation that made her excited about what museums could do. SFMOMA closed for construction, but used social media to organize and promote shows in different places around San Francisco so it could keep people engaged without a central location.

“Those are kind of exciting and different,” Prajapati said.