Alumni, MA Cultural and Creative Industries course

Interview with Betsy Brand

by Kirsty Warner

As part of an ongoing Alumni Blog series, I caught up with Betsy Brand to find out more about her experience on CMCI’s MA Cultural and Creative Industries Course. As part of the following interview, she discusses, among other things, her typical working day and how Covid-19 has impacted it, how she came to enter her current field of work and how her time at King’s helped to prepare her for this, what she enjoyed most about the MA course. 

Betsy Brand is an experienced cultural communications professional and project manager. 

Betsy undertook CMCI’s MA Cultural and Creative Industries between 2011 and 2012.

Introduction

Her dissertation was titled ‘Branding Britain – Symbolic representations of heritage and identity through images of the British monarchy’, and focused on cultural markets, branding, digital industries, and the use of visuals in identity building. She began her career at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and since completing her MA has held roles including a Logistics Specialist and Technical Writer for Tradesy and Content Producer for J. Paul Getty Trust. She has been at Getty for over 5 years and is now a Digital Media Producer. Through this role, Betsy has numerous responsibilities including, but not limited to overseeing the creation, publication, and promotion of all Museum virtual exhibits on Google Arts & Culture, managing the most visible and trafficked pages of the Museum’s Getty.edu website, and serving as a liaison between Museum Public Programs and Trust Communications regarding promotion and ticket sales.

Interview

Could you describe one of your typical workdays? and how, if at all has Covid-19 impacted your role?

My typical workday involves a lot of emails, a lot of meetings, and a lot of juggling. The biggest impact Covid has had on all of this is that it’s all now virtual instead of in-person. We began working from home last March and haven’t been back in since. Prior to closure, about 50% of my workload revolved around public events and tours (making sure they were on the calendar, creating on-site schedules, coordinating promo), but this was severely impacted the moment our doors shut. It was a while before we had a virtual event, so I suddenly found myself with quite a bit of time to shift focus onto Google Arts & Culture, which has been a big success for the Museum in the past year – it’s strengthened our partnership with not only Google, but with internal staff as well. Most importantly, it’s allowed us to dive into our collections in a new way and tell diverse stories within that we wouldn’t necessarily get to in-gallery. I work very closely with two other team members to produce a solid schedule of online exhibits on the platform, and in a year we went from 2 to 30.

Can you tell me some more about how you came to enter this field? and how did CMCI’s MA Cultural and Creative Industries course or your time at King’s help you prepare for your current role? 

I had always loved museums growing up. I spent part of my childhood outside of Washington D.C. and part in North Yorkshire, so I was surrounded by history and culture. When I first earned my undergraduate degree in Communications from Boston University, I moved home and started applying to places left and right. The role I landed with Smithsonian Journeys had been posted on Craigslist (which sounds kinda sketchy now), but it was legit. There’s something pretty magical about having a museum to yourself before it opens or closes to the public, and as a perk of being a card-carrying employee, you could walk into the Natural History Museum for a one-on-one with T-Rex at 8 a.m.

I went away from the museum sector for a while—I graduated in 2008 from BU which was the height of the financial crisis here in the US and the job market was bleak for this area. During my MA I didn’t even take the Tate modules, but many of my courses centered on furthering my established skill set in a cultural setting. It was a way to take what I knew practically, develop it, and apply it in a field I hoped to pursue post-graduation. It also gave me a solid insight into the realities of working in the cultural sector. 

In 2014 I moved to Los Angeles to try out a new city, but was particularly drawn to it for the cultural opportunities: a ton of great museums, lots of creative studios and artists.  About a year later I landed at the Getty as a maternity cover position for 6 months, which then turned into 5 1/2 years. I’m not sure I would have even scored an interview at Getty without my MA to be honest. Having an Masters is somewhat of an unspoken requirement for many museums despite not always requiring it on job descriptions. It can be a huge barrier to entry for really qualified candidates. I took the MA CMCI as it was something that I wanted to do for myself and learn more in a niche field, but I also knew that to move the needle and build a career in the industry I would need more qualifications. I do hope in the future having a masters won’t be an unspoken expectation, as it would help diversify museum workforces and reduce fiscal impact for those wishing to enter the field (which already has notoriously low salaries). [as a caveat, Masters courses in the US cost about 4x as much as they do for international students in the UK] 

If you could give any advice to students currently enrolled on a course at King’s, but with aspirations to join the Art’s & Cultural Heritage Sector, what would it be? Are there any skills or experience that you suggest they develop?

Digital skills are so so important – it’s how you get the word out about anything these days. Immersive media and AR/VR is (hopefully) the next wave in what we’ll be seeing from the sector, especially post-covid, since there are still so many people who adore art but are unable to visit collections in person. But if technology isn’t your strong suit, educating yourself about how these things work and be able to “speak the language” at the very least. You’ll almost certainly need to translate these concepts to others (especially less-tech-savvy staff) and knowing what you’re talking about is invaluable. 

But more than all of this, being creative and purposeful about how you connect with communities is more important than ever. Museums are rightfully going through a reckoning at the moment. Most are strongholds of white, Eurocentric ideologies, and don’t adequately reflect people and the stories of the community they are meant to serve. It’s easy to rely on social media, but it can only do so much, and like any media it has its pitfalls and constraints. Not to mention, it’s cluttered already and standing out is so much harder than 10 years ago.

Why did you choose to study the MA Cultural & Creative Industries course? And why at the CMCI Department at King’s College? 

A friend sent me a link to the program and said “we should do this!” It sounded so cool and interesting to me, but of the two of us, I actually took the plunge. I adore London, and as I mentioned before, higher education in the UK is significantly cheaper than the US, so that made my decision to take the course even easier. Ultimately what really stood out to me were the courses that were offered—I was also accepted to a branding program at another London university, but the King’s program felt more like something I wouldn’t be able to learn as easily on the job.

What did you enjoy most about the MA Cultural & Creative Industries course?

I loved the independence of study that the program offered. In the US, coursework is very prescribed, but I had a lot of flexibility on this program to write about things I found interesting. Most of my year joked that if you could ask a question about any topic, you could probably turn it into your dissertation. 

I also met one of my very best friends, Nina, from my cohort, but we would have met anyway . . . our meet-cute happened the week before classes out at a pub with mutual friends. At opposite ends of the table, our friend James was chatting with Nina were, and James shouted down to me: “Oh, Betsy, aren’t you starting a course at King’s next week?”. . . she also ended up being in my tutor group, and the rest is history.

Were there any academics that had a strong influence on you during your time in the CMCI department? Why? 

Ruth Adams was my tutor and made me think more critically than I knew how prior to starting the course. I’d honestly love to take the course again and reexamine my dissertation – my eye has developed even further in the last 10 years and I know my conclusion would end very differently! 

My Cultural Markets professor gave us some really fantastic reading material that helped me connect ideas of branding, identity, and culture together through topics such as fandom and art collections. This really drove home the notion that we choose what we consume and reflect back our identity through these choices, whether individually chosen or chosen for us by the company we keep (or in many cases, the company we would like to keep). 

And finally, this may seem super basic now, but I still think of good old Pierre Bourdieu. Reading his work was the first time I considered that someone else chooses what is deemed tasteful. In particular, class-based taste and what is worthy of being considered “culture” or not. I see it in the museum world – it is the basis upon which so many renowned collections are built. Impressionism went from gauche to some of the most valuable art in the world in a matter of 150 years. In this realm at least, so much of it is shaped and molded by those who have and had buying power.