In this week's Oberlin Shansi Fellowship Alumni Profile, we are delighted to feature Ruby Saha. Ruby graduated in 2014 majoring in Art History and served as a Shansi Fellow in Yogyakarta, Indonesia from 2014-2016. Since finishing her Fellowship, Ruby has earned a Master's degree in Arts Management and has worked in a variety of roles in the arts, including a textile conservation gallery in Bali and her current position as Assistant Director of development for UChicago Arts.
Ruby posing at the top of Borobudur Temple during her first week in Yogyakarta
Could you tell us about your current work at UChicago Arts?
I help design and execute fundraising strategy for a suite of arts initiatives at the University of Chicago, known collectively as UChicago Arts. Mostly I write grant applications and reports, but since the programs are still relatively new and our team is small, I'm also able to work on building out fundraising infrastructure like designing a membership program, developing our brand identity, and strengthening our cases for funding. I care a lot about supporting and advocating for arts programs that partners directly with local communities to address socioeconomic needs, so this has been a great opportunity for me and I'm learning a lot about Chicago's South Side communities and the many ways in which art can be a vehicle for social good.
Could you describe your career path post-fellowship?
After completing my fellowship, I stayed in Yogyakarta for a few months teaching English at a local private school before moving to Bali to work for Threads of Life, a textile conservation gallery in Ubud that works with rural communities across the Indonesian archipelago to revitalize indigenous weaving practices and sustainable resource management. At Threads of Life, I curated, designed, and wrote catalogues for their benchmark textile collection, which represents some of the finest examples of Indonesian handmade textiles as well as the vast diversity of cultures across Indonesia's islands. Working in a small creative business alongside the gallery's founders gave me the chance to delve deep into Indonesian cultural traditions but also made me realize I knew almost nothing about working in the arts industry. As an art history major, I always thought my career path would be in teaching/academia or curating in a museum or gallery, but working at Threads gave me an inside look at the wide variety of roles and responsibilities that are essential to any arts organization, which really broadened my perspective on what I could pursue. I figured I had a lot more to learn so I came back to the US to study Arts Management at Carnegie Mellon University. During my program I did several internships that allowed me to explore different arts industry roles, from planning visual arts exhibitions at a student-run gallery to designing social media and digital marketing strategies for a performing arts organization in Washington, DC. In my second year I focused a lot on development and marketing through a few different roles and the summer after I graduated I began working as the Assistant Director of Development for UChicago Arts, which is where I am now!
Ruby learning how to weave a textile from a Balinese weaver at a Threads of Life workshop in Ubud
How has your Shansi Fellowship contributed to your professional journey?
The Shansi Fellowship really helped my career find direction by placing me in a creative and entrepreneurial environment and giving me the tools to explore and experiment. Yogyakarta is such a magnet for young artists both in Indonesia and outside of it, while also maintaining a vibrant living tradition of classical Javanese artistic practices. Outside of teaching, I spent a lot of time hanging out in galleries and talking to creative people who were also still trying to figure out what they wanted to do. In one of those conversations, a few months into my fellowship, I learned about Threads of Life and I dreamed of someday moving to Bali and working at the gallery. My experience living in a major Indonesian cultural center, gaining fluency through the language immersion program, and working with colleagues at UGM who are deeply knowledgeable about Indonesian culture, religion, and society, were all critical in helping get me to the point where I could actually live that out. I had no idea that working at Threads of Life would open up so many opportunities I hadn't even thought of before Shansi.
What advice would you give to Fellows who have recently finished their Fellowships?
Don't be afraid to reach out to past Fellows for help or advice. The Shansi Fellowship is such a unique experience and past Fellows have all dealt with the uncertainty of reaching the end of the Fellowship without any clear path forward, so there's a lot to learn from their experiences. I've connected with both Indonesia and non-Indonesia Fellows a few times since completing my fellowship and I've really appreciated being able to talk about the post-Fellowship experience with someone who just gets it. It's also amazing how the Shansi alumni network represents such a wide variety of professional pathways; connecting with past Fellows was especially helpful for me when I was exploring graduate programs and ways in which my fellowship experiences could apply to different fields of study.
Can you tell us a favorite / memorable moment from your time as a Shansi Fellow?
There are so many, it's hard to pick just one! My trip to Japan at the end of my first year was definitely a major highlight of my fellowship. I originally applied for the Machida fellowship so it was interesting to learn more about the site and talk about what we had all learned in the past year. I've wanted to visit Japan since I was a teenager and the chance to explore with people who knew their way around was such a treat; I was able to see a lot of places that I would never have found as a regular tourist, but we also did some more typically touristy things together. One day all the Machida Fellows and I took a trip to Yokohama to see visit the Cup Ramen museum--which I highly recommend, it's fascinating--and we got to design our own cup noodles (and eat them)! I've been fortunate to have travelled a lot in my life, but that trip remains one of the best.
What do you think is unique about a Shansi Fellowship?
Coming from a place like Oberlin and being in the same community for 2 years, especially with the immersive language training, helps build deep connections and gives the space needed to think about how we use this time and occupy this space as Fellows. By the time I began writing my first annual Fellowship report, I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of what I found intriguing about Yogyakarta/Indonesia and was already saying goodbye to fellows from other programs who would never get the chance to learn from what they did in the first year and how they might do things differently. I'm all about building systems and thinking about ways to be more efficient, so I loved that I had the chance to do that as a Fellow. It's also amazing, especially in Yogyakarta, how far back the relationship goes with the faculty and staff at the partner site who have met fellow after fellow and still remember all their names and ask about each one.
Ruby working as a volunteer for the 2017 TEDxUbud conference in Ubud