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Alumni Stories: Ellen Harrington '85

An Event Planning Career Worthy Of An Oscar

by Elliott May '06

harringtonWorried that your broad liberal arts degree has not prepared you for a specific career? Don’t be, welcome to the boat shared by many recent Dartmouth grads. Indeed, Ellen Harrington ’85 was once just like you. Yet now, as exhibition curator and special events programmer for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Harrington’s job actually requires her to walk down the Oscar’s infamous “Red Carpet,” sharing company with the likes of Johnny Depp, Kate Hudson and Tom Hanks. Her secret: “embrace the unlimited scope of opportunities rather than feeling anxious about an uncertain future, and don’t compromise until you can’t pay the rent.”

Harrington clearly embraced this mantra while still an undergrad at Dartmouth. Her experiences, both extracurricular and academic, were eclectic and extensive: radio DJ, IM skier, DOC member, and FSP traveler (on two occasions!), topped off with a modified Fine Arts and Comparative Literature major. With such a broad set of skills and passions, Harrington had, at the same time, nowhere and everywhere to go following her Dartmouth graduation. After bouncing around jobs and attending NYU Film School, Harrington found her perfect job.

“It is really two jobs in one,” Harrington confesses, ignoring the third phone call in minutes to her busy office, which is directly attached to her latest exhibit: “It’s Alive! Bringing Animatronic Characters to Life on Film.” Individually, none of Harrington’s areas of expertise led her directly to her 14-year career at the Academy. Yet collectively, it was this exact breadth of knowledge that qualified Harrington perfectly for her hectic occupation which is split between curating and designing events ranging from career tributes to the current Animatronics exhibit, while simultaneously undertaking the role of film programmer.

“My job is a great combination of all those bits of knowledge that people said you could never do anything with,” Harrington victoriously contends. To exemplify her point, Harrington praises the Dartmouth Foreign Study Programs for helping her become multilingual in French, Italian and Spanish. “I use all of them constantly, as my job often takes me abroad to do research or attend exhibition openings.”

Furthermore, Harrington lauds Dartmouth’s sense of being big enough to offer a wide range of opportunities, but be small enough that one can pursue his or her own interests. “One day, I just walked into ‘The D’s’ office and told them I wanted to write reviews for the Arts section. The next day I was in the office. You couldn’t do that at any other institution.”

In her position at the Academy, Harrington continues to apply all of her interests to the design of exhibitions and film series. The Academy Foundation, a non-profit branch of the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, funds Harrington’s programs. The Foundation has the rare ability to sustain itself largely without fundraising, as the broadcasting of the Academy Awards covers most expenses, providing Harrington with a considerable degree of latitude to design projects that intrigue her.

“The Academy has the world’s premier archive of film materials,” Harrington proudly states. The wide collection includes every book on film ever published in English, photographic stills, movie posters, and even the private collections of Alfred Hitchcock. Harrington has this immense archive at her fingertips, and she uses it to develop six public exhibitions a year, which are displayed in the academy’s two galleries, as well as in museums across the globe. Additionally, Harrington arranges a film series that is open to the public and presented in the Academy’s 1,000-seat theater.

Despite her actual job title, Harrington’s role is about as far from that of traditional “event planning” as you can go. On the evening of our interview, Harrington had arranged the twentieth anniversary screening for “Labyrinth,” which was to be followed by a forum with a cast and crew including the likes of David Bowie and the Jim Henson production team.

Although she admits that the “ ‘Red Carpet’ is like nothing you can ever imagine, full of flashbulbs and screaming,” and has presented career tribute awards to many prominent individuals, such as Billy Wilder and Sidney Poitier, Harrington is humble about her star-studded life. Instead, she focuses on more personally pressing matters, such as the hilariously cutthroat system of her children’s primary schools. In the very epicenter of Hollywood madness, where troops of flashing paparazzi appear mundane, Harrington has found a home and the job of her dreams.

Last Updated: 6/21/12