J. Rachel Gustafson and the Return of Opportunity: An Internship Story


J. Rachel Gustafson

Often you hear stories about people who have known their course all their lives. They graduated college (or dropped out due to sheer genius), landed their first job (or started their own business), climbed the allegorical ladder (or built their own), and whammy, they find lifelong happiness and security. They never looked back and never had to hit reset.  I tend to think those are the exceptions rather than the rule. In my case, I had to experience what I didn’t want in order to find what I did.

My story begins (and hopefully will end) with writing. I was a former director in political communications before I left it all behind to make art and writing about art the center of my small universe. After heading back to my undergraduate institution to take night classes in art history, I set off to spend a summer in France before commencing my graduate career at AU. It was in Paris, while sitting in my dorm room, when the AU announcement about an internship opening at the National Endowment for the Arts hit my inbox. When I saw the notice, I hesitated. In my former life, I oversaw a horde of interns and now I was considering being one myself – again.

After a round of emails, interviews and writing samples, I was invited to start with the Federal arts agency in August 2012. Today, I am a part of the NEA’s public affairs department – the leg of the agency that is responsible for communicating the role of the arts to more than 311 million Americans. Less than 20 individuals are responsible for a rather daunting task. I am awed at times when I realize I am one of them. While I am not always doing the glamorous tasks of article writing and conducting interviews, I am still a very real part of the process. Sometimes I transcribe notes or collect relevant news clips on America’s artistic trends, controversies and budgetary concerns. But it all contributes to the larger goal. 

What continues to surprise me is the pure scope of the NEA. My internship allows me to expand my art-based vocabulary beyond the visual arts and into a broad range of art issues that are dominating the country’s attention now. The NEA commits to a vast artistic curriculum and furthers the dialogue about art in America. Perhaps that’s the best part: I get to help tell this story and actively participate in the dialogue. I talk to people who make the arts happen on daily basis. 

During my time with the agency, I’ve spoken with LeVar Burton about the future of children’s literacy; the editors of American Reader about their confidence in Millennials sustained interest in both digital and print realms; and interviewed curators at MoMA about a new exhibition on the Japanese avant-garde movement.

In every interview I conduct, a story emerges that keeps the dialogue about arts in America flourishing. Most graduate school writing endeavors languish in a vacuum of sorts after collecting a final markup. The return of opportunity at the NEA happens when my writing, my interviews, and my thoughts are shared and people hear them. And while I don’t always know that for certain, a random blog comment or retweet confirms that our work—my work—makes a difference. As long as there are fascinating people in the arts, there will be people willing to listen, which means the NEA’s job is never done.

My one-semester term with the NEA has just been extended to a third. While my course is untraditional, it’s the one that has gotten me here. I questioned myself and I hit reset. But that was an investment in myself that I was willing to risk. My internship was, and continues to be, about the return of opportunity. So far, I’m pretty darn pleased with the transaction. 

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