The College Art Association Conference: Advice for Job Seekers

March 4, 2013 · Print This Article

The CAA conference is pretty much the industry standard place to go for those seeking teaching jobs with colleges, as well as administrative or other jobs with colleges or museums.  Unfortunately, it’s a big investment of time and, more importantly for those seeking rather than holding full-time teaching jobs, money.  There’s the cost of your CAA membership, the conference registration fee, airfare, hotel, and all of those fancy meals with friends and trips to the bar with more successful colleagues whom you passively aggressively resent, which you rationalize as “networking expenses.”  All that shit adds up, and frankly, that kind of travel and fun in the name of business are some of the perks that make the shallow horror of the art world bearable.  (“Art world” being here distinctly separate from “art,” the making of which is so a separate from the culture that surrounds it that the common language is misleading, in the same way that a “carpet” isn’t a pet that rides in the car with you.  That’s a little Ramona Quimbey reference for the Beverly Cleary fans out there.)

Fortunately for my Chicago-based readers, the College Art Association conference is coming to Chicago in February 2014.  It’s a lot easier when you don’t have to travel to get there, and a lot cheaper too.  In fact, if you can, you should probably see if any of your fellow alums or old friends from school are coming into town and want to sleep on your couch to save on the cost of a hotel.  This can be a great way to turn a competitive frenemy into a collaborator and confidant, as they seek to avoid cognitive dissonance, preserving their positive self-image by attempting to repay the favor by, for example, telling you about an opportunity.  (If you’re reading this, and we know each other, even rather distantly, like you saw me naked at a party one time, call or email or hit me up on Facebook, and you’re welcome to the couch or at least some floor space.  Even if I kind of hate you.)

There are some tricks to cut the cost and get smart about attending CAA, particularly if your primary motive for attending is as part of a job search.  Here’s the dirty little secret most people don’t know about the CAA conference before their first time attending:  You don’t need to register for the conference to attend the professional development stuff or go into the Interview Hall.  That just requires a current CAA membership, which you’ve probably already gotten, since the friend whose membership number you were using to look at the jobs on the website either got their job or gave up, and either way let their membership expire.

There are good reasons to register for the conference; the price of a badge is well worth it if you’re going to attend a bunch of the panel sessions.  These are a great way to keep current in your field, particularly if your field is something like “The Post-Gender Significance of Nipples on Ancient Sumerian Bronze Armor.”  It’s also probably a good idea to go if anyone you know is presenting.  Just try not to glare at them from the back row, resenting their success.  Plaster on a fake smile, fight your way to the front at the end of the presentation, and try to put a positive spin on whatever you’ve been up to for the last couple of years.  See if you can call your babysitting gig a performance piece.

I’m talking shit, but I actually really enjoy the panel sessions.  I’ve seen some great ones, on “The Opposite of Snake” (spoiler alert, it’s “bird”), and on Nazi curatorial practices at the Exhibition of Degenerate Art.  These sorts of art historical things are half professional research (I’m sure they’re good for my making, teaching, and writing, somehow, even if the connections are neither direct nor immediately clear) and half guilty pleasure.  For a contemporary artist, writer, or educator, a panel session on a given art historical topic may be neither more nor less relevant to their practice than watching a History Channel special on sea monsters.

The thing is, if you’re on the job hunt, there are far better uses of your time than showing up for the conference because a bunch of jobs you applied for said they’d be interviewing, then scowling your way through a bunch of panel sessions because nobody wanted to interview you.  You can prowl the Interview Hall; again, no conference registration required, you just need a current membership ID.  During the conference, there’s a career services subsection of the conference section of the website, where they tell you who’s interviewing (useless if you don’t have an interview lined up), but more importantly, who’s accepting drop-off packets.  In my experience, at a given conference, an average of 2-3 places have been hiring in my medium (studio art focusing on drawing, painting, or foundations), and accepting drop-off packets.

So rather than bringing 50 copies of your CV, bring 5 full packets, including a generic cover letter, CV, references, sample syllabi, a CD containing 20 images of your work and 20 images of student work (if need be, this can be student work from your graduate assistantship, if that’s all you’ve got), and image lists for those.  Copies of your transcripts (unofficial okay) and copies of your generic letters of recommendation aren’t usually necessary, but couldn’t hurt.  Obviously you’ll want to bring a USB drive with these documents on it, in both print-ready PDF format as well as editable docx and jpeg files.  That way if you discover a typo, you can rush to a computer to fix it (there are computers in the candidate center, or you can use your laptop).  You can also go see who’s accepting drop-off packets in your medium, then go bang out a custom cover letter real quick, print it off, sign it, and swap it out for the generic letter in your packet.

It’s also a good idea to bring your images in multiple formats:  at a mock interview I signed up for, the mock interviewer’s laptop was newly-issued to him, and he didn’t realize until our interview that it didn’t have a CD drive!  Fortunately, I had my images available on my website, as 8 ½” x 11” prints in an Itoya folder, and on my USB drive, so this wasn’t a major problem.  On a related note, one tip I received was that if you’re offered an interview, bring new copies of all the materials you submitted with you to the interview, because it’s entirely possible that the interviewers didn’t bring them, lost them, forgot them, or dropped them on the subway.  So bring new ones, just in case.  Some other helpful tips I received at the various professional development workshops I attended were:

1.  On your CV’s exhibition list, don’t separate solo shows from group shows until later in your career.  It’s confusing to the search committee to have to jump around.  Keep ‘em together, in reverse chronological order.

2.  Separate solo shows from group shows, to highlight them.  Your solo shows, particularly if they’re at a reputable gallery, are the heart of your exhibition record, so they should go at the top.

3.  Remove from your exhibition history any shows at coffee shops, bars, restaurants, banks, or other businesses.

4.  Omit nothing from your CV.  Include everything.  The definition of a CV is a complete record of ALL of your professional activity.

5.  Use printed CD labels.  Writing your information on the cd in marker looks unprofessional.

6.  Don’t use printed CD labels.  They can get stuck in the CD drive.  Write your information directly on the CD in marker.

Literally, I received all six of those tips at one time or another while at the conference this year.  Like Ned Flanders, I’ve tried to follow all of these commandments, “even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.”  The annual CAA conference takes place in February, more the middle of the “search season” than the end, so even if, like me, you don’t score any interviews at CAA, it’s not too late to put these tips into practice.  Full time teaching positions for the Fall often have deadlines as late as the preceding March or April, so if you’re looking now, there are still a few postings open for Fall 2013 positions.  If none of them pan out, well, I’ll see you there, February 12–15, 2014, somewhere in Chicago (probably the Hyatt Regency on Wacker, where they held it in 2010).  May the odds be ever in your favor.

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