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411 on Summer Internships

411 on Summer Internships

Amy Wilson

With summer almost here, you might be wondering how to best spend your time away from school. One of the things I recommend to my students is that they consider interning at a local museum, gallery, non-profit or design firm. While some of the most competitive positions get filled months in advance, in most major cities there will still be some available now. If you’re lucky and willing to look hard enough, you’re likely to be able to still snag one before the summer really starts.

But deciding whether or not to commit to an internship can be tough. On one hand, internships are rarely paid, and when they are they often pay only a stipend – less than you’d make working another kind of summer job. It’s pretty rare to find one that pays a competitive salary. Very possibly you’d make better money working at a summer camp or at a retail position at your local mall. But what interning offers you is the opportunity to see behind-the-scenes of the art world, and a chance to test drive a career. It also substantially boosts your resume with relevant work experience which will become invaluable once you finish school and start looking for a full-time job.

Most internships start you at the very, very bottom. Your summer gig might revolve around making copies, answering phone calls, taking tickets, and that sort of thing – the very basic, entry level type position that, frankly, most people don’t really dream of spending their vacations doing. But you can learn a lot by doing these sorts of tasks – you get to see the real nuts-and-bolts of the organization and how things really run around there on a day to day basis.

Some internships are very structured. In large organizations, it’s not unusual to have someone whose job it is to coordinate the interns they hire every summer, while in smaller companies, things can be much more informal. There are pros and cons to both. At a large company with an established internship program, chances are their summertime help is well-integrated into what the company does – they will probably have specific projects put aside for you to do, based on experiences they’ve had working with students during other summers. However, bear in mind that once you’re in a position, you shouldn’t expect to move around the company if you don’t like it – the position you’re hired for is the position at which you will spend your summer working.

At a smaller company, it’s likely that things will be much more fluid. They may hire you to help out in one department, only to find that they are short-staffed in another, so you may be asked to move around a bit. It’s important to keep a flexible attitude wherever you work, but this is even more the case in a smaller organization.

When considering where to apply, think about the skills you’ll acquire over the summer. Experience in administration, development, education, and customer service are all easily transferable to another workplace, and if you’re unsure of what you’d like to eventually do in the arts, any of these can give you a good foundation on which to hone your interests. Internships that are more based in research, curation, or design are more specific – they’re best reserved for someone who is certain that they will need these particular skills in the future or as a way to get an “in” at a particular company. If you know for a fact that you want to pursue an advanced degree in Art History, then a research-based internship could really help you get into graduate school; it probably won’t, however, help you that much if you suddenly decide to switch careers entirely.

Okay, so all of that tells you what to expect once you’ve gotten the internship. But how do you get one in the first place? Some places will actively advertise available positions, while others will more discreetly mention it on their website or if you inquire. Do some online research of organizations in your area that are doing the kind of work you’d like to do in the future, and send them a brief, concise email introducing yourself and asking about internship opportunities. Cast a wide net – for instance, if you are interested in working in a fine art museum in the future, don’t immediately dismiss historical museums that may be in your area; many of the archiving practices that they use will be the same as one specializing in paintings and drawings.

Remember that while you’re definitely going to get a lot out of the experience, your employer will be getting a lot as well – they will be getting your time, enthusiasm, and energy. Intern at a place that you’re excited about, and be open to the experience it brings. Good luck, and happy summer!


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