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For Laina Wilson ’23, the art is in the data, too

Laina Wilson ’23

Laina Wilson ’23 has always loved art as a creative outlet.

“Once it starts to become work, it doesn’t feel like fun,” she said.

So instead of making art her profession, she plans to combine her passion with her analytical skills and pursue a career in art finance. Her 2021 summer internship with the Smithsonian Institute’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden confirmed it’s the right combination for her.

“While most of my day-to-day work was spent recording data or compiling quarterly reports, I was still able to interact directly with the art and artists within the museum,” said the economics and art history double major. “This internship was the exact experience I needed.”

Wilson had gone to Furman’s Internship Office for help finding a position in the art world. Andy Coe ’91, assistant director at the office, didn’t have anything in his database.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. At Furman, “there’s a pay-it-forward kind of culture that I think we have,” Coe said. “At the heart of it is: How do we help students have a great experience?”

He connected Wilson to Patrick Kerley ’04, a Furman graduate based in Washington, D.C., who then made introductions at the Smithsonian that led to Wilson’s Hirshhorn position.

Wilson assisted the museum with audience insight, looking at data such as visitor numbers, website interactions and YouTube program viewership. It was “grunt work,” she said, laughing, but put her skills to good use. She also conducted research on how other museums were pivoting and responding to pandemic limitations.

For her final project, she planned a focus group for fall 2021 to gather input on a planned revitalization of Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden, which opened with the museum in 1974. The revitalized garden will be more interactive and environmentally appropriate as well as more accessible.

Wilson’s summer work with Hirshhorn was entirely virtual, but she was able to take a day trip to the museum when she visited a local friend at the end of the summer.

Laina Wilson ’23 (right) visits the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

“I saw the actual garden that I worked on,” she said. It felt bigger in person than it had on screen.

Wilson said exposure to the daily functioning of a museum was a key benefit of the internship.

The work will provide a counterpoint when she interns in summer 2022 with The Fine Art Group, which offers art-secured loans, advises private collectors and assists with investments in art.

Clients come in with millions to invest, and the group has handled more than $1.3 billion in art transactions. It’s a far cry from the world of a publicly funded museum, where the budget for Wilson’s focus group was zero.

“Those people really love, love, love the art,” she said.



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