Ariel Moran worked in SITE’s Exhibitions department during the summer of 2016. Below she reflects on her experience at SITE upon completing her internship.
My selection of my summer internship at SITE Santa Fe can be attributed to many factors. Over the course of my spring semester of my junior year of college, I applied to at least five institutions. The Denver Art Museum, Waterfire, SITE, Penland School of Crafts, and Asheville Art Museum are a few organizations that I submitted applications to. I had over five interviews throughout this process; one with Waterfire, one with the Asheville Art Museum, one with SITE, one with Penland, and three with the Denver Art Museum. I received three offers altogether, from Waterfire, SITE and the Asheville Art Museum. I didn’t receive word that SITE was offering me the position until late April. I was very excited about all of these choices and time was running out. I had to make a decision.
I decided to throw out Waterfire first. Even though I thought that Providence would be a really cool place to spend the summer, the organization itself and the position that they were offering me didn’t quite fit with my goals. Waterfire is an organization that creates fires on the Providence River which flows through the city. The fires are a reincarnation of a sculpture by an artist who later helped found Waterfire. In the side streets that are around the location of the fires is a street festival with vendors, food, and other activities for the community. While this could have been an interesting look at a non-traditional take on an arts organization, I felt that installation experience would be more beneficial to my then current repertoire of knowledge in the field.
Then the decision became even more difficult. It was between the Asheville Art Museum and SITE. Both of the positions were in the Exhibitions department.
Asheville is a place that I have been drawn to since I can remember. Not only does it have a great art scene, but great music, awesome beer, and just an all-around fun place to be. Not to mention that this is the city that my boyfriend and I plan on moving once I graduate from App. I could make connections while visiting for the summer, and then possibly have an “in” for when I move next year. Also, the museum was under a major renovation and expansion, meaning that they were bound to be hiring soon. Pros for the Asheville Art Museum were stacking up. But when I actually looked at it closely, it was really Asheville itself that I was drawn to, not the Museum. I had visited the Asheville Art Museum before my interview, and had not been particularly impressed. Not only was the art hit or miss, but the building did not have a great flow to it.
I was still having a hard time making a decision. Asheville was also closer to my home than Santa Fe, and would likely be cheaper. My part-time retail job could transfer me a location in Asheville for the summer. Plus there are always advantages to being close to my dog, boyfriend and family. I was ready to accept the offer, when I then asked about my required hours to earn academic credit. The Asheville Art Museum was only willing to give me twenty hours per week. This would not have been enough to fulfill my academic requirements. They then offered to let me administer volunteer surveys as a way to earn extra hours. While I appreciated them being as accommodating as they could be, this was the final straw. Jody convinced me that my time could be much better spent than doing visitor surveys. By this point, I felt like I was just trying to make it work. I have learned that it is best not to force decisions like this, so I started to consider SITE as a viable option.
SITE was giving me my first choice on the department I requested, the interview had gone very well, and it was located in a part of the country that I had never been before. I love to travel, so I started to see this internship as not only an opportunity to learn more about the art world, but also as an opportunity to experience somewhere completely different. I was sold on the location (as long as I could fit it into my budget), but I needed to look more at the museum itself. I quickly found many pros. SITE in a non-collecting contemporary art museum. They only work with living artists, meaning that I would get to meet and work with curators and artists while installing their work. The people that I would be meeting would be especially significant because SITE was gearing up for their biennial, much wider than a line. This would be their last exhibition before their building expansion which, when completed, will nearly double the gallery space and completely revamp the offices. Lastly, SITE had no problem with giving me more than enough hours to complete my academic requirements.
I considered this situation from every angle that I could, and eventually concluded that the experience that the institution would give me is of utmost importance. It was clear that Asheville Art Museum could only give me a taste of what I could learn while at SITE. Thankfully everything worked out from a financial perspective, and I made Santa Fe my home for two-and-a-half months. Even though I didn’t know that I wanted to have such an immersive and labor intensive experience, SITE could not have given me a better opportunity. I was able to apply, but mostly expand upon, the skills that I had learned in my experiences with volunteering and working at various galleries in a professional setting.
