For Debra Errington, getting “up close and personal” with an original work by the legendary painter Frida Kahlo in the past month was when she knew she’d “made it” in the world of art museums.
“I kept thinking, ‘Don’t drop it, don’t drop it’,” said Errington, the owner of Sow’s Ear since 2007, who, earlier this year, began interning at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Verona resident is working in collections at the museum, a position that had been vacant “forever” as past applicants were more history-focused and didn’t know about direct care of the art, she said.
But she earned her master’s degree in museum studies in December from Johns Hopkins University. She’s also been helping out at MMoCA for more than just this year. To get her foot in the door, she first applied and was accepted for a position in communications there in September 2019.
In her new role in collections, Errington has been working five hours a week, conducting a full inventory of the museum’s collection. That involves going drawer by drawer in storage, making sure all the recorded information about each art piece is accurate and correct.
During the process, she is “condition reporting,” or assessing the conditions of the artworks, such as if a painting or portrait needs to be re-matted.
While evaluating each piece of art, Errington is also helping with an initiative to document the race and ethnicity of the artists.
“It’s an emerging field in museums – people want to diversify their collection,” she said. “It’s been a white-dominated industry for decades. Museums are looking to change that and give people voices.”
She hopes the effort will expand the amount of art at the museum from the LGBTQ+ community, as well as from Black artists and from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Embracing some of those topics and types of people would be a really good move,” she said. “How do we embrace their history and other people’s history? It’s good to diversify collections, take on those touchy subjects that people may not face normally, raise awareness and empathy.”
The pandemic has provided MMoCA more time to tackle projects like cataloging and photographing its collection to make it more “website appropriate” and accessible to the public, she said.
She will soon begin commuting to assist another museum--the Dubuque Museum of Art in Iowa. She’ll soon be splitting her time to spend about 25 to 30 hours a week at Sow’s Ear, five hours at MMoCA and 22 hours in Dubuque.
If her museum work goes full-time, Errington said her coffee and yarn shop business at 125 S. Main St. will remain open. She’s hired a management team of five people to help transition her out if need be.
Errington said she has been an art student as long as she’s been a business owner.
She earned her undergraduate degree in studio art, which included studying art conservation at a school in Rome for over four months, including being a teacher’s assistant in an ancient painting techniques course. That experience helped form a place in her heart for art conservation, she said.
There are commonalities between running her business and working in a museum, she said – namely, interpersonal relationships. She said the staff at MMoCA are “such a nice little family” and that “people are so nice and take care of each other.” She also feels like her staff are a family at Sow’s Ear.
As for why she loves her work in art conservation and collections and finds it important, Errington said, “We feel like we’re stewards of our human history, it’s our job to teach history, preserve it, learn from it.”