Why a master of fine arts (MFA) degree? It’s one of the dreaded questions many fine art graduate students have frequently heard or are even asking themselves. Artists arrive at an MFA program for a variety of personal or professional reasons, and no one path is the same. Oftentimes, pursuing an MFA grants artists the time and resources to grow their art practice, gain teaching experience, experiment with new techniques, conduct research-creation projects, build a network, or learn new things. It’s often a pause or anticipation in an artist’s career – an opportunity to grow or change directions.
Artists are masters at juggling multiple projects at once and, realistically, often require multiple income streams to make it all work. While internships may not be required in your MFA program, many universities will allow you to receive credit for an internship you find on your own. Take advantage of your time as a student – because no matter the fine art discipline, internships can optimize your student experience and become a catalyst for future professional paths.
Here are some helpful tips to get you started.
Ask yourself these questions as you begin your reflection and internship search: What am I missing in my MFA experience? Is the internship funded? Where is it located? What is the job description? What will I learn? What do I offer? What connections am I going to make in this role? How supported or flexible is it?
My own internship experience led me to New York City this past summer. I worked as the library administration intern at the Frick Art Reference Library. The Frick Collection is an art museum in New York City featuring a collection of primarily European paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts from the ninth to 19th centuries. Its research library serves as one of the world’s most complete resources for the study of Western art.
Next, brainstorm on arts-adjacent areas that can provide professional opportunities. For example, you may consider: curation, arts administration, public programming, education, museum interpretation, fundraising and development, conservation, art therapy, research, writing, publishing, communications, graphic design, web development, film production, theatre production, architectural design, exhibition design or handling.
Once you have scoped out your field of interest, search for artist-run centres, museums, galleries, music or performance theatres, community art schools, festivals, archives, libraries, research centres, art dealers and auction houses, design companies, marketing firms, publishers, startups, or non-profits that might offer these positions. Start exploring through Google searches, LinkedIn, email newsletters, or resources provided by your university. I personally felt that there were more structured internships in the U.S., so I directed my search to major American museums and libraries. A great starting point for me was the “Career Opportunities” section on the Association of Art Museum Curators website. Simply reading the descriptions, even if the job wasn’t a perfect fit, helped me to understand expectations and what was available.
2. Initiate contact and explore
If the institution has a “Careers” or “Opportunities” section of their website that details an internship program for students, great! If they don’t, reach out via email or connect with an employee on LinkedIn to see if they are open to you crafting your own internship at their institution. You have nothing to lose. And, as a student, your university may offer financial compensation for your internship so that you’re paid and the arts institution can accommodate you.
Personally, I highly recommend pursuing a summer internship at the Frick Collection – they are paid, two-month internships in a variety of departments across the museum and library open to international graduate and undergraduate students. Most importantly, there is a commitment from the museum to provide top-notch career opportunities for the interns.
Track the internships you find, either in an Excel spreadsheet or another digital tool. Include categories of location, dates, salary and/or stipend, deadline, a brief description, and any additional notes.
3. Prepare your application
When crafting your application, recognize your skills as an artist and try to translate that to fit the internship requirements. Take note of the keywords throughout the job description and embed those keywords in your application materials. Demonstrate, either in your materials or through an interview, how your unique skills as an artist are beneficial to the institution, and how they can contribute to your own professional growth.
A few final considerations. Be open minded – sometimes institutions you wouldn’t have expected to be relevant to you will have a place for your expertise. Research if the institution shows a commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion. Ensure that it is paid work (and not getting coffee). Think big. Go somewhere new. Build your network close to home. Try something different and challenging. Seize the perks of being a student. Be confident in your academic or professional background, no matter how diverse or layered it is.
In my art practice, I often combine contemporary photography and archival imagery to discuss history and women’s stories; so, while I was not completing research specific to my art practice, I often interacted with libraries or archives in my research-creation process and was personally interested in learning how these institutions operate.
As such, being immersed in New York’s museum and library landscape not only provided clarity for my professional career, but also inspired my art-making. For instance, an introduction to the Picture Collection in the New York Public Library during my internship prompted me to use library material to create my most recent video piece, which was exhibited in a group show this past October at Maison de la culture Janine-Sutto.
What has been your experience with internships? Do you feel like internships are accessible to you as an MFA student? Share your story in the comment section below.