I reported to Sage Sommer, the Exhibitions Manager and Registrar. However, I was treated like just another member of the crew of preparators. Sage gave me tasks when she had them, but many times I was forced to find where I would be useful. I could never expect what I would be doing on any given day when I walked in. My only limitations were that I could not climb on high ladders, use the scissor lift, or operate any power tools, including drills, saws and the like. I still had no problem finding things to do. As long as I was working on the goal to get the exhibition up as quickly and as safely as possible, then I was on target.
There were three main projects that I worked on throughout the summer. Building Marta Minujin’s mud nest, cleaning and preparing Mariana Castillo Deball’s terracotta totems, and reporting the incoming condition of all of the work in the biennial. I also did other tasks like finding a display case for one of the installations in the show, making cardboard cutouts that served as placeholders for artwork that had not arrived yet, unpacking a large installation piece that contained over 200 individual pieces, unpacking, conditioning, and repacking work that could not yet be displayed because the building was still under construction, getting paint and drywall dust off of a live tree that is in the biennial, painting the screens onto the wall with special paint for the video works, and lots and lots of cleaning.
I could not have asked for a better experience. The shear variety of tasks that I completed speaks for itself. There was never a dull moment, and I was treated like an employee from day one. I loved the fast pace environment. I think that it is vital for everyone to have an experience like this where you sort of just have to figure it out as you go along. This experience taught me to think on my feet. In order to get things done I had to be assertive and ask the right questions at the right time, but also know when to back off and just learn by observing. I wouldn’t say that this type of working environment was a challenge, but more of what I had been hoping for. No one was holding my hand or giving me meaningless tasks. It was up to me to do my share.
The highlights of my internship include the major projects I worked on, meeting all of the artists and curators, making a new friend, and of course all of the adventures that I had outside of the museum. Artists Aaron Dysart and Xenobia Bailey and curator Kathleen Ash-Milby were the most enjoyable to meet and work with. Nick, my fellow exhibitions intern, became a great companion to do things with around Santa Fe and beyond. I got to visit Bandelier National Monument and Tent Rocks Nat’l Monument which are both in New Mexico. I hiked Atalaya Mountain which is right outside of Santa Fe. I visited Denver Art Museum, Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Red Rocks Amphitheater to see String Cheese Incident, and Boulder where I saw Dead and Company at Folsom Field.
The only challenge that I faced throughout the whole summer came when we started to pull late nights as the opening day grew closer. I stayed as late as nine or ten at night multiple days in a row, sometimes later. I found it very difficult to stay motivated after five o’clock, especially after working in the heat, or doing hard labor. I would get a second wind around seven because I knew that the faster I got it done, the quicker I could go home. But it was still hard to not let exhaustion take over. Not only was SITE a strain, but on my days off of the museum I was working at one of my other jobs. I left earlier than the rest of the crew on a few occasions, and I felt guilty by doing so. But that was the only way that I would be able to give it my all the next day. It didn’t help that I was the only one on the crew not getting paid. Having a financial incentive hopefully will help if I am ever a preparator in the future.
After my experience at SITE, I can say that I definitely chose the right major and career path. All of the preparators that I worked with are amazing, creative people. I could easily see myself being a part of a production crew for a museum again. Not only do I feel like I’ve earned my after work beer by the end of my shift, but the job is usually seasonal. Meaning that during the off time I would have the freedom to pursue other ventures. This sort of flexibility is hard to find, and it is something that I am very attracted to. While eventually a desk and a salary might be nice, my job inquiries post-graduation will likely be for preparatory jobs. This internship will definitely open doors for this type of position, however I will most likely need to gain more specialized experience with lighting, AV, carpentry, etc, to work on a crew consistently.
No matter what is in store for me next, I know that my contact with SITE will come in handy. The connections that the staff has are incredible. I know that it would be beneficial to contact SITE with a list of institutions that I am interested in to see if they know anyone there for potential future jobs and internships. The knowledge that this experience has given me should be able to speak for itself when it comes time to pursue my next venture. SITE will always be where I think of when I think about the beginning of my career. The only thing left to do is finish up one more year of school, and start applying all that this summer has taught me.