(All Too) Human Resources
Dissecting the job interview.
“You should write a column about job interviews”, my friend and ex-colleague Jess Van Nostrand told me the other day. Jess is a seasoned and experienced educator, programmer and curator and we both share an institutional history — one which involved me actually hiring her at some point, and I was lucky for her to accept. So it is in her honor that I decided to take on the challenge.
Our conversation reminded me of an interview experience of my own. A few years back I was contacted by a friend who happened to be consulting at the time for a local arts council of a small but affluent town in the US. They had decided to organize a major annual art lecture and wanted me to be the featured speaker (and the honorarium was more than generous). I told him I was interested; we agreed to talk a few days later. When he called I was at LaGuardia Airport waiting to board a flight. To my surprise the conversation was actually a conference call with the entire arts council’s board, which must have comprised a dozen or so people. They proceeded to treat the conversation as a job interview, asking me things such as why I would be interested in giving this lecture, what would my topic be, and so forth, with everyone taking turns to grill me with questions. I am slow to react to surprising situations like this one and instinctively assumed the assigned role of job applicant. The questioning was a bit odd, given that the members of the arts council board wanted to assert their position of power with their inquiries, but they clearly did not know much about art, so their questions were hilariously dumb and presumptuous. But to be sitting at an airport’s sports bar having dinner and suddenly be thrown into a prime time job interview was an off-putting and mildly insulting experience. As someone who had extended countless invitations to lecturers never in my life would have occurred to me to treat a lecture invitation like a job interview. Lecture invitations, like job offers, are predicated on the premise that one is already the desired candidate, and to suddenly turn a job offer into an application process is ludicrous. After the call, I emailed my friend to tell him that I would not be doing the lecture and that if they needed to pre-screen lecturers they should instead do a call for papers.
Experiences like these might be illustrative of the implicit (and not always articulated) dynamics of job interviews. They are strategic employment minuets: like the gentle social ballroom dance from the 18th century, its choreography is highly controlled and coordinated, with careful and gracious protocols that both sides must observe. They are also akin to screen tests: the interviewer as the casting director must determine whether the applicant fits the part, while the applicant, on the other hand, has to be desirable and attractive to the interviewer. They also are psychological examinations: the interviewer must carefully pay attention at every phrase, every gesture and every turn of phrase to quickly piece together an accurate picture of the individual. Following the musical analogy, job interviews are like a like a three-part fugue: the first two layers include the experience and skills first, and then the personality/communication second. One determines whether the needs of the job and the applicant’s experience are aligned, and the second is whether this individual is a good fit for the context. The third layer is an intangible component to which I will get to later.
I am a mediocre job interviewee. I tend to be overly formal, I am bad with names and faces, and overdress for the part. More importantly, I am a poor salesperson of myself. I always dread the unavoidable question of “tell us your weaknesses”, which lays the dilemma of either showing pure honesty, like “I am very forgetful” (which makes one look bad) or false modesty like “I work too hard” (which makes one look like a phony). So I suspect my first job in a museum in New York happened not because of my interviewee skills, but thanks to the fact that I was not allowed to fully display them (or, rather, the lack of them). I had been recommended by a colleague who had a lot of credibility and the museum was desperate to hire someone with the professional background I had (which is generally hard to find: not many specialize in organizing public programs in museums). My potential future employer first interviewed me over the phone from my apartment in Chicago; I was incredibly nervous. As it turned out, I barely could say a word, since she dominated the conversation discussing her vision and what the job was about. She told me they would fly me to New York for an in-person interview, which they did. But at the in-person interview the pattern repeated itself, with me barely being able to say much. Toward the end I asked her if I could talk a bit about my past experience, but she replied: “I have a very good sense about people; I know when they are a good fit.” I was hired on the spot. I lasted in that job for seven years. This is either a testament to her amazing interviewing insights or that we both got lucky— I still am not sure.
