Internship at the National Portrait Gallery: Courtney Tompkins

[written by second year M.A. student Courtney Tompkins]

National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

When deciding where to pursue my graduate degree in Art History, an important factor was that the school be in a city where internships and opportunities for museum employment were plentiful.  I don’t think many would deny that Washington DC can answer this request.  The Smithsonian alone controls 15 museums in the district (and eight that are art related).  Throw into that mix the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Corcoran, and various art organizations.  The options seemed endless, and frankly, it was a bit overwhelming completing applications for many of these institutions.  But it paid off!

This past summer, I had an internship at the National Portrait Gallery working with the Manager of Public Programs.  The start of this position comes on the heels of my internship at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as an Interpretive Guide (see what I mean about DC being a Mecca of internships).  One might wonder, “Why all the internships?”  Well, my field of interest has shifted since undergrad, and since my previous job in Detroit.  After graduation, I worked for two years as a Curatorial and Exhibitions Assistant at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  It was pretty much a dream job for a 21 year old Art History major from Detroit, who, at the time, wanted to be a curator.  However, while working on an exhibition of African art, I was offered a glimpse of the world of museum education and interpretation, and I was hooked.

So, I have been seeking experience related to this field, and this Public Programming internship at the NPG fulfilled this call.  My primary responsibility was the development and presentation of the museum’s weekly program Face-to-Face.  On Thursday nights, an invited guest speaks about a portrait for which he or she has some degree of authority or connection.  The department also manages four other programs that I helped to organize.

However, my favorite responsibility was the creation of the portrait scavenger hunts.  First of all, this project required me to do some searching in The Museum System, and I honestly believe I am one of the few people who enjoys playing in this database.  Secondly, I enjoyed thinking of clever ways to link the selected portraits in the collection in order to send participants from gallery to gallery on the hunt.  For instance, in the Man Ray scavenger hunt I prepared, I could have very well guided visitors just to works by the artist, or to portraits of some of his sitters.  However, there was not enough of either of these options currently on view, so I was forced to think more creatively.  I included a photograph by Carl Van Vechten, and mentioned that he was also a prominent portraitist in the early to mid 20th century.  Jumping from there, I added a sculpture of Gertrude Stein by Jo Davidson, for Van Vechten was the executor of Stein’s estate following her death; but she was also a sitter for and friend of Man Ray’s.  So with this stop on the scavenger hunt, I was able to make multiple connections.  Yet, the most significant reason why I enjoyed this project was the realization that this is a way for people to actively engage with the collection, something that I truly believe enhances education in the museum, and the museum experience in general.

The National Portrait Gallery offers many other internships as well.  Learn more on the NPG website.


Internship at the National Museum of Women in the Arts: Catherine Southwick

National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC

I have worked as a curatorial intern, and now a graduate curatorial fellow, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) since summer 2011. NMWA is a private museum in the Metro Center area of DC. It was founded by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and Wallace F. Holladay and opened in 1987. The museum’s mission is to: “bring recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities by exhibiting, preserving, acquiring, and researching art by women and by teaching the public about their accomplishments.”

My first few weeks at NMWA coincided with the opening of three new exhibitions: “The Guerrilla Girls Talk Back,” “Pressing Ideas: Fifty Years of Women’s Lithographs from Tamarind,” and “Susan Swartz: Seasons of the Soul.” I attended curator-led tours of the Guerrilla Girls and Tamarind exhibitions, and then was tasked with writing blog entries on works from each exhibition. I chose to focus on lithographs by Gego and Elaine de Kooning from Tamarind, and Guerrilla Girls posters from the 2005 Venice Biennale. NMWA maintains extensive online and paper files on women artists, which were invaluable to my research for these blogs.

NMWA Mezzanine galleries

I have also completed several other writing projects during my time at NMWA. I wrote an article for NMWA’s Women in the Arts magazine on Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jack-in-Pulpit – No. 2 (1930), on loan from the National Gallery. I wrote gallery labels for a group of collection objects, some of which are featured in NMWA’s “25 x 25” donor celebration in anticipation of its 25th anniversary in 2012. (Curators selected 25 works gifted by 25 donors to highlight for the upcoming year). I am assisting with drafting new artist and object text as part of an ongoing project for the NMWA website. Finally, I am finishing a three-part blog series on photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe; NMWA has an outstanding selection of Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs in its permanent collection.

My experience at NMWA has been an extraordinary opportunity to participate in curatorial research and writing, and to learn more about fascinating women artists. I am grateful to curators Jordana Pomeroy and Kathryn Wat and curatorial assistant Raphael Fitzgerald for allowing me to participate in everything from these research projects to weekly curatorial meetings.

Two new exhibitions open at NMWA on October 28th, so be sure to stop by soon to check out “Visions of the Orient: Western Women Artists in Asia 1900-1940,” and “TROVE: The Collection in Depth.” Learn more about these exhibitions and the museum on NMWA’s website.