About the fellowship

In 2009, University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum established the E. Gerald and Lisa O’Brien Curatorial Fellowship. Considered the premier curatorial fellowships in the nation, it generously provides funding for undergraduate students to achieve a paid curatorial museum staff position as they consider continuing toward a graduate degree. Students from University of Minnesota, University of Michigan, Rice University, Northwestern University, University of Maryland system, and University of Chicago are encouraged to apply.

Nearly thirty years later, O’Brien, who with his wife, Lisa O’Brien (Ph.D. ’04), funds the Weisman Art Museum’s E. Gerald and Lisa O’Brien Curatorial Fellowship, remembers the conversation well and laughs as he recounts the story now, but he was disappointed. He ultimately abandoned art history for a successful career as an institutional investment manager, first at Cargill and most recently as president and CEO of O’Brien-Staley Partners, but the experience stayed with him. Ten years ago, he and Lisa decided to provide art history students with a way to advance in the field—and make a living wage. The O’Brien fellowship was born.

Fellows are given a $25,000 stipend and work in the museum for one year, typically assisting senior curator Diane Mullin, and, most valuably, curating an exhibition on their own. According to WAM director Lyndel King, it’s a win–win.

Former O’Brien fellow Laura Joseph (Ph.D. ’15) agrees. She was finishing
her doctorate in art history at the University and was looking for additional fieldwork experience when she began her O’Brien fellowship in 2014. “The WAM staff allows fellows into the fold, meaning you’re not in the back room sorting through files,” she says. The stipend helped, too. “We don’t often like to talk about money in the arts,” Joseph says, “but regardless of whether or not you love something, your work needs to sustain you. The fellowship places a value on the work you do.”

The O’Briens, who have three school-age children, have an affinity for the arts and for the University and feel a responsibility to give back to organizations that have made a difference in their lives. In addition to the Weisman fellowship, their family has established a fund at the University of Chicago, where Jerry earned his MBA. Lisa is board chair of Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. Jerry served six years on WAM’s advisory board. They call the Weisman their “adopted museum.”

And they credit the Weisman’s staff for making the fellowship a success.
Says Jerry, “Do you remember playing the kids’ game, ‘Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors, see all the people’? The Weisman has a fantastic building—everyone knows it, they recognize it, it’s right on the river. The Weisman has a very deep collection. But the people at the Weisman are incredible—the camaraderie and the cross training and the team—that’s what I’m proudest of.”