An Intern's Perspective


Madeline Dorvillier is an MCASD Curatorial Intern this summer. As an intern, Maddy works closely with the MCASD staff on projects that foster the development of relevant work experience as well as a deeper understanding of the art field. Maddy's time with MCASD inspired her to address some of the stigmas often assocaited with the studying of art and the art field to reflect on the role her internship has had in determining her career path. 

The question that looms over every young art historian:  “So you’re majoring in Art History, what can you even do with that, teach?” In a time where STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education is being pitched as the only solution, a student in the arts and humanities often finds themselves on the defensive. After President Obama’s comment disparaging the earning potential of Art History majors, stating that “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an Art History degree,” the economic value of the Art History degree has been under fire.

Professors and influential innovators like Steve Jobs have come to the defense of the arts and humanities. Perhaps more convincing than the opinion of any powerhouse mind or leading figure, are the numbers:  in 2010, 6.9% of Art History majors and 10.6% of manufacturing workers were unemployed. Median earnings were about the same. While STEM and business degrees may offer higher starting salaries, the Association of American Colleges and Universities released a report on "earnings and long-term career paths,” showing that arts degree holders stand to eventually make more than many professional degrees over time (especially business and nursing), earning higher salaries during peak work years (50-60).  Financial success with an arts degree can thus be understood as more of a marathon than a sprint, with workers who may eventually catch up to and over pass their peers. According to the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey, Art History is number nine amongst the top 25 majors that offer the best chance of reaching “The One Percent” (with 5.9%  of degree holders as one percenters), followed by chemistry (10, at 5.7%), molecular biology (11, at 5.6%), finance (13, at 4.8%), business economics (15, at 4.6%), chemical engineering (19, at 4.1%), accounting (22, at 3.9%). This data places the outcome of an Art History Degree as on par or above those of popular STEM and business degrees over time.  

While these stats demonstrate that economic success is clearly possible, it does not all mean that Art History is a sure fire way to ensure a padded wallet for every (or even most) graduates. But that isn’t really the point. When we value degrees merely on their ability to produce venture capital, we miss the very point of an education: to foster human capital.  Human capital is after all what makes leaders and innovators, those who think outside of the box and think critically. Without it, we produce a society of robotic followers. While STEM degrees and jobs are undoubtedly crucial, the only way to reach their true potential is to pair them with the minds and methods produced through a liberal arts education. The world needs its Apples for its Samsungs to follow.

I have always been a creative person, taking every art class I could in high school and excelling in critical thinking based classes. After a summer interning for a gallery in La Jolla, I fell in love with the contemporary art world and enrolled in AP Art History the following semester. I had found my passion. I followed it to UC Berkeley, where I declared Art History and German majors and joined a research team in the Art History department. But what could I do with it?

Today, academia is no longer the end all be all of an Art History degree. Linda Downs, Executive Director of the College Art Association responded to President Obama; “It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creative thinking play a critical role. Let’s not forget that education across a broad spectrum is essential to develop the skills and imagination that will enable future generations to create and take advantage of new jobs and employment opportunities of all sorts.” Examples of highly successful non-art world professionals with Art History degrees include James B. Lee, Vice Chairman of JP Morgan, and Michael Lewis, top financial journalist who told students in his 2012 Princeton commencement speech that his Art History major helped him throughout the course of his life.

The power of the image is stronger than ever. Images are used by governments, corporations, and organizations to express ideas and opinions and to sell products and lifestyles.  As society is highly saturated with media, there is a growing economic demand for individuals who are able to think analytically about images and how they transmit meaning. Art History translates well to this task because it emphasizes visual analysis, or the study of how the various visual elements within a work of art produce meaning, and promotes the development of critical thinking, research and communication skills. Thus careers in marketing, advertising, journalism and even law are well suited to students of Art History.

Of course, within the art world itself exist many growing fields. With big annual returns and pop culture presence, the contemporary art market has continued to soar year after year.  The supply is endless; artists continue to graduate from art schools and produce contemporary art, which is quickly gaining respect and recognition. In response, more and more people are buying art, more museums and galleries are opening and expanding, and more art world web and e-commerce sites are being launched. The New Yorker has characterized the art world as “infamously, the last big unregulated industry.” From museums, auctions, galleries, fairs, and critical writing, to tech, e-commerce, art insurance, art law, collections management, art advising and consulting, the growing art world is brimming with a vast selection of opportunities and career paths. But with so many options, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and unsure about where one should go in (or outside of) the art world. Across the board, one sentiment echoes:  the crucial element to success in the arts is the fabled internship.

As a child, I was drawn to museums and the creative environment that they foster.  After developing a love for researching and writing about art, curating seemed like an ideal career. I was accepted to the internship program at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) to be the summer 2015 curatorial intern. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I hoped to gain some connections, experience, and most importantly, some idea about what I wanted to do. Here, I would have a voice in art history, as it was being made. I would be able to teach others about my passion, to tell art as a story. In this day and age, contemporary art curators not only put together exhibitions, but largely dictate what is art and where it’s going through the works they select for the public to view.

The internship program at MCASD has been my ah-ha moment. It is here that I have been exposed to the Museum as an institution, a world rich and layered enough in itself to host its own subset of careers. Far from your traditional “go-fetch-the-coffee” internship, MCASD allows me to be hands on and highly involved in programming and curatorial work. My largest project, and source of pride, has been working on an upcoming show One Cannot Look: Graphic Wars; a collaboration with University of San Diego (USD) featuring prints from well-known Spanish artists Francisco de Goya and Rafael Canogar that will run from September 26th-November 29th



My day–to-day tasks for the exhibition included writing the labels that accompany the works, such as a large introductory text, artist biographies, and texts on process and historical context, where I learned about proper length and tone. I was able to follow my work all the way through to copy editing, graphic design, and final print on vinyl! In meetings, I am encouraged to contribute my ideas, and was delighted when my suggestion for a title was incorporated into the final selection. I learned how to create a mock-up of the show’s floorplan and worked with the curators to select the works and layout, experiencing the behind the scenes processes of curating a show. I also exchange correspondence with partnering organizations and internal departments, put together exhibition checklists, draft Power Points for educational presentations, and learn how to use Museum systems and software. However the best part of my experience here has been the enriching one-on-one conversations that I have had with MCASD’s passionate and experienced professionals. From advice on grad school and selecting undergrad classes, to what sector of the art world best suits me and personal talks about our favorite artists and daily lives, the staff members of MCASD have truly become my greatest mentors and connections. After this internship, I feel that I have the tools, advice and experience to finally answer the big question. I can do just about anything with an Art History degree, but I think I’ll stick to curating.