Studio Check In With Joliana Hunter-Ellin
Joliana, thank you for taking the time to speak with us! Could you please start by telling the readers about your role at the institution?
I am a Senior Staff Accountant at The Studio Museum in Harlem. I work in finance, supporting all of the departments and the Museum in different capacities. We like to think of ourselves as helping the business function, and we think of the employees and the other departments as clients—we are serving in that way. For example, the Education Department is our client, and they submit their expenses and requests, and we help them function from that standpoint.
It sounds like a lot of managing relationships around money, what is something you have to consider when you have sensitive transactions involving so many people and parties?
When working with people in general, regardless of what capacity you’re in, it’s all about communication. When you’re working with money, it's really about reaching out to people, keeping them in the loop, and allowing them to feel heard. Everyone wants to be heard, so I give a lot of updates and let people know where I am in the stage of the process I am in. Within our department, we're all close and have a good relationship so we can easily bounce ideas off of each other if we don’t know how to approach a situation. I love to talk to people, and I’m a very open person in general, so I think it's about open communication when dealing with different departments and people
When I think about finance, the word exactitude comes to mind. What is a characteristic or quality that you bring to your role that you think people don’t generally associate with finance-related positions?
My curveball is that I have no finance background. I actually went to school for art and media production. I started working out of college at Jim Kempner Fine Art, and at the same time, I was interning at the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). I started working at NYFA part-time after my internship, working with artists and emerging organizations on different projects. I helped them plan different events and build their organizations through administrative channels like writing budgets and grant writing. Along the way, I started working in finance, though I never had a formal background in it. It is strange but not that strange because nonprofits are all about wearing multiple hats. You eventually fall into one of those hats, and you stay there. Sheila, our former Deputy Director, didn’t go to school for finance either and had a different background when coming into this sector, so we used to talk about that when I first started here.
Do you still have an art practice outside of your current administrative work?
I try to make art as much as possible. It's definitely hard. I have a hard time committing myself to the idea that I am a “working artist,” so I’ll put quotes around it, but I need to commit myself to that identity because I really do identify with it. I’m an artist, and I have my workspace. I make art when I can, but I try not to put pressure on myself. I make things for myself, my friends, and my family. I’ve been trying to be bolder and share my work online. I also make jewelry for loc’d, braided, or twisted hair. In general, I like to work with my hands and build things around the house or repurpose things
Early in your career, you were probably facing a conundrum, as many early-career creatives I know have, feeling pressure to decide between being a practicing artist and an administrator. What helped you focus on administrative work but also continue your own creative practice outside of your work?
That is such a true statement. When I was working at NYFA, in the fiscal sponsorship department, we granted access to our 501c3 status over to organizations and groups so they could be supported by us. We were helping them build up their processes, operations, and projects. I was working directly with artists and organizations, and it was honestly so gratifying and beautiful. I’d never worked in that way with artists, from the background and business standpoint, and it was very educational to me and for the artists, I worked with. Being able to help someone start with an idea and go full circle to an outcome, to support this growth with resources and information, was moving.
I have always struggled with showing my art, outrightly, but this was a great medium to be involved in the art world but still be more behind the scenes. I felt like I was good at what I was doing, I was learning new skills, and I was learning things about myself, but it was about helping artists succeed and that I was a part of that success. As you know, there is so much that goes into every step of the way, and you aren't taught certain things in art school. You aren’t taught how to write a budget, how to write a grant. These are things that working artists need to know, so to help spread that knowledge was great and meaningful for me.
I am a cat lady. We own it; there's no shame involved in it. Once you cross that line and commit to being a cat lady, you’re proud of it. I proudly wear that badge.
Time feels different these days, but I want us to think about the future together. Tell me something you are doing right now, in this moment, that an older version of you would be proud of?
I thought you were going to go negative! I’ve been proud of a lot of things; there have been a lot of positives. It's crazy to say that in such a wild year, with so much pain, hurt, madness, ups, and downs, that there can still be positives amongst all of that. I’ve had a year that has been positive within it all, but one thing I am happy about is making more art. But we already talked about art, so I want to talk about being an amazing plant mom! I am very surprised and proud of myself, and I didn’t think that I could do it. My plants are flourishing and growing, and I didn’t think I could be this responsible.
I think the world is complicated and filled with negativity, but even moments of terror can still have some positivity to them. The challenge is that we have to look for it, if for no other reason than wanting to see the next day. What is something that you do in tough or complicated times that helps you unwind, take the weight off your shoulders, and feel better?
I listen to a lot of music and podcasts. I’m a big music person, and I love dancing. I'm that person that puts music on and does contemporary movements in my apartment, just dancing and being loose and fun. I get my cats to dance with me too.
I heard cat(s), plural, meaning you have more than one! So what is a stereotype that you openly own about being a cat person?
I am a cat lady. We own it; there's no shame involved in it. Once you cross that line and commit to being a cat lady, you’re proud of it. I proudly wear that badge. I talk about my cats all the time, and if you give me an opportunity, I will show you pictures and videos, it's so true. It’s not a stereotype; it's real!
So how has it been at home, with all your cats around you all the time?
I’m pretty sure they’re tired of me now; they’re like, “why are you still here?” I think other animals are happy their owners are home right now, but mine are like, “give me some damn space!” I think one thing I’ve realized is that they are more jealous than I ever thought before. They’re very overprotective, and they’re so jealous of each other's time with me. I guess I never realized that. I am like, ‘omg, you are so obsessed with me’ but also, calm down, there is enough of me for everyone!
So we definitely have to include a photo since you brought it up. What are their names?
So I’ve got Anuk (from The Mummy), Appa (from Avatar), and Arya (from Game of Thrones).
Last question! So, because you handle the “shmoney,” what is your favorite money-related song? What’s the song you sing when you’re writing or cashing checks?
I love this. I have all these different songs playing in my head! I think the song that really gets me excited is ‘Bandz a Make Her Dance.” It’s really straight up and direct, and it makes me think about money!
Y'all are lucky I am not in the Finance Department because I’d be singing and playing money songs all day. So on that note, thank you so much for your time!