At any rate, nowadays, because of the various museum management roles I have played over the decades, I have conducted hundreds of job interviews, handling anything ranging from interns to senior management position hires, and feel I have earned the bragging rights of my old supervisor. I believe that I am capable to make an accurate reading of an applicant in very short order. I have learned, for example, that after one has passed through the greetings and other niceties, the very first 60 seconds of the interview are absolutely critical. 80% of the time it might be possible to make an initial determination whether the interviewer is going to work (or not) for the job. I often am surprised by my own initial insights in those moments, which are not infallible, but often turn out to be right. Perhaps the best work I have ever done within art institutions has been the people I have been able to hire. I am proud to say that at least three individuals who I hired as interns in my staff have gone on to become museum directors or directors of education in major contemporary art museums, and many others have become successful curators. I recall a young art professional who we interviewed (and subsequently hired). She was deeply nervous, practically shaking like a leaf during the interview. That notwithstanding, I immediately detected that in her nervousness she had an intensity of insight that made her authentic and humble and revealed a sensitive, complex and methodical mind. She is now a prominent contemporary art curator in New York.
I reached out to a few colleagues on the subject matter, some of which asked to remain anonymous (lest this impact their own job search in the future). My conversations with them made me realize that memorable job interviews tend to also be the strangest ones. They range from the egregious (I remember interviewing a potential museum guide who we had asked to do a do a mock gallery tour for us, and she proceeded to pull out a printed Wikipedia entry and proceed to read from it to give her tour) to the accidental and endearing. During the pandemic I once interviewed an applicant who had to Zoom from his kids’ bedroom, and it was both hysterical and absurd to have him seriously discuss his professional experience and philosophy while surrounded by teddy bears and Hello Kitty toys. Regarding online interviews, Jess recalled: “I once was interviewing a potential intern via Zoom with some colleagues, and I’m 100% certain this candidate was doing the interview from an empty bathtub (fully clothed, thankfully). I assumed it was the only place they could find with some privacy —and it had no bearing on the outcome of the interview— but it did make my day more interesting.” At times, it is the interviewer who presents suspicious behavior. Jess shared: “Another time, I was being interviewed by a Chief Curator at a museum, and partway through the conversation he shifted his attention to his computer and began doing what seemed to be checking email. I remember sitting across from him in silence for a while, wondering if watching him reply to emails was a requirement of the job I was applying for. It was not; I think he had just gotten bored.”
In the 90s, I had a friend who spent nearly 2 years looking for a job. He was not unqualified, but I suspect that somehow his shy personality did not make much an impression to employers. He was practically in interview clothes every day, to the point that his full-time job seemed to consist in looking for a job. I thought of him recently as some of the comments I received on the subject related to the increasing number of interviews required for average jobs. Another person told me the following: “I recently spoke to someone who had done NINE interviews for a museum education role, only to turn down the offer. Think of how much time all of that scheduling required! […]I have been part of searches that have taken several months—and even one in which I was turned down in favor of the other finalist, only to be called several months later when that person quit the position! Needless to say, I did not end up working there.” On this topic, Jess relatedly mentioned: “I really take issue with the assignment to create project(s) to present during an interview for a specific upcoming exhibition or initiative. This has been asked of me multiple times, and no matter how much material they provide, there is no chance I’m going to be able to present ideas as good as if I already worked there. It’s a setup for failure, and it conveys so many assumptions about how creative ideas are generated in an institution. I sometimes wonder if my past presentations got filed in a drawer labeled something like “half-baked ideas from job candidates that we might use someday.”
An important insight I got about job interviewing was, strangely enough, a decade or so ago when we were looking to hire a sitter for Estela when she was about 4 years old. We logged into a website where one could review various sitter profiles (an elaborate process that takes many scheduled interviews, seeking references and more), and at some point invited Estela to look with us. Within a few seconds she pointed at a photo of one of them on the site and said, “I want her.” Her use of purely visual criteria was really funny, but later I thought about how us, “objective” adults, constantly display implicit bias — racial bias, especially— in the hiring process and beyond. That is the third layer of the three-part fugue of interviewing. We might feel experts at seeing applicants perform, but we are poor observers of the performance of our judgment.
If this doesn’t seem clear already: job interviewing is a performative art of possibility, one where, as Robert Morris once said, “everyone uses everyone else for their own purposes”; a constructed choreography for the unexpected where job offers can revert into job interviews, where bad interviewers an intentionally or not enact a theater of cruelty to job aspirants who are willing to take it, a brief courtship where the winners are the most successful performers of authenticity. We make the road of the job interview by acting. Perhaps one day the Human Resources Department in a museum will be recognized as a natural extension of the Performance Art Department.
Beautiful Eccentrics is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.