So, You Want to Work in the Arts: The Internship Do’s and Don’ts

DOSDONTSART

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!

So, You Want to Work In The Arts?: The Interview

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Please check out an update to this post on my new blog, Girl With A Gallery.

 

Just as with any job, the interview for a job at a gallery is perhaps one of the most nerve-wrecking experiences an art-world hopeful can go through. As someone who has interviewed my fair share of prospective employees and interns, I can offer a bit of insight to prepare for your first step. Now, most of my recommendations and tips below apply to working at a for-profit contemporary art gallery showing international emerging artists.

What to Wear: Galleries are creative, professional environments. Most city, for-profit galleries are also extremely status-driven, so expect to impress with what you wear. Something slightly off-the-cuff is acceptable, as long as it’s executed well. And remember: you are going to sell high-end art, not car insurance. A stuffy two-piece suit from JC Penney is only acceptable if you wear it in a modern way, with amazing accessories. Also: spring for a $10 manicure and $20 blowout (or just take extra time on your hair that morning). We are a detail-oriented business and notice things such as dirty, chipped nails or split ends. Go here for a few outfit suggestions.

What to Bring: It should go without saying, but always, always, ALWAYS bring a copy of your resume, list of references, a notebook and pen, pre-prepared questions, and your daily planner. Bring a water bottle, too, just in case  you rescind my offer of water at the beginning and get sudden dry-mouth during the interview.

What to Expect: Most of my interviews begin with a quick introduction to our gallery and what we do, what the position will entail, then a review of the interviewee’s credentials. Expect basic questions like “do you know Adobe Creative Suite?” “Do you have experience hanging or packing artwork?” or “Can you tell me more about your experience at State University Art Gallery?” However, one of our biggest questions (that so many potential hires seem so ill-prepared for) is: “where do you see yourself in five years?” This is such a rote interview question, but 90% of people seem to stumble on it. So have a genuine, succinct, and creative answer so that you don’t fall flat. I am also going to ask you what contemporary artists you’re currently into (bonus points if your answer is not Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Tracy Emin, Ai Wei Wei or Jeff Koons– that just proves to me you Googled “famous contemporary artist” on you way to the interview) and be prepared to explain why in two to three sentences.

Key Skills: While there are a variety of skills you can acquire to be a competitive candidate for a gallery position, there are several key areas that truly make interviewees stand out from the crowd:

  • Adobe Creative Suite (esp. Photoshop)
  • Video editing
  • Experience with HTML or website development
  • Experience with managing and organizing inventory
  • Extensive knowledge of Excel

Please, please, PLEASE don’t tell me you know how to use the Internet and Microsoft Word. Unless you’re from Lancaster County, PA, I know you know how to Google.

What You Should Already Know: Basically, you should know the ins and outs of the gallery’s about page on their website. This includes: year founded, owner, mission statement, and gallery hours. You should also have a working knowledge of at least a handful of the artists they represent and understand what “type” of art they work with (post-modern, sculpture, glass, contemporary). If the gallery’s site is ambiguous, then feel free to jot a few questions down!

What to Ask: This is the important part. There’s nothing more lackluster than conducting an interview with someone who, when I turn the tables on them and see what questions they have for me, has nothing to offer up. This signals to me that you not only did zero research on the gallery, but you are also incapable of being pro-active on the job. So read up! Have questions prepared both about the position (ask them to define certain tasks) or about the history of the gallery. To help those of you out there preparing for your first interview, here are a few questions that most likely won’t be covered by the interviewer, but are sure to impress them:

1. How does your gallery interact with its artists: do you showcase the work, or are you actively involved in their career development? (Very generally speaking, there are two types of for-profit galleries: 1) Showcase galleries where they work with a variety of artists, show their work at openings, sell a few pieces, then pack the art up, cut the artist a check and send them on their way. Then, there are galleries like our gallery, where we represent artists under contract and are actively involved in developing their careers from studio to sale. Both models of galleries have their own merits, but if you want to be involved in the business side of art, the second type of gallery is really where you want to be. You’ll learn everything from the ins and outs of contract negotiation, to how ideas pass back and forth between gallerist and artist, to the PR involved in building the reputation of an artist, to that final moment in the life of a piece when a sale is made. I’m biased because I prefer to work with the artists to develop their careers, not simply event plan.)

2. Does your gallery work with primary market artists, secondary market artists, or both? (Primary market refers to art that has yet to reach auction. Typically, these are also referred to as “emerging artists.” Secondary market, by contrast, refers to artists who have been to auction, and generally achieve a higher price point. They are also considered more established artists who may be “famous.” Note: you can still be considered “emerging” even if your work has been in a museum. Primary and secondary traditionally refer to the financial history surrounding the sale of your work)

3. What is your typical day/work week like? (This can elicit a range of answers, but is a good barometer to see how active the gallery is. If the answer is somewhere along the lines of “work the front desk and answer calls during open hours,” then you know you’re going to have a job that’s a standard 9-5. If the interviewer says, “well, that’s difficult to define as each day can be completely different– though typically we’re here at 9am and leave by 8pm, go on studio visits, hang new work, execute marketing strategies, discuss upcoming viewings, etc…” then you know not only is it an active gallery… but you’ll most likely be working a bit of overtime.)

4. How would you define the management culture here? Who would I be reporting to? (Typically, galleries don’t have a large staff… but they do certainly have a management style. Whether it’s loosey-goosey-let’s-blow-this -joint-get-drinks-and-chill-with-artists or much more corporate, be sure you know what sort of culture you’re becoming a part of. Some individuals excel in an environment with no clear structure– of course, that means you’ll have to pick up a lot of slack. Others, like myself, enjoy professional autonomy, but like having someone who will help make an executive decision on major projects. Others still need a very structured, top-down environment where they are reporting to someone directly on all their tasks. Figure out your working style, and find a gallery that fits.)

What NOT to Ask: There is one HUGE mistake I’ve seen a vast amount of interviewees make when attempting to find a position in the arts. If you are an artist and are interviewing for a job (not representation) at a gallery, do not ask if the interviewer would view your portfolio and do not inquire about the likelihood of that gallery picking you up as an artist as well. I can’t tell you how many potential hires have immediately been blackballed for this. Your interest should be in the job, not what the job can do for you. Besides, we want our artists to be artists, not employees. If that is your main goal (i.e. representation), go wait tables at night while you hustle and work on your art during the day.

I hope some of this helps. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at drunkliterature [at] gmail [dot] com.