Career Profile: Emily Zilber, AB'04

Alumna reflects on her time at the University of Chicago and shares her experience as a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Meet Emily Zilber, AB'04, Ronald C and Anita L Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and a volunteer for the Alumni Club of Boston. If you are in the Boston area, you are invited to join us for a tour of the Museum's exhibition Crafted: Objects in Flux exhibit on Thursday, December 10, led by Emily. 

Check out an interview with Emily, below, and past Career Profiles on our News page.

Can you start by telling us a little bit about what you do at the MFA, and in Boston, in general?
I’ve been at the MFA for about 5 years as the Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts with an eye towards making sure our new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art Wing, which opened in 2011, includes decorative arts alongside painting and sculpture. As a curator, I’m responsible for guiding acquisitions and for developing a presence for craft and design in the Contemporary Art Wing and throughout the museum. I also oversee the Daphne and Peter Farago Gallery for Contemporary Craft.  Everyday is completely different. I might be working on an exhibition or a collection rotation, or may be meeting with donors or conducting studio visits with artists.
I feel like everyone has some sort of journey from Chicago to Boston; what was yours?
I spent a year in Chicago after graduation as a member of the Chicago Public Interest Program and also worked in the Chicago Public Schools during that time. I thought I wanted to work in museums, and had worked at the Smart Museum at UChicago.  I was interested in pursuing a career in either curating or education. After that, I went to graduate school in New York and then completed a postgraduate fellowship at the Cranbrook Art Museum outside of Detroit. The art museum is connected to Cranbrook Academy of Art, one of the premiere MFA programs internationally. After I finished my fellowship, I took a job as Assistant Curator at Cranbrook.  After a bit of time there, I had the opportunity to come to Boston to fill a brand new position as the Wornick ! Curator of Decorative Arts at the MFA. The Contemporary Art Wing hadn’t even been opened yet when I arrived in 2010, and developing the galleries there was my first major project at the MFA.
What are you most excited to share with UChicago alumni at the curator led tour?
I have previously had the chance to take the alumni through galleries and to look at our permanent collection, but this time we’ll be able to see an exhibition which I curated. This is the first exhibition at the MFA for which I’ve been able to write a catalog alongside an exhibition and I’m excited to share that with fellow alumni, and to talk about why and how artists make things today. Most of all, I’m excited to have an intelligent conversation with UChicago alumni and friends. Our alumni always ask great questions, and it’s just one of the most fun and enjoyable times for me.
What was your favorite Core class?
Definitely Media Aesthetics. It was the first time I was introduced to some writing and ideas that would become really critical to me and that would lead me into Art History. When I came to UChicago, I was thinking I would be a fine arts or classics major, but after reading Foucault’s essay on Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas from The Order of Things and following the other curriculum… there were just a lot of things about that course that steered me towards art history, which was great.
Which professor at Chicago left the greatest impression on you, and why?
Rebecca Zorach, who was not only an Art History professor with whom I took multiple classes, but who was also my undergraduate thesis advisor. Her ability to connect the past and present - in her Feminist Art History course, especially - has had a great influence on me and how I think. She really shaped my interests, but also let me focus on the Decorative Arts and encouraged me to follow my own interests, as well.
What is one of your fondest UChicago memories?
I met my husband during my senior year at UChicago, so we can carry on the tradition at home!
Fill in the blank: “If you loved _______ about Chicago, I think you’ll really love ______ about Boston.”
That’s a tough one! I’d say that if you loved Grant park and the amazing park system and outdoor spaces in Chicago, you’ll love the parks in Boston. It’s really amazing to work by the Fenway everyday!
Can you say a little bit about the impact that the UChicago alumni network has had on you, both personally and professionally?
Personally, it’s provided me some of my longest lasting friendships and other kinds of relationships. Professionally, when I was thinking about what it was I wanted to do, Chicago alums were really generous with their time. The curatorial world is a tough one to get into; there are lots of people, with great educations and great CVs, but not always a lot of opportunities. I connected with UChicago alums who worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, and at other museums all around the country. And now, I find the same thing happening with me -- with other alums reaching out to me for similar connections and advice. It’s been a great thing to be a part of because it’s always meant quite a bit to me.
And finally, what made you want to get involved with the UChicago Alumni Club of Boston?
When I first moved to Boston, the Alumni Club was a really wonderful way to meet and connect with fellow alums. We used to go to Trivia Nights in Harvard Square -- it was really fun to try to beat the Harvard kids! UChicago was a huge part of my life and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have gone there. It has really formed aspects of my identity and has connected me with people who have shaped my life, so I’m very happy to have that continue. Boston has a really amazing Chicago community.