A Success Story: An Interview with Chantal Sulkow, Acquisitions Librarian at the Bard Graduate Center

Chantal’s New York City-centered journey took her from a BFA program in Illustration to a career in commercial art before deciding to become an art librarian. In this Success Story, Chantal tells us a little bit about what drove her to become a librarian and what she loves most about the profession.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your current position, and how you got into the field of (art) librarianship?
Before I became an art librarian, I earned my BFA in Illustration at The School of Visual Arts in New York City, concentrating on oil painting and portraiture. While at SVA, I participated in the copyist program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and copied old master works on-site in the galleries. The teacher I worked with made me research each painting I worked on; I had to find historical information about the materials and methods the painters used, and this process gave me my first experience with art historical research. After art school I was looking for a way to earn a living with my skills and I transitioned to a commercial art form, painting three-dimensional prototype figures for the toy industry. I started as an apprentice but eventually turned it into a business, and for a number of years I had my own studio. I painted models for toys in development, and my clients included Marvel, Fisher-Price and Hasbro. When technology in 3D printing and outsourcing to China began to change the landscape of the industry, I decided to go to graduate school. I started by looking at programs for art history, but I wanted to set myself on a path to a new career sooner than later. I was considering Pratt, and by chance I learned about their Library Science program. In my first year I took an intensive summer course on Museums and Library Research with Ken Soehner, the director of the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum. After spending all day, every day for 2 weeks at the Met Library, I was certain that I wanted to be an art librarian.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

As Acquisitions Librarian at the Bard Graduate Center, I am in charge of purchasing for the library; I handle book requests from faculty and students and serve on our staff Collection Development Committee. I’m always looking for new materials to add to the collection; to keep on top of new publications I look at catalogs and email lists, and I follow the social media accounts of museums, academic institutions and publishers so I can track what exhibition or scholarly materials are coming up. In addition to acquisitions, I also do a good deal of reference; our staff shares reference desk responsibilities, and I work with our Reader Services Librarian to meet with students for research appointments, as well as to give research workshops, handle some of the ILL responsibilities, and, when necessary, accommodate requests from outside researchers. I also oversee our library’s rare materials collection.

Do you have any advice for current students and/or those on the job market?

Get involved with ARLIS! My involvement with this organization has been so valuable and rewarding. Join your local Chapter! If you can, go to local Chapter events or meetings- volunteer for a position on your Chapter board. Join an ARLIS/NA committee, or serve on an award committee. Go to the annual conferences; apply for scholarship money to get yourself there, and even if you don’t get funding, it’s worth paying for it yourself if you can make it happen, though of course that’s not always possible. Doing these things will help you network and meet people, and the work you do as a volunteer will help showcase your professional skills to others in the community who might hire you. More directly, reach out to other professionals for advice and mentorship. In my first semester in library school I told one of my professors that I was thinking of pursuing art librarianship and she gave me the names and contact info for two of her colleagues who were art librarians. When I followed up and reached out they both invited me to come in to chat. The early help and encouragement that they gave me was invaluable.


What accomplishments in the field of art librarianship are you most proud of?

Before I was hired to a full time position, I was appointed as ARLIS/NA’s New York Chapter Social Media Coordinator. I run the Chapter’s social accounts, which include Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This is a board position I’ve held for nearly 2 ½ years, and it’s been great fun- I launched the chapter’s Instagram account, and I’ve been able to boost our followers and overall engagement across the board. Running the Chapter’s social platforms has enabled me to establish connections with and gain deeper knowledge of other cultural institutions, while promoting awareness of the value that art libraries have to offer. My work as the NY Chapter Social Media Coordinator also led me to run a survey on the use of social media in art libraries, and I organized and participated in a session on the topic at the most recent ARLIS conference. I am currently working with some of my session teammates on an article for Art Documentation based on our presentation, and I’m excited about where further research and exploration on this project will lead.

If you could go back and time and do part of your career or education over again, is there something you would have changed? A class you would have taken? A project you would have started?

If I had a do-over for any part of my professional life, I would have gone to graduate school years earlier, before I had kids. This is not to say you can’t get your degree while being a parent! It is absolutely 100 % doable, but presents challenges one wouldn’t otherwise have. When I began graduate school my daughter was starting kindergarten, and midway through the program I took a semester off when my son was born. (He was a perfect academic baby- born in between semesters!) Of course, finishing graduate school with 2 kids was no easy task, especially with a sleepless infant! I started the program at Pratt as a dual Library Science and Art History major; however, after my son arrived I decided to drop the Art History component and concentrate on the MLS, in an attempt to fast-track getting a degree, and getting a full time job- which, fortunately, I was able to do. When my kids are a little older I would still like to return to school and finish my subject Masters; in an ideal world, I’d like to get a PhD! You never know what might happen.

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