Alumni Q&A: An Interview with Media & Information Alumnus Jacob Roberts

From working on the exhibitions team for the Broad Art Museum to working for a full-scale permanent environment production studio, ‘18 Media and Information alumnus Jacob Roberts is blossoming in his career. At Bluewater Studio, Roberts uses his experience working on museum exhibits to create storytelling environments. 

Michigan State University and ComArtSci invited Roberts to share his alumni experience.

Q. When you look back at your life and work so far, what gives you the most pride?

A. Looking back at my life as it relates to my career, I would say that I am most fulfilled by the friends and mentors I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the past few years. The friends I was able to collaborate with during my time as a student will go on to be great artists, creatives and stars in their fields. Unique and collaborative environments I’ve worked in, such as the Broad Art Museum, the MSU Museum of Science and Culture and Bluewater Tech, have the tendency to attract bright individuals. Surrounding myself with diverse and talented groups means that I am always challenged to engage new perspectives and think differently.
 
The wide range of mentors I have been able to find in life, many at MSU, have proven to be invaluable to me. They showed me the way to execute my goals, and transform passion into skills that got me from point A to B. When I have the chance to give back to my friends, family and mentors: that gives me the most pride!

Q. What inspires you to work toward your goals and accomplishments?

A. I am inspired by transformation. Whether you work in media or the arts, or generally consume media, we are constantly surrounded by stories of powerful transformation. We are captivated by the journeys of our personal heroes, fictional or real. We all have our own story that we develop over time, and my goal is to be constantly recreating myself. I feel accomplished when I adapt to new environments and roles. I feel that when we measure ourselves by personal growth and transformation, our success is no longer limited by the definition of someone else.

Q. Could you describe a day in your professional life?

A. Bluewater is an audio-visual company that creates environments, experiences and events with technology at the core. My role with Bluewater is to develop strategic partnerships for Bluewater Studio. Bluewater Studio is a specialized business unit within Bluewater that was launched in 2017 as Bluewater’s environments and exhibitions wing. Bluewater Studio focuses on the production and fabrication of unique, high-end story-telling environments. To visualize this type of work, think of a museum exhibition, a high-end retail store or a branded corporate lobby. These are custom built, so each project is unique. I get to see these environments come to life in our shop-space each day thanks to the hard work of our talented team of craftspeople. 

Working in a business development position for Bluewater Studio, I fill our pipeline with introductory meetings so we can create new opportunities with brand and environment designers. My role consists of researching architecture and design firms to find ways we can collaborate. I develop strategic relationships with key leaders of top firms by conducting initial out-reach and educating designers on Bluewater Studio’s value as a production partner for their projects. I work closely with our Senior Vice President, Jim Hungerford and our studio leadership team to build business. I'm focused on maintaining relationships and being the first face forward for our team, so I have to keep a high-level of energy, stay in front of clients and prioritize their needs.

Q. What are some of the greatest challenges working in your field?

A. The biggest challenges working in the field of permanent environments is building trust and establishing a reputation for producing successful projects of scale and design complexity. I have to frame our team in a way that resonates with our design partners. We have to represent ourselves as being an effective producer, collaborative communicator and be tightly focused on meeting team success. To put it in perspective, the Bluewater Studio leadership team has been working with the architectural and design community for over two decades. Because they have been working with top creative teams for so long and have a passion for doing so, they have a great understanding and appreciation of design. 

I am new to the Bluewater Studio team, and to the field of permanent environments, so I lean on my sense of passion and curiosity to drive results. What I lack in technical expertise, I make up for by delivering a great sense of appreciation and understanding of the importance of the design work. I lean on my ComArtsSci background and my work in museums, as a student, that exposed me to exhibit design, and story-telling environments.

Q. What would you consider to be the defining point in your life or career?

A. The defining point of my career was working with the exhibitions team at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU. The exhibitions team, known internally as the Prep Team, is one of the best kept secrets at MSU and I am blowing the lid on it. They are the stealthy force that plans and installs all the exciting exhibitions that take place in the museum. Assisting with exhibitions taught me how to execute the vision and ideas of artists. This role allowed me to understand the process of story-telling in a physical medium, and the tricks we can use to manipulate an environment. The excitement of working with high-level artists and curators and collaborating with an amazing team set the standard I strive to achieve professionally. The Broad Museum has a great staff that cares about student success.

Q. What is the most important lesson you have learned along the way?

A. The most important lesson I’ve learned is the importance of collaboration. I operate under the philosophy that collaboration is more powerful than competition. When you bring the right group of people together to create something, it can sometimes feel like magic. I’ve gotten farther in life by being a facilitator and connector than I have by being a decision-maker. A good leader isn’t the best at everything, but can recognize strengths in others and knows when to step back and let others thrive. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people to reach common goals will yield positive results for everyone.

Q. What opportunities did you have at MSU or ComArtSci that helped you get where you are today?

A. My interest in environments began at the MSU Broad Art Museum, the world-class contemporary art museum designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid, where I worked on special events and exhibitions as a student. I was a dual presence at both of the campus museums until graduation. In addition to the Broad Art Museum, I worked at the MSU Museum of Science and Culture as a marketing intern and helped support the education and exhibition staff as a docent. During school, I assisted with massive exhibit installations and community engagement initiatives, and worked on projects involving augmented reality and digital art labels. Through these experiences I discovered a curiosity for the ways that people engage with space.
 
My work at the museums and the Museum Studies Program, which I adopted as my minor, provided a great creative focus for my Media and Information Degree. These dynamic spaces provided me with a laboratory to experiment with the tools and theories I learned in class. The exposure to digital media and technology applications through ComArtSci, along with my work at the museums, could not have prepared me more for the field of environments and experiences. I had amazing mentors I worked for at MSU who all helped me get where I am today.

Q. How do you give back to your community or motivate others to work toward the common good?

A. We are engulfed with digital platforms that enable a vast amount of connection in online communities, however this tends to be socially isolating. We need to create balance by immersing ourselves as much as possible in our immediate physical environment. The most important impact we can make is being physically present in the lives of others, whether that is in the community, your job or your social network. I tend to get involved by volunteering at my local arts organizations. I support the arts as much as possible and look to help artists execute their ideas. I most recently had the chance to volunteer with the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts at their Annual Holiday Artist Market in Grand Rapids, MI.

Q. What are your future plans or career goals?

A. My career goals are to facilitate the development of immersive experiences and unique physical spaces. I hope to further understand the way that people engage with space. I will continue to gravitate towards environments that foster creativity and collaboration. I would love to pursue further education in business or design to gain more expertise. I hope that through my career I can collaborate on projects that resonate with entire groups of people and the global community.

Q. What advice would you give to MSU and ComArtSci students?

A. Build your personal brand. Look for ways to set yourself apart, and begin to craft your own unique story and skill-set. Once you establish yourself in a field, and identify what you stand for, opportunities will begin to find you. If you can be the one to take on a new initiative at work or in class, you’ll create your own lane to thrive in. Seek out mentors who are in the positions you would like to be one day. Pay attention to their story and the path they took to where they are now. They will show you the steps to succeed. Don’t be afraid to volunteer, or to start at the bottom in a creative organization. This will establish you as a known quantity for when the role you desire opens up. Network!

By John Castro and Melissa Priebe