We had the good fortune of connecting with James Fishburne, PhD and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi James, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
When I evaluate risk, the most important factor I consider is balance. I try to balance short term risk with long term reward, or the risk involved in doing something vs. opting not to do it. I also try to balance an analytical vs. intuitive approach. Relying on intuition often feels riskier, but when a situation involves many unknown factors, it can be a much more reliable means of evaluation.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Some aspects of my career trajectory are extremely conventional, while other parts are rather unorthodox. I majored in art history as an undergraduate, but I did so while on a Naval ROTC scholarship. After college, I spent a few years in the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer. I was stationed on a helicopter aircraft carrier based in San Diego, but we spent about half of the time deployed overseas. I learned a lot during this period, but I wasn’t really cut out for a life at sea. I genuinely missed art history. When I got out of the Navy I worked in a small art museum — the American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA) — while I applied to graduate school in art history. I was accepted by UCLA and from 2006-2014 I was an MA and PhD student. My focus was the Italian Renaissance and I was fortunate enough to split my time between LA and Italy. It really was a dream come true. Once I finished my PhD, I worked at the Getty for a few years and taught art history courses at local colleges, but these weren’t permanent jobs. I wondered how I might continue a career in Renaissance art history while living in 21st-century Los Angeles. In 2018 I got my big break. I was hired as the Director of Forest Lawn Museum, which is the art museum located within Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. I never thought that I would want to work at a cemetery, but I love it! The art collection is vast and it is an incredible combination of old and new. Forest Lawn has one of the world’s largest collections of full-scale replicas of Michelangelo sculptures, one of the largest stained glass collections in the United States, and a panoramic painting that is nearly 200 feet long and 4 stories tall. I realize that looking at art and traveling to Italy sounds like a charmed existence, and in many ways it is. But there aren’t many jobs in art history, so it’s tough to find your niche once you’re in the professional world. I have two pieces of advice for anyone looking to pursue a career in the arts: don’t be afraid to ask for help and think strategically. I would never have made it through grad school, let alone gotten a job in the art world, without the help of so many professors, curators, friends, and classmates. Strategic thinking is also important, which is something I learned the hard way. My initial sub-specialty was Italian Renaissance numismatics (the study of coins and medals). Unfortunately, there’s little need for an expert in 500-year-old currency, so I pivoted to focus my efforts on Renaissance art in the modern world and this helped me land my job at Forest Lawn Museum.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I would start out with two types of art: big and bigger! The Velaslavasay Panorama is a fun art space/theater with a 360 degree painting inside. They also host interesting special events. My wife took me here on our second date, and it’s where we got married a few years later. We would then visit the massive painting of the Crucifixion at Forest Lawn, which is the largest painting in the Western United States. Viewing it is truly a sublime experience. As for food, we would need to eat tacos at least twice. Tacos al pastor at the Ave. 26 taco stand are delicious and Ricky’s Fish Tacos never disappoint. Korean barbecue is also essential. There are so many great options in Koreatown, and my favorite spot is Yang San Bak. The moat of kimchi surrounding the grill is a nice touch. I know it sounds cheesy, but I think a hike to the Hollywood Sign is a must-do for tourists and locals. I prefer the route starting at Bronson Caves. This adds a fun “Hollywood” bonus, since you can visit the filming location for the Adam West-era Batcave. A trip to the beach is great anytime of year. I prefer Santa Monica, north of the pier. The beach is incredibly wide, so it never feels crowded, and there are great views of the rollercoaster to the south and the sweeping Malibu coastline to the north. The best place to take a visitor for a drink is Clifton’s in DTLA. It feels like you’re hanging out in a Wes Anderson movie, and it only gets more surreal if you head into Pacific Seas, which is the hidden tiki bar upstairs.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My parents always encouraged my love of the arts and my academic pursuits. My mom majored in art history and my parents took me to art museums throughout my childhood. Without this early exposure, I never would have considered pursuing a career in museums. My wife has also been incredibly patient and supportive. We met while I was still in graduate school, and she stood by me as I persevered through the final years of writing my dissertation. Clare Kunny, the Founder and Director of Art Muse Los Angeles, is an incredible mentor. I met Clare as I was entering the professional arena and she has served as a great source of encouragement and guidance, especially in my early years of navigating the LA art world.