Profile of Kevin Tervala (BA 2011)

Why did you decide to become an art history major?

Kevin TervalaI fell in love with art history in ARTH275: Art and Society in Africa. I had signed up for the class to fulfill a general education requirement—I don’t think I even knew what art history was when I registered—but I quickly became transfixed by the stories that you could tell through artworks. The first time a professor showed me how the formal choices an artist made reflected the politics and culture of both the artist and the society they were a part of. I have always been motivated by social justice concerns, and, in those first few weeks, I felt I had found an unbelievable toolbox for how to do the work I wanted to do. I truly believe that injustice—colonialism, racism, prejudice, sexism, homophobia, etc.—can be undone through art and art history. If you can get someone to recognize the creativity (i.e. the humanity) of another person who lived in a different place and in a different time, you’ve done more to break down these barriers than almost anyone else.

What was the most, or one of the most, valuable thing(s) you learned as an art history major?

Art history taught me how to write, to argue, and to think. Having to ground what you’re saying in an artwork—a tangible thing, a bundle of materials specifically arranged in a certain way –is such an important skill. It is all too easy to fall back on abstractions or lazy argumentation. But when there is an object staring at you, confronting you with its presence (and I do believe that artworks have a presence and spirit of their own), it keeps you honest. I cannot tell you how important that has been to my professional and personal development.

What challenges did you face after graduation (and did the skills our major fostered help you navigate those challenges)?

I graduated in the years immediately following the great recession and finding a job was, to be frank, quite challenging. I probably applied to over a hundred positions before I finally got the offer I ended up accepting. The arts are a tough field to break into. But the art history program had given me this passion and I knew in my bones that working with art and artists was what I wanted to do.

What advice would you give to other art history majors/minors?

If you want to work in the arts, simply studying it in the classroom is not enough. You need work experience. Intern as early and as often as you can. Join art-related organizations on campus. Work part-time at arts organizations in DC and Maryland. Take advantage of the truly wonderful resources all around you. That includes your professors and TAs. I’ve found the art history department at the UMD to be uncommonly intelligent, generous, and delightful. People genuinely want to talk about their interests and yours with you. So you should take them up on it (and not just talk to folks about grades)! I would not have gotten to where I was today without the advice, support, and encouragement of the professors and graduate students who taught me and advised me as an undergraduate.

What has your career path been since graduating from UMD?

I graduated in 2011 and spent a wonderful year working as a grant writer for Dance Place, a community arts organization in DC (check them out!). I was applying to graduate school at that time, and, in August 2012, I started a Ph.D. program in African Studies & Art History at Harvard. From 2012 to 2017, I did what all graduate students do: take classes, teach classes, research my dissertation, and read reams of scholarship. I also tried to develop skills as a curator and took on more internships, fellowships, and guest curatorial gigs than I can count. Luckily, it all paid off, and in September 2017, I started my dream job: Associate Curator of African Art and Department Head for the Arts of Africa, the America, Asia, and the Pacific Islands at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I’ll be defending my doctoral dissertation this summer, so wish me luck!