Cultivating the Next Generation of Museum Professionals
This article is reprinted from the Fall 2017 issue of the Members’ Magazine.
In 2013, Trustee Ayesha Bulchandani established the Frick internship program that bears her name. To date, twenty-six undergraduate and graduate students have completed “Ayesha” internships in the museum’s curatorial and education departments. Curatorial interns typically assist with research and planning for special exhibitions. Their work has proved invaluable since the program’s inception, and many have gone on to become researchers and assistant curators at arts institutions across the globe, from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London to the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Education interns have also found success following their time at the Frick—somewhat closer to home. I applied for the intensive two-month education program in 2015, shortly after completing my bachelor’s degree in English at Yale University. I never imagined that within the year, I would be working full time as a member of the Frick’s education department. My colleagues Isabel Losada, Rachel Himes, and Persephone Allen experienced a similar arc: we all were Ayesha education interns, we all were moved by the warmth of the community we found, and we all eventually made our way back to the Frick as members of its staff.
On its surface, the Ayesha education internship is much like any other internship: interns benefit from exposure to the institution, and the institution benefits from exposure to new talent. But the remarkable conversion rate from education intern to staff member—four hires in two years—speaks to a deeper kind of mutual reward.
“A year after graduating from Columbia University, I went to the Dominican Republic to volunteer,” says Isabel Losada, who was among the first Ayesha interns, in 2013. “Upon my return to New York, I asked myself, ‘What is the one place you would love to work?’ The answer was simple: the Frick, and that was because during my internship, I saw the value that the Frick placed on its employees, and on me, even though I was only an intern. They believed in my potential.” Ms. Losada was hired as a membership assistant and has now been working full time at the Frick for two years.
If there is a secret to the program’s success, it lies in the thoughtful planning of each day of the nine-week experience and in the willingness of the staff to entrust the interns with meaningful work. When an Ayesha education intern begins, she joins immediately in the daily operations of the department. This means sharing an office with colleagues, collaborating with curators, helping to organize classes, and—above all—researching, rehearsing, and delivering gallery talks to the public. In what has become an annual tradition, education interns meet personally with Ian Wardropper, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Director, to discuss their experience and to share their career aspirations. In short, this is not a traditional coffee-run, filling-cabinet internship. Ayesha interns are taken seriously. Their voices are valued and nourished.
“I was not expecting to feel so suddenly a part of something,” says Rachel Himes, a graduate of the dual degree program offered by Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. She interned in 2014 and was hired as an education assistant the following year. “Being at the Frick every day during the internship meant constant revelations about the nature and significance of the work and the intelligence and conviction of my colleagues.”
Education interns consistently find that giving talks to the public—sometimes as many as five a day—and staying afterward to exchange ideas with visitors, transforms their sense of what museums can be. “Teaching with works of art feels imperative to me now,” Ms. Himes says. “It is a profession that allows me to hold on to a sincere love of art objects, of people and conversation, of research and writing, while also forwarding justice, equity, inclusion. Now more than ever I want to work to ensure that a greater variety of people have access to forums for self-expression and intellectual exploration—opportunities I think museums can and must provide.”
Through their conversations in the education office, Ayesha interns are confronted with many of the museum’s most vital imperatives. Interns are asked to consider the ways museums can serve their communities by engaging the entire public, including those traditionally excluded.
“Cultural institutions promote refinement of mind and reflection on history and society,” says Ms. Bulchandani, whose ethos and presence guide the entire enterprise. Ms. Bulchandani meets one-on-one with the interns every summer. “I am so honored to participate in their Frick experience,” she says. “Their commitment to pursuing excellence and their gratitude humble me.”
Ms. Bulchandani became a Frick Trustee in 2012, following her work as a member of the museum’s Curatorial Visiting Committee and as co-chair of its annual Spring Garden Party. She grew up in India, where the education system emphasized what she calls “mainstream” academic disciplines. “Art and design were considered ‘hobbies,’ and life would ‘reward’ those less who pursued such avenues. My impetus for establishing the Frick internships was to provide an opportunity that I perhaps missed, to empower the next generation to impact the world as leaders, curators, and museum educators.”
Rika Burnham, the Frick’s Head of Education, believes the program has accomplished just that. “Extensive interaction with the public prepares our interns for future careers in the museum world. In their many conversations with visitors, they begin to understand and communicate our belief that works of art can inspire powerful, transformative experiences—not just for a few, but for everyone. The internship has consistently cultivated this sense of civic purpose, bringing art to an ever widening audience.”
The Ayesha education internship provides a stipend and is exceptional in its stated preference for individuals demonstrating financial need. Ms. Bulchandani conceived of the program after discovering that the Frick was losing strong candidates to other institutions that offered paid internships. “The investment in academic talent, vitality, and eager minds was a gap I could fill,” she says. It is perhaps this generosity, openness, and intellectual curiosity that initially drew Ms. Bulchandani to The Frick Collection. “All who enter these doors leave altered. In this intimate environment, I can see firsthand the impact of my contributions.”
For Ms. Losada, this impact was profound. “As the eldest of seven children, I knew I could not depend solely on my parents for financial support,” she says. “This is why Ayesha’s support is so critical. I was able to fully commit myself to the Frick for an entire summer, without worrying about splitting my time between a paid position and an unpaid position. I could focus on developing professionally, which, for a recent graduate, is key.”
Ms. Himes also considers Ms. Bulchandani’s support essential. “I owe so much to this internship and to Ayesha, because without a stipend it would have been impossible for me to relocate to New York City for a summer,” she said. “Very probably the form of the rest of my life has been shaped by Ayesha’s generosity.”
For my part, after my internship I took a temporary job as an assistant to Director Ian Wardropper. When Rika approached me about a full-time position in her department, I leapt at the chance. I, too, find it impossible to imagine the course of my career path without Ayesha’s support. Through her thoughtful, deftly implemented philanthropy, she has made a considerable impact on the life of this institution.
Trustee Ayesha Bulchandani with former education interns (left to right) Isabel Losada, Vincent Tolentino, and Rachel Himes