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The Power of a Paid Internship: Creating pathways to careers in museums

Category: Labor
Six young, ethnically diverse interns who participated in the paid internship program pose for a group portrait.
The fall 2018 interns at The Phillips Collection were the first to be paid, an initiative by the museum's new chief diversity officer to remove barriers and stimulate diversity in the field.

In 2015, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation issued a report on diversity in art museums that reinforced what is obvious to anyone working in or affiliated with the industry: non-Hispanic white men dominate leadership positions, and there is a lack of diversity in religion, ability, sexual orientation, or geographic origin at the executive levels and in the board rooms. The survey catalyzed a major movement toward a more diversified art and museum world, and The Phillips Collection is taking part in that change.

Art is a vehicle for expression, social justice, and change. The Phillips Collection has always leaned into this mission by following the ethos of our founder, Duncan Phillips, as a progressive thinker and champion for the benefits of the arts. “Art is part of the social purpose of the world and requires appreciation and the bonds of fellowship with all who understand,” wrote Duncan Phillips. As our city and nation become more diverse, the Phillips is actively working to reflect that diversity and be accessible to our audiences. This includes opening up pathways for the next generation of leaders and learners from diverse backgrounds who can offer new insights that will continue to inform the work that we do as a museum on our journey to be more inclusive.

At the Phillips, we are taking a comprehensive approach to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI). We constantly ask ourselves if we are a place that is welcoming for all visitors to work, play, and enjoy, and whether employees of all backgrounds are able to contribute fully to the museum. DEAI is at the center of everything that we do, from recruiting our staff and board to making curatorial choices. I recently joined the Phillips staff to lead this effort, and my first priority was launching a paid internship program.

Museums and art organizations bear a responsibility to eliminate barriers to employment by providing meaningful opportunities for students to learn about the museum field. However, most museum internships are unpaid, disqualifying those who are unable to work for free. Paid internships provide the next cadre of museum professionals with the training and skills to establish credentials and networks. We pay our interns to make the experience both professionally rewarding and practical; they are treated as employees of the museum and we provide them with tools for success.

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Our internship model is a carefully crafted learning experience in which mentors work closely with interns to develop goals throughout the semester. Interns are evaluated at the conclusion of the term through presentations that look holistically at their experience and progress. Each intern is placed within a specific department, such as development and fundraising, media relations and marketing, curatorial, collections management, or the director’s office. Weekly meetings across departments provide internal networking opportunities which allow the interns to learn about other roles within the museum and how they function within the organization. Ultimately, this provides an in-depth, firsthand experience in a specific department while also promoting a comprehensive understanding of all moving parts within the Phillips. Interns are each assigned a mentor from their department. The mentors ensure the interns work on projects that align with their interests and career goals, as well as assist them to strengthen skills they already have and develop in areas they have yet to experience.

During the first paid internship cycle in fall 2018, the Phillips received a four hundred percent increase in the number of applications from previous cycles. The seven selected interns represented diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, as we shifted to focus on intentional engagement with leaders and students from a wide array of four-year colleges, universities, and community colleges.  At the end of the semester, interns presented the results of their work in formal presentations to museum staff, outlining the projects they worked on and illustrating the impact they had on the Phillips. The presentations were professional-grade, with a goal of being included in the intern’s personal portfolios for future use.

To further engage with younger audiences, in summer 2018 the Phillips launched an initiative that offered free admission to visitors ages thirty and under. Attracting younger generations is crucial to developing a more diverse and inclusive art world, particularly among an age cohort that is just entering the workforce, or may be struggling with student debt. By providing admission-free entrance, we aim to reduce another financial barrier to access for our audiences and community, in order to best create an experience and dialogue that is welcoming to all.

In 2019, The Phillips Collection is introducing the Sherman Fairchild Fellowship, a comprehensive program that focuses on hands-on experience, mentoring, and professional development, creating greater equity and diversity within the museum. All are welcome to apply for the fellowship, and the Phillips will select up to four fellows. Successful applicants will demonstrate how they will contribute to the diversity of the institution, including identifying with an ethnic, gender, or ability group that is underrepresented, or having overcome a disadvantage or other impediment to success in the museum field. The fellows will each receive a stipend and the program will last for twelve months. Following the fellowship, the Phillips will continue to engage the fellows through mentoring and networking.

Museums are places for engagement, reflection, appreciation, and learning. This happens not only in the galleries, but also behind the scenes with our staff and board. As a museum, an art organization, and an institution located in our nation’s capital, we are in a unique position to employ people from a wide variety of backgrounds to ensure that multiple perspectives are represented at the table. By including a multiplicity of backgrounds, opinions, and insights to a discussion, we will be better equipped to move our museum forward into its centennial year and beyond.

The Phillips Collection paid internship program is open to junior and senior undergraduates, graduate students, and recent graduates. Applications are accepted for the summer, fall, and spring semesters.

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