Alumna Profile: Meg Scanlon '16

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While it’s rare to know where in the world Meg Scanlon is—she moves quickly and plans ahead—she is never far from an art museum. Though smarter than most, Meg’s talent lies in making you feel smarter and more capable the longer you know her; luckily, I’m on year five. Presently, sitting across from me in a Boston coffee shop, she speaks intentionally, patiently, taking the time to find the perfect word, her speech as curated as her wardrobe, her shades of nail polish, and her career. But if you want to break through her composure, you need only mention John Singer Sargent or Henri Matisse or that time in Venice she saw a Pollock out of the frame. Once, when visiting Meg in Italy with Phoebe Armstrong ‘15, an Australian couple seated next to us at dinner began lamenting the shortcomings of modern art. Phoebe and I gulped our wine excitedly, aware of the impromptu lecture Meg would soon give.  

Since graduating with a Bachelors in Arts Management and Museum Studies, Meg has spent four months in Venice; six in Portland, Oregon; a year in Philadelphia; and a few sprinkled weeks in Switzerland, Scotland, Pittsburgh, and Indiana. Currently, she is working at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) in Boston as the Von Hess Visitor Learning Intern, but will soon return to finish her masters in Museum Education at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Though I suspect she is a little fatigued from perpetual motion, a life in flux has its merits—she can navigate public transportation better than anyone, including Venetian water taxis. 

Meg first went to Italy as a Vira I. Heinz Program for Women in Global Leadership scholarship recipient in 2015, spending a summer studying the language. She returned a year later, after graduating from Chatham, for a semester-long internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, a major destination for fans of contemporary art. Within two months, she was supervising the rest of the interns.

On paper, it’s quite remarkable, but the longer you know her, the more these impressive feats begin to run together—Meg manifests opportunity and opportunity loves Meg. Despite an indisputably solid resume, she maintains that her most educational moments have come from watching the way others interact with art, particularly those from different backgrounds. Meg notes that at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, “there were about 25 interns every month and only a few other Americans at any given time…it was the first time that I really felt the importance of working professionally with people who have different cultural perspectives.”  

Inside the ISGM, Meg directs me to the museum’s fife canary, a shockingly yellow fellow named Whistler. He is my favorite part of the museum and she knows he will be; that’s her job. Inclusions like a pet canary make a museum feel kind and welcoming, rather than stuffy or pretentious. These are the touches that Meg values most deeply, because they make the visitors feel as attended to as the art. 

Meg’s appreciation for museums has been blooming since adolescence. When life failed to be consistent for her, art showed up. Growing up first in Cleveland, then Pittsburgh, then Portland, Oregon, her scattered homes needed a tether. In Cleveland, she remembers the massive John Singer Sargent coffee table book her mother, an artist, kept in the dining room. It was Pittsburgh where Meg discovered her love of introducing others to museums in an accessible way. Working as a teen docent in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Meg spent adolescent Saturdays encouraging museum visitors to touch pieces of fabric that simulated the texture of animal exhibits. She says of the museum: “The Carnegie immediately felt like my home…it always felt special and comforting.”

Meg eventually returned to the Carnegie, this time as an intern at the Carnegie Museum of Art, when she came to Chatham in 2013.  “I was very timid…but you made me feel comfortable,” she says of the beginning of our friendship, one that started with me as her first-year orientation leader. She found a rare kind of family at Chatham, one that resulted in letters of recommendation, cross-continental friendships, and in the rarest cases, Swiss Army knives. Meg was universally respected, not just because of her characteristic studiousness and hunter-green tights, but because of the way she wholly committed herself to Chatham amidst significant change. In the long exhaustive discussions we had leading up the the co-ed transition, she was always by my side, and when we devoted ourselves to maintaining Chatham’s essence, she led the way: “I think the sense of community at Chatham was the biggest thing, not just with the students, but with the faculty.”

She goes on to list her mentors: Beth Roark, Prajna Parasher, Corey Escoto, Bill Lenz. “I probably wouldn’t have applied for the Guggenheim internship if Dr. Roark hadn’t told me that I should,” she says. And her ties to Pittsburgh remain strong: She is collaborating with the Carnegie Museum of Art on her graduate thesis which will explore dialogue-based public tours and the connections they create between the visitor and contemporary art.

There is no doubt that Meg will be continue to be successful, and beyond that, her work seems to affirm her every day. She recalls a day at the Guggenheim when a blind sculptor named Felice led vision-impaired children through an exercise. First the children interacted with 3-D reproductions of some of the museum’s paintings, allowing them to touch the landscapes and look up closely at them. Next, Felice led them through a workshop where they made a self portrait out of clay. He guided them in touching their faces, sculpting the clay, touching again. Meg’s eyes fill up with tears.  

“Often times people feel like a museum is only for a certain type of person with a certain type of understanding; museum education really shows that this treasure can be relevant to everyone’s life.”

Scanlon and author Chloe Bell, ‘15

Scanlon and author Chloe Bell, ‘15

Once, shortly after we’d become friends, Meg told me that she admired me because of the contradictions that made up my identity (like my majors, English and Chemistry). It was my favorite compliment. Now I look at her, and the life she is building, and can’t help feeling the same thing. Her favorite works in Isabella’s collection are Christ Carrying the Cross by Giovanni Bellini, a self-explanatory piece, and El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, a portrait of a woman dancing for an audience in a dimly lit dancehall. She is both steadfastly devoted and weaving her way through a hazy room; navigating the dreams she has amassed like metrocards.