“Return to the kernels of what makes you happy and what you’re good at doing.”
January 25, 2021 | by Frank Hidalgo
Ahead of her talk with UC Berkeley PhD students on January 28, Beyond Academia’s Frank Hidalgo sat down (virtually) with Sophia Quach McCabe, PhD to discuss her journey from STEM to art history. Sophia will also be part of our annual conference (February 25th and 26th), you can register for free CLICK HERE.
Sophia Quach McCabe received her PhD in Art History from UC Santa Barbara in 2019.
How’s your week going?
Fridays are always busier than other days for some weird reason, I don't know why (laughter).
Would you rather live in the Renaissance or in the 21st century?
I prefer the 21st century. Not only can I experience Renaissance paintings, sculptures, goldsmith work, and more firsthand in the churches and palazzos of Europe, but also see them in museums alongside contemporary works of art.
Who would you prefer to have a coffee with; Michelangelo or Jean Clouet?
I can imagine I wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise with Michelangelo, though to be in Il Divino’s (“The Divine One’s”) presence while he waxes at length about poetry, philosophy, and art would be incredible. A conversation with Jean Clouet, portrait painter of François I’s court, however, would be revealing about the personalities of 16th-century France. Plus, since Jean Clouet likely came from The Low Countries, I would love to understand the challenges he faced moving from possibly Flanders to France and overcoming the competition to be the king’s painter.
“Successful artists were also successful businessmen who used intermediaries and agents in order to cultivate patrons and an art market for their work.”
You speak 5 languages (Chinese, French, German, Italian, English), that is impressive! How do you get to learn so many languages?
Thanks! My heritage is Chinese, and my home dialect is Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and regions of Southern China. In high school I learned French, and then I worked at a French chemical company. For my art history studies, it was imperative to learn German and Italian. Through Italian, I am starting to learn Spanish, which is a widely spoken language in California.
As you mentioned, you started your career as a chemical engineer and worked for ten years in the field. Then you decided to go into art history. What prompted you to switch fields?
There was not a specific moment in time. It was a buildup of things. While I was in engineering, I was also in marketing, which made me explore my artistic side. Plus, I have always loved art and museums. When I lived in Philadelphia, I spent many days and nights at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I always wanted to understand more about how artists, from Raphael to Marcel Duchamp, did what they did. Thus, switching to art history was the obvious step for me.
“My research involved searching in archives in Europe, which takes a lot of time. There is no command+search!”
Do you think your background in engineering has helped you be a better art historian?
Absolutely. The problem-solving mentality you acquire in engineering is also useful in my field. For instance, for my dissertation I had to use network analysis and several computational technology tools, which was easier to do thanks to my background in STEM. Furthermore, art and engineering have one thing in common: the creative process. You also learn to strategize. That skill allowed me to plan each step of my doctoral work. Even when plans went awry, my instinct to develop solutions took over.
You first did a masters and then a PhD in art history. For our STEM audience, could you explain why humanities PhDs tend to be longer?
In my case, my research involved searching in archives in Europe, which takes a lot of time. For me, archival work meant exploring and trying to find new things. I went to Germany and to Italy and had to learn how to do archival research—that is, how the various archives are organized, their histories, establishing a relationship with the archivists so that they can help you search for the sources, as well as learning the languages well enough to communicate with the archivists and librarians. That is why we joke that archival work takes either two months or twenty years. There is no command+search! (laughter).
Oh, so every time you wanted to study the archives you had to physically go there. How often did you go and for how long?
It depended on the amount of time I had in any one city. For example, in Germany, I was there for nine months during one research period, with my base at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, just 2-1/2 hours southwest of Berlin. I would spend a few hours, about three days per week looking at manuscripts (primary archival sources). When I went to other collections around Germany, I would be there as soon as they opened and spend all day working in the archive’s reading room, since I knew I would be there for only two days or so.
Similarly, in Venice, I went to the Archivio di Stato for about four hours per day over a period of seven months. Every archive has their own rules about how many folios they can show you per day, so there’s a learning curve with each collection.
It’s so exciting to discover a document that hasn’t been written about before, or at least not been paid attention to as much. Of course, my routine was always interspersed with gelato and espresso, and visits to churches, palazzos, and museums, walking in the same labyrinthine streets of Venetian Renaissance master painters.
Were you ever afraid of breaking a 500-year old book?
I definitely handled all the books and documents with care. Some of the oldest ones dated to the early 1550s, so there were a lot of book foam cushions involved!
“STEM students taking art history would want exact answers … I’d always tell them that there is no correct answer. Art history is about thinking critically.”
Could you tell us the main findings of your doctoral work, "Hans Rottenhammer in Venice: Networking in Style between Italy and Germany"?
Successful artists were also successful businessmen who used intermediaries and agents in order to cultivate patrons and an art market for their work. This may seem obvious today, but scholarship previously positioned artists as working primarily with leading patrons or selling directly to the market during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Besides research, you also taught (like many of us at Beyond Academia). Any fun anecdotes that happened when teaching art history at UC Santa Barbara?
When I was a teaching assistant, I would encounter STEM students taking art history who would want exact answers. Since I also have an engineering background, I knew where they were coming from. I’d always tell them that in our field, there is no correct answer. Art history is about thinking critically.
Let’s switch gears to the present. First of all, congratulations on your new position as the Academic Coordinator at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara! Tell us about your job.
I love my job! It allows me to do all the things that I love doing, such as helping to organize exhibitions, developing associated events and programming, doing research, and working with faculty across the campus. I feel like I have the best of both worlds, being in the middle of the Academic world and the Museum community. For example, the Museum’s forthcoming exhibition of Renaissance medals, scheduled to open in the spring, is a collaboration with the History department. I’ve helped organize the exhibition, working with the instructor whose students provided the exhibition’s label contents. This exhibition, and other ongoing projects, would not be possible without the support of the great team to which I belong at the AD&A Museum.
On top of your current work, what other endeavors are you pursuing?
I am part of two non-profit organizations. I’m the VP of the Renaissance Conference of Southern California and part of the Society for the History of Collecting. The goals of each are to promote the study of Renaissance, and collecting and art markets, respectively.
How does the volunteering help you shape your professional career?
Volunteering has allowed me to not only give back to the community and the art history discipline, but it has also helped hone my organizational and networking skills. As a part of a non-profit organization, you have the opportunity to build your credibility because people see what you can do, and how well you can do it. Also, your name becomes associated with an established organization, which increases your market value with potential employers.
Would you like to publicize any of the events that you are currently organizing?
I’d like to share an important initiative that I’m working on with the AD&A Museum team: the expansion of our reach and services to the Spanish-speaking community. We launched Proyecto Museo / Museo Project in December in order to raise funds for actions—such as translating exhibitions and programming into Spanish—toward the initiative.
“My advice for anyone thinking about returning to school and launching into a PhD program is to consider why and how the PhD will help you achieve whatever goal(s) you wish to achieve.”
Last but not least, what advice would you give to anyone that is a few years into their professional careers but are thinking about pivoting to a completely different field and going back to school, just like you did?
My advice for anyone thinking about returning to school and launching into a PhD program is to consider why and how the PhD will help you achieve whatever goal(s) you wish to achieve. As PhD students know, any program is an extremely challenging one. You feel like you’ve been through the crucible many times over, so it’s not a decision to be made lightly. However, having said that, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without a PhD. My experience was that I had gone through one career with some savings, which allowed me to explore other means toward a life in museums. Some advice I have include: return to the kernels of what makes you happy and what you’re good at doing. This Venn diagram has always helped me. Another piece of advice is to secure some funding from your desired PhD program because you want to know that they want you to be there as much as you want to be there.
With that we conclude the interview. We are so grateful that you agreed to be part of the speaker series event. We are looking forward to talking with you more on January 28th and to have you at annual conference on February 25th and 26th!
Thanks, and it has been my pleasure. I'm looking forward to participating in Beyond Academia's upcoming events.
Sophia Quach McCabe, PhD will be joining Beyond Academia on January 28th at 5 pm. For more information and to RSVP CLICK HERE. Sophia will also be part of our annual conference (February 25th and 26th), you can register for free CLICK HERE.
Frank Hidalgo is a 5th year Chembio (with Data Science emphasis) PhD student at UC Berkeley. If you would like to be part of our speaker series, contact him at email@example.com or on LinkedIn.