If the next time you are at the Academy Art Museum (AAM) admiring a work of art, and a teen comes over to you with details about both the artwork and the artist, don’t be surprised–it’s one of the AAM’s interns, and they will be able to tell you a lot about what you may be admiring. That’s thanks in part to an amazing program instituted by new Museum Director Sarah Jesse, who oversaw a similar program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The project involves 10 area high school students who were accepted for the once-a-week paid internship. “It’s a great experience for the teens to gain this kind of insider knowledge of what it is like to do work in the cultural sector,” says Jesse. “We have reached out to teens who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity like this, and the program also benefits the museum.”
Co-taught/mentored by the Director of Children’s Education and Community Programs, Constance Del Nero and Chestertown-based artist Jason Patterson, the 24-week position allows the students to learn different aspects of museum work.
Explains Del Nero, “Most people when they visit a museum don’t give a whole lot of thought as to what goes on behind the scenes. People may perhaps think about the curator as the person who chooses the works. Still, not a lot of thought is given as to how it is chosen, how to contact the people who own the work, whether it’s other museums or galleries, educational institutions, or the artists themselves. There’s a whole lot of getting to know other people, making connections, asking permissions, unpacking the work, insuring it, etc. Then there are the choices that need to be made with hanging it, what kind of story it tells, and the wall text that gives you background information about what you’re looking at. Basically, the museum world offers plenty of supremely exciting careers.”
Besides the more obvious jobs, most museums also have an art appreciation/art lesson component, such as those offered by AAM, which provides a robust selection of art classes, a bonus for some interns who see art in their future. This is something Patterson can relate to. “One of the driving forces for me in this,” he says, “is remembering that when I was their age, I knew I wanted to be an artist. So I think about what are the things I wish somebody would have told or shown me and how can I bring that into this program.”
The project will also give the interns an opportunity to visit other museums to see how they may differ. But whether different or the same, ultimately, the program’s goal is to increase the comfort level of these future museum appreciators who can then pass on that ease to others.
“A lot of people will walk by a museum,” says Del Nero, “and think of it as a place where they don’t belong, or a place that might not welcome them or that doesn’t interface with their interests or their community. So we want our interns to realize that a museum is a dynamic place where everyone is welcome. Certainly, if someone discovers that they would love to have a career in a museum, that’s wonderful and a real plus. But we’re looking to expand the kinds of people who come to our museum. We have identified that we do a great deal with both children and retired people. But there is that enormous middle that we don’t have an interaction with them and who we want to attract.”
And just how they will do that is part of the intern’s final presentation. Says Jesse, “They are charged with organizing a teen night at the museum at the end of the program in June and giving tours to their peers. The interns are helping us cultivate a teen audience and giving us insider access into what teens need and want from an art museum. They bring energy to the museum. And over time, we hope the program helps create a pipeline of the next generation of diverse cultural workers.”
All of which fits in perfectly with the museum’s mission: “We are interested and are working on,” says Del Nero, “making sure that diverse audiences can come here and see themselves represented. Percentage-wise, we have more female artists in our permanent collection than most other museums do, and we’re working to collect more work by women and artists of color. So we also want our teen interns to see themselves in a museum setting, to feel comfortable, and think of the possibility of this being a career choice. Not everyone who comes has to be dreaming of working in a museum. And not everyone who comes has to consider themselves an artist, although some do.”
Del Nero is perhaps underestimating how this experience has already impacted the interns.
For El Tilghman, a junior from St. Michaels High School, that change began on the first day the group met when they heard a lecture by New York-based photographer Kris Graves: “I’ve always put photography on the back burner because I didn’t think I could really pursue that. And then hearing how he grew up, looking at some of the pictures he’s taken, and how he helps other up-and-coming photographers was motivating. I talked to him afterwards and told him how he had inspired me to go on with my dream. And I haven’t looked back since. I know this is what I want to do, and it’s the greatest feeling ever.”
Madeline Principe, a senior at Easton High, spoke about how her desire to be an artist changed as she got older. “So that dream slowly started to die within me, and it was kind of sad, but I started to think about how I wouldn’t be able to succeed. And so now I’m in the process of choosing what college to go to, and this internship has been a great opportunity for me to explore the art field and learn about art history and the ins and outs of museum operations. if I like what I’m doing here, then I’ll like what I’ll be doing if I go to an art college, so it’s a great way for me to decide what I want in my future.”
Alondra Moreno-Santana, also from Easton High, agrees: “I always knew that I wanted to paint, but I lost hope when people would tell me there’s no money in art, so I shouldn’t go into that field. Coming from a Hispanic background, there’s always that pressure to succeed and help the family. So working here has been very eye-opening to see that there are so many other places in the art world where you could be successful and do something you love.”
From St. Michaels High, Finn Kealy feels that this internship shows that art can be a career choice. “This has definitely solidified my decision to minor in Art History. I feel like, hey, maybe I can do this. I can be an artist and be successful in doing what I love.”
The same sentiment was expressed by North Caroline High School senior Sandy Monter-Casio, who had just found out she had been accepted to Johns Hopkins: “In school, everything is so STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curriculum) based nowadays. I feel like my interests and my hobbies were not being encouraged. Museums have been a huge part of my life ever since I was young, but I always felt like I didn’t have the right support network. It’s great to be with a group of people who have the same interests and who are being encouraged to pursue them. I’m glad we’re here.”
Easton High student Honey Bonilla-Velasquez takes more of a philosophical outlook. “Art can have many routes, and working behind the scenes in a museum is still art-related. We are still looking at art and deciding what to keep and where it should go. It’s more about taking care of it than making it, and that’s the thing. Making it is different from taking care of it, but it’s all still art.”
Not all the teens are unsure of their career path. Maddie Kintop from Kent Island High knows her future is definitely in the art industry. “This program,” she says, “is helping me to better understand the path to what I really want to do.” It was even simpler to India Roberts, from Easton High than that. “I just love doing art and wanted to learn more about it.
But an art career isn’t the only takeaway from this program. The interns are also learning life skills. This is how Reni Zolt, from Wye River Upper Schools, describes it: “I’ve always had a bit of a problem with being able to speak in public, and I wanted to develop that ability since the things I want to do throughout life have to do with being on target with what I want to say. I have multiple interests, but they all involve speaking to a crowd. So presenting things, whether it’s a piece of art or even an announcement, is something I wanted to experience before I graduated.”
By this summer, the group will have ended their internship and moved on, and in the fall a new group will be selected to take their place. Their teacher/mentors will rely on the input they will receive from this inaugural program participants, but from the feedback we heard, they wouldn’t change a thing. Whatever the future will bring, these teens are well on their way to being a part of it.