A review of my internship at the world’s premier Modern Art museum
It was exactly four months ago when I discovered I’d be spending the fall of 2007 working at The Museum of Modern Art. I had long dreamed of the opportunity to live in New York City, yet never imagined it would arrive in the form of an internship at arguably the world’s finest Modern Art museum. A heavy application process (including three essays) had ended with a carefully coordinated trans-atlantic telephone interview with a certain Larissa Bailiff, MoMA’s internship coordinator. I was extremely nervous beforehand, and spent that morning researching extensively the museum’s current and upcoming exhibitions. Fortunately, Ms. Bailiff immediately put me at ease, and we settled into a breezy chat which lasted over forty-five minutes. I like to think my British charm and wit over the phone was what secured me the position of marketing intern, as less than a week later, I received confirmation via email that I’d be spending the next three months stateside. I barely had time to obtain my visa and update my iPod before I was jetting off across the Atlantic to confront a healthy mix of the familiar and the unknown.
Having spent the last four years livin’ la dolce vita in Italy, how would I cope when suddenly tossed into the ultimate modern metropolis that is Manhattan? Quite well, as it turned out: all those years spent studying the city combined with intensive previous visits had earned me something of an honorary self-taught degree in Newyorkology, and I felt confidently able in dodging such infamous New York pratfalls as subway navigation, the delicate art of tipping, and the correct pronunciation of Houston Street.
It seemed like an eternity before I finally had to go to MoMA on Monday morning. In my eagerness I had arrived spectacularly early, and spent almost an hour reading in Central Park before I was due to meet Ms. Bailiff and the other interns. When I arrived at the entrance to the Cullman Building on 54th Street I was informed by the receptionist that the other interns had elected to go to Starbucks. Putting aside my usual boycott of the Seattle-based coffee giant I walked over to Sixth Avenue where I met three other interns — from Connecticut, Los Angeles and Paris. I was surprised to discover such an international bunch — something had told me I’d be the sole Brit. Instead nearly all of North America and Europe was represented. I was relieved to find all the interns smart and instantly likeable, yet I felt a bit like a reality show contestant meeting my competition rivals. I suppose this would make Larissa Heidi Klum. Larissa in person was as I had found her to be on the phone: warm, friendly and a very entertaining speaker, to the extent that a side career in stand-up comedy would not be out of the question.
After our welcoming talk and initial introduction I met my supervisor Julie Welch, who immediately struck me as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actress Annette Bening. Julie gave me an extensive behind-the-scenes tour of the museum before introducing me to the rest of the marketing team, including marketing coordinator Zoe Jackson and director Peter Foley. She then showed me where I’d be working: a tiny cubicle the size of a phone booth (but without the windows). When Peter suggested to Julie that I’d go crazy in there she gave me the option of sharing the back office with three other interns. But for some reason I chose to stick with the private cubicle, despite its lack of space. I took off my jacket and got down to work.
Though I never quite got over the fact I was spending most days sitting feet away from all those Picassos and Pollocks, it wasn’t long before I began to feel more at home within the field of marketing, a feeling which was enhanced when I attended our weekly marketing meetings. These would generally last under an hour, but I was fascinated to learn first hand of the department’s operations (as well as interdepartmental gossip). One day Zoë gave a report on her visit to Tate Modern, and it was interesting for me to hear how the Tate’s marketing department compared with that of MoMA. I was also amused to hear my colleagues’ take on their London counterparts, and it seemed odd to think I was on the New York side of things. Peter was an impressive director with a sharp sense of humour. I admired his absolute support for his department and the confidence he showed in forcing his opinion for the good of the museum.
By this time Julie and I had begun working closely on a guerilla advertising project, for which we held a meeting with two of Downtown’s hottest young media talents. They were “humbled” to have been contacted by MoMA and enthusiastically bombarded us with ideas, from posters to a MoMA blog (which they felt I should write). It was from this meeting that I began to expand on the MyMoMA idea, a concept I’d originally toyed with before my arrival in New York. MyMoMA is essentially a two-fold idea: 1) a fun, alternate MoMA brand designed to introduce the museum to a younger audience, and 2) a prepaid card with which a larger proportion of the city’s inhabitants could gain regular entry to the museum. I created a marketing outline for MyMoMA, including possible advertising techniques. The guerilla media project never got past the concept stage, and it was frustrating not to be able to follow it through. That’s something I soon learned about MoMA: as cool as it may appear from the outside, in reality it’s also a big business, and ideas must go through everyone from curators to directors to trustees themselves before you see anything happen. While I think the department was generally satisfied with my performance, I don’t feel like my work challenged me enough, and nor was I given the opportunity to show my full potential or range of skills. Of course much of this was due to the relatively brief three-month period of the internship itself.
Perhaps the most pleasurable aspect of the experience was the friendships that came about among myself and the other interns. Even Larissa said we were an especially terrific bunch. We’d all meet once on a Tuesday for our intern lecture, which each week focused on a different department within the museum. One week we were even granted an audience with museum director Glenn D. Lowry. I asked him why the museum was so expensive yet only stayed open until five o’clock, a question to which he seemed unable to provide a satisfactory answer.
I’d often meet my fellow intern buddies for lunch at Remi To Go or coffee at Zibetto Espresso Bar, while an ever-expanding group of us began to enjoy regular evenings at parties in Chelsea or bars on the Lower East Side. I would have ideally liked to have taken more advantage of the various perks offered by the internship, but somehow my plan to visit every New York museum on my days off was never fully realized. My volunteer work for NYC CultureFest and PERFORMA 07 kept me busy, as