It was the spring of 1994 and Sanchita Balachandran was on track: she was finishing her freshman year as a pre-med and biology major at Pomona College. The art history classes she was taking? Those were “just for fun.” When one of her professors said she should apply for a Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship, “it was just this thing I was going to do on the way to medical school.”
Sanchita got the internship. She spent the summer at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, learning how to install works of art and to write labels for exhibitions. At the internship program’s career day, she listened to Getty Museum conservator Brian Considine talk about his work. She sat there, stunned. “I went, ‘What? There’s a whole field where you can actually apply science to art?’ I had never heard of that before.”
Five years later she was pursuing a graduate course in art conservation at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.
Looking back, she says: “everything that I do now is absolutely the result of that one experience. The Multicultural Undergraduate Internship changed my life.”
Two years before Sanchita’s fateful summer, staff at the Getty Foundation (then the Getty Grant Program) were facing difficult questions. It was 1992. Los Angeles had just erupted in civil unrest following the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King. In the wake of the uprising, the nation pondered the relationship between race, injustice, and disparity.
The Foundation had already been considering the responsibility and relevancy of arts institutions in a changing society. The population of Los Angeles County had shifted to majority people of color in the late 1980s. Yet, the demographics of professional staff at arts and cultural organizations showed no comparable change: the vast majority was—and always had been—white.
The Foundation realized it had an opportunity to help change that and established the Multicultural Undergraduate Internship Program with the aim of increasing diversity in the professions related to museums and the visual arts. The program funds paid, full-time summer internships for students from cultural backgrounds that have traditionally been underrepresented in the visual arts, including but not limited to African-American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, and Pacific Islander descent at Los Angeles-area art museums and organizations. No prior interest in art required.
Diversifying the workforce in any sector is a thorny problem and internship programs like the Getty’s are just one piece of a much larger puzzle. But, the logic behind the internship program is quite simple: make careers in the arts more accessible to students of color by reducing barriers to entry and increasing exposure to the variety of jobs that are out there.
Twenty-five years in—and over 3,000 interns later—the evidence that this formula works grows person by person.
Not yet out of middle school, Edgar Garcia would take a bus—“a five-minute ride”—from his home in Lincoln Heights to Downtown Los Angeles, where he would spend the money he’d saved on LA Conservancy walking tours about the architecture and history of the city he was already in love with.
Edgar’s initiative let him carve a path into the arts not through museums (“they weren’t always the most accessible places for a Spanish-speaking family”), but through the streets around him. Growing up in one of Los Angeles’s oldest neighborhoods, he was surrounded by Victorian architecture and the murals of the Chicano Art Movement, and while there were challenges to living east of the LA River, Downtown was the perfect playground for a kid fascinated by architecture: “I had the Central Library, I had the Music Center, I had Olvera Street. We’d play in the historic plaza and hide behind the statue of Carlos III.”
Still, a career in the arts was not on his radar. “My parents could be very traditional. For most Mexicans, the career tracks were doctor, lawyer, engineer.” People who worked in the arts were, as far as he knew, “starving artists.”
While visiting family in Huntington Park before leaving for college at Yale, Edgar noticed the Getty Center was advertising its 1997 opening in the neighborhood. “I was so surprised to see Getty Center banners on Soto Street. I thought there had to be something to an institution that would do outreach in this part of the city.” After learning about the young Multicultural Undergraduate Internship Program as a sophomore, Edgar found—literally—a perfect match at the LA Conservancy, which was planning a walking tour of Lincoln Heights.
It was an eye-opening summer. “It was during my Getty internship that I saw there was an office, people in suits, receptionists, and there were meetings, and a board, and a vision. I just hadn’t realized that the art sector was so professionalized.”
Returning to LA after college, Edgar bounced around jobs until he “realized I was the happiest when I was doing the Getty internship. It was a true revelation. I finally felt I had found my career tribe!”
Over the years, Edgar had kept in touch with his former supervisor and continued volunteering for the organization. When his supervisor became the head of LA’s new Office of Historic Resources in 2006, Edgar jumped at the opportunity to apply to join the staff. As the city’s first preservation planner, he also began supervising a new generation of Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Interns. “I always told them that the last thing you want to do after your internship is to wash your hands of the experience. The internship is a springboard to a whole host of other learning opportunities.”
Today the arts and culture deputy for LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, Edgar oversees cultural policy and several city departments, but his past as an inquisitive kid and a Getty intern is still a part of his present. “Sometimes when I’m in a meeting in City Hall, I remember that the person in this role is the same inner city kid from an immigrant family. I take that with me; I use it to guide our administration’s commitment to increasing arts opportunities for all Angelenos.”
Growing up in the Bay Area, Hanna Girma couldn’t get enough of art museums. “My mom tells me that I would run around museums and tell her about each of the pieces that I had seen, trying to analyze the paintings. I was nerdy!”
She admired Degas’ paintings of ballerinas (she’d been a dancer herself) and those of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Frida Kahlo, but she also knew something was missing: “I never really saw anyone that looked like me, or artists that looked like me, being featured in the museum.”
While an undergraduate at UCLA, and having received the directive from her mom that she needed to pay her own rent if she wanted to stay in Los Angeles for the summer, Hanna applied for a Multicultural Undergraduate Internship. She landed a position in the Getty Museum’s Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation Lab, and spent the summer weeks taking full advantage of the ready access to art experts: “people would take time out of their day to show me the Ethiopian scrolls that were in the museum collection. They spoke to me about their career paths and different training programs.”
The following year, she got a different view of the art world at the Hammer Museum, where as a Multicultural Undergraduate Intern she worked for both the curatorial department and academic programs. “They pushed me to come up with an education initiative and encouraged me to write for the blog. And [then-assistant curator] Jamillah James took time out of her very hectic schedule to talk to me about my senior thesis—and she wasn’t even my mentor.”
Hanna was interested in, well, everything, but began to feel a draw to the curatorial track. “I want to fight for people that look like me, my friends, my family, to be shown in museums. I want us at the board table making decisions. I want to make sure that museums stay free and open, and foster important conversations and ambitious, interesting shows that shift people’s perceptions and really get people talking and thinking in new and creative ways.”
Hired as an assistant curator at The Mistake Room after graduation, Hanna’s first professional show, Analog Currency, opens in July 2017. In putting it together, she anticipated the questions visitors might ask and sent out art loan forms—skills learned while an intern—and drew on the network of colleagues and friends she’s actively cultivated. A dream come true, certainly, but it’s more than an individual achievement. “I was at a meeting with black women artists for #BlackLivesMatter and one of the artists said, ‘It’s not just about getting my foot through the door; it’s about holding the door open for everyone else behind me.’ I wholeheartedly agree with that.”
“Within the span of basically two years, I went from feeling like the museum was not my place to being embedded in the museum. That was a pretty massive shift. That recognition that your voice was valued and welcomed ... I haven’t looked back since.”
Sanchita became an objects conservator, and today is the associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Archaeological Museum. In 2017, she was in residence at the Getty as a Getty Conservation Institute fellow, researching the hidden traces that individuals artists left on ancient works of art.
Reflecting back on the Multicultural Undergraduate Internship that opened the door to her current life, she recalls why it mattered: it exposed her to careers she didn’t know about; it gave her a professional network to tap for support and further opportunities; it was paid, which allowed her to justify it to her parents. And there was one other thing.
“They were just very trusting of us. Our supervisors let us touch stuff. I had never had that experience before. These were not inconsequential works of art. They had the trust that we would approach things with the appropriate reverence and care and curiosity. That was just shocking in some ways, to have that freedom. It was just a very powerful moment where someone saw something in you and said, ‘Go. You can do it.’”