I’m a recent grad and want to learn more about the art world, so hopefully, one day, I can work in the arts. That’s my ultimate goal. I didn’t major in art, but I took several art history and art classes and really loved them. I also love going to galleries and museums. Could you give me some suggestions on what to do to learn more? I’m really open to anything.
New Kid on the Block
Hi New Kid,
Welcome to the real world, my friend! We’re glad to have you. First, kudos to you, young grasshopper, for being proactive in your burgeoning career and chasing your future. Clearly you want to learn, you want to get out there, you just need some direction on the best steps. Allow me to show you some paths that won’t be a complete waste of time!
First, consider an internship. It gets a lot of flack (believe me, I know), but it can be a great way to get to an introduction to the inner-workings of the art world. While I recommend shooting for the stars when applying for internships, I think you can get just as much of a positive learning experience from a smaller museum or local commercial gallery. So look nearby, too. If you (read: your parents) don’t have the time and money to relocate your life to San Fran or New York for an entirely unpaid 40-hour-a-week internship, it might make the most sense to stay local. If there’s a gallery you love, go in and introduce yourself, and ask in person if they have an internship available.
When it comes to internships, think outside the box. Galleries and museums are great, but art handling companies, art conservation labs, and art-related nonprofits could open up some new doors in the art world as well.
Speaking of, did you know there are internships here at BURNAWAY? Rejoice! Interning at an art publication would also be a great next step. Not only is it an accelerated opportunity to learn about how the art world really functions, but it’s also a chance to learn about the role journalism and publications play in the arts—which is a big one. It can also help you get acquainted with a city’s art scene pretty quickly.
Internship PSA time. I need be real with you on this: Make sure you’re getting something important out of it, or it’s not worth your time. There’s a give and take with an internship. If the business doesn’t pay you, but you are doing work for them, make sure you’re gaining something of real value. In exchange for your hard work and reliable service, you deserve some real-world, applicable knowledge and connections. If that’s not happening and you’re just getting coffee for the office or stuffing envelopes in a dark closet, something’s up. Let your employer know what you hope to learn, and see to it that you get that experience. You’re not just “free labor.”
Next, consider taking your art education into your own hands. I refuse to believe that a good art history education is reserved for expensive classrooms. Art history is our history; we all have the right and ability to study it and pursue our interests in it.
You’re out of school, but you can keep learning. Sites like Smarthistory.org can be a true wonderland for the art-thirsty. Go watch their videos and read their essays; you can seriously beef up your art knowledge there. Little Art Talks is a charming YouTube series made by Karin Yuen; it’s like a friend giving you the lowdown on art history and the biz. (For kicks, also check out the Art Thoughtz videos by Hennessey Youngman [the persona created by Jayson Musson], who skewers the art world in hilarious videos.) Read intelligent books, subscribe to art journals, devour online art news. And don’t forget about social media. Follow publications, galleries, and organizations (like BURNAWAY!) and follow up on the artists, shows, and articles they post. You may have to work your shitty restaurant gig for a while, like so many of us had to for so long, but make it a point to participate in as many extracurricular art activities you can. Go to artist lectures and art openings, take community classes.
Get familiar with the museums of the world. There’s nothing like the real thing, but if you can’t actual go to the Uffizi, you can at the very least take a pretty stellar virtual tour online and get some sense of what people are talking about. Use every tool you have at your disposal. The art world can feel intimidating when you’re new to it, so the more you know, and the more you can hang in conversations, and the easier and more natural it will all feel. There’s no better currency than your education, my dazzling rosebud. And I’m not talking a Harvard degree. Not all of us can have Harvard degrees, but we can still be highly educated about our passions.
Overall, my advice is to get out there and meet actual people who do what you want to do. That’s what it all comes down to. And remember: everyone you meet on our journey is important. You will never be able to understand or predict the ways people may end up helping you along the way. In my life, the connections that led to major opportunities have been so surprising. So be kind to everyone, show up on time, stay enthusiastic, and only good things will happen.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.