We are about a third of the way through our summer interns, and it’s already been a wild ride this year. Interning can be an exhilarating, boring, confusing, fun, motivating, and discouraging experience. Your experience as an intern is reliant on about 50% your environment and 50% your attitude. However, you need to make the most of that last 50%. So, here are the do’s and don’ts of interning in the Arts (probably a partial list).
But first: the art world has come under fire because of how loosely it uses the term “internship” (see that whole debacle over multi-million-dollar Marina Abramovic Institute looking for extremely qualified “volunteers”… and every episode of Gallery Girls). Some galleries take advantage, some stick to the boring basics (get me coffee, file this for the next 5 hours), and others give you an opportunity to grow. We’re in the latter category. So, like all things, understand that my tips below have a bit of a bias based on the idea that our interns are here to learn, to gain valuable skills, and to contribute to a project in some way.
Do: Ask questions (about the art, about how the gallery works, about upcoming projects).
Don’t: Ask a group of questions without first saying, “Hey, Becca. I’d love to ask you a few questions about *insert topic here*. Please let me know when you have a few minutes to go over them, or I can email them if you prefer.” If you have a question about the project you’re working on or need clarity about something I’m telling you, fine, absolutely ask right away. However, if you find yourself curious just to learn more about something regarding the business, and you know it’s going to be a bit of a conversation, have the courtesy to realize that while I love talking about our business, I have a million things to get done on any given day, and a 30-minute conversation on why we do what we do needs to be scheduled, not just launched. If I have the time right then, I’ll say I do.
Do: Take the first few weeks to really learn.
Don’t: Assume you know already the business, how it operates, and what we need to do. We had this great intern. Motivated, a real thinker, very sweet. But he/she thought he/she knew it all because of what his/her college classes taught him/her (okay, this is getting too much, let’s just go with “her”). College isn’t the real world, baby. She would present ideas on a regular basis totally unannounced and usually when I really needed to concentrate (see Don’t #1). When I or my partner would tell her, “interesting idea, but it’s really not going to work because of this and this and this,” or “we actually already tried that and it wasn’t a good fit for our business,” she would argue with us. That inability to accept criticism and/or learn was a total put-off. Needless to say, we didn’t keep her on. With that in mind…
Do: Express your ideas (about potential projects, new ways of running day-to-day operations, a better way to organize contacts).
Don’t: Express ideas without taking the time to first learn how we operate or having the ability to execute. Ideas are what fuel a business, we love it when even our interns come up with something new for us. However, in order for your ideas to have any weight or staying power, you really need to learn how our gallery works, what we’d like to accomplish in the next year, and what our main focus is. On the flip side of that, if you suggest something like “why don’t you arrange your artist image folder alphabetically?” and we say, “great! why don’t you work on that!” and you don’t have the time or know-how to execute, then basically you’re leaving us with another thing on our to-do list that we’re going to have to get done. And no one likes that. So, be prepared to execute on what you’re suggesting (don’t worry, we won’t have you do something you’re not prepared to do).
Do: Take “no” for an answer. I know, that goes against every self-help/business-of-life book, but as an intern, if I say “no” or “that won’t work for us,” this is not your opportunity to convince me otherwise. I know my business, I’ve been living and breathing and eating and sleeping it every day for five years. You just got here.
Don’t: Leave the “no” lying there or feel demoralized by it. Feel free to say, “ok. Do you think you can explain to me why it won’t work so that I can better understand how you operate?” That let’s me know you’re looking to learn and improve. Also, you need to be able to accept rejection. If it truly is an amazing idea, and your employer is just been stubborn, wait for an opportunity where you idea would be the solution to a problem he is having and mention it again then. If it’s still “no,” then make like Elsa and let it go.
Do: Occasionally stay late. The interns that impressed us the most (and that we hired/gave opportunities to/recommended for jobs) were the ones that, when we had a really big project or exhibition, stayed with us to see it through. I actually like having to tell someone, “please go home now, it’s past 5!”
Don’t: Be taken advantage of. The above said, if it’s your employer that is demanding you stay late on the regular, then speak up. As an intern, you’re presumably unpaid (especially in the Arts), and there are rules and regulations to how employers use their interns. Staying late on the night of an exhibition is one thing (and should be done – if you want to be a part of this business, you have to learn how it runs its events), but being asked on a daily basis to stay extra hours, or anything that just feels slimey, is a no-go.
Do: Get to know the artists. Ask them questions about their work, their story. Engage them in conversation at openings, ask what inspires them.
Don’t: Get to know the artists. *Ahem* It’s happened… and it’s gotten a bit gross and really awkward for everyone involved (or not involved). While I know the allure of the bohemian-artist-type, restrain yourself. Having your boss watch you stick your tongue down an artist’s throat in the corner at one of our openings does not instill the utmost confidence in your ability as a future professional. Just, let’s all keep it in our pants, shall we?
I’m sure there will be a Part 2 to this – so be sure to ask any questions in the comments!