By Matt Sinclair ’90
In this age of specialization, liberal arts majors often hear questions about what they hope to accomplish with a degree in English or art history. Of course, the answer is “whatever they want.”
Take Ellis Kelleher ’08 for example. An English graduate originally from New Jersey, she now lives in England and manages The Maas Gallery in London—one of the top galleries in the art district. “Being a gallery manager sounds more glamorous in theory than it is in practice,” Kelleher says, “but I love it.”
Having earned a fair amount of prestige in its 50-year history, the gallery remains relatively small. Kelleher is one of two full-time employees, the other being Rupert Maas, a frequent guest on BBC’s “Antiques Roadshow.” With Maas often traveling and involved in a variety of projects, Kelleher covers all aspects of running the gallery, dealing with framers, restorers, and clients as well as editing catalogs and handling myriad administrative tasks.
The Maas Gallery, where she started as an unpaid intern, specializes in 19th- and 20th-century British art, hundreds of years more modern than the life and times of Shakespeare and his peers, which she was studying while earning her master’s at King’s College, University of London.
Indeed, steeping herself in mundane administrative tasks as well as the profound beauty and nuance of the artwork suits Kelleher just fine. “The field involves decoding these works of art,” she says. “Sometimes the research is difficult and complex, but that’s the fun of it.”
One of the joys of working in a commercial art gallery as opposed to a museum is that the collection is constantly changing. “We don’t have permanent installations as such, but a continuous flow of items coming in, being sold, being brought back, etc.,” she explains.
Still, when asked to declare a favorite, she ponders momentarily, then says: “The piece I’m most excited about is a portrait of a girl called Amy Gaskell, who was a model for many Pre-Raphaelite painters, the most important being Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. According to her family, she ‘died of a broken heart’–which, in reality, meant she committed suicide. Painted by a relatively obscure female painter, Annora Martin, who flourished from 1890 to 1905, it is beautiful and haunting.”
Kelleher says what led to her being offered the full-time job was skills she honed at Lafayette. “My boss asked me to edit the gallery’s catalog,” she recalls. “As I got deeper into the project, I became frustrated and went to him and said, ‘Can I rewrite this. It’s just wrong.’ I redid the entire catalog.”
Although she considers herself a natural writer, she claims she didn’t really learn how to write until her junior year at Lafayette. When she received a grade of “B-plus-plus” from Ian Smith, professor of English, she questioned him. “He said it was only a second draft,” she recalls, “I was infuriated,” and determined to excel. During her senior year, Kelleher, who also completed a minor in art history, was a student writing assistant for Diane Ahl, Rothkopf Professor of Art. She learned to scrutinize every word, sentence, and paragraph. “Writing my undergrad thesis with Smith as my adviser was such a joy and a chore. He was so hard, but the experience gave me the confidence to go on.”
As a junior, she studied abroad at University of Sydney in Australia, although she says it is not ‘studying’ in the traditional sense. “You go abroad to inject yourself into a different culture, to absorb and experience all of it. If you don’t, it’s a wasted opportunity. My parents had to come to Australia to retrieve me.”
Despite being a seasoned traveler, Kelleher recalls that it took time to get accustomed to life in London – an eclectic city she loves. “The longer I’ve been here and the longer I’ve been in my set circles, the easier it’s gotten,” she says. “When I first meet English people, it can be a bit of a struggle. I’m still very much a Yank in their eyes.”
London has a much different feel for art than New York City or any other metropolitan area she’s known. “The idea of having art and owning art is so engrained here,” she says. “The middle class, for example, has always acquired art.”
Kelleher is a strong advocate for studying abroad, but notes that it is different than working abroad. “Studying abroad will prepare you for working with different cultures,” she says. “For me, the importance of studying abroad has been growing up, maturing. But working abroad is different. I don’t know if or when I’ll go back to the United States to live. I’ve made a life here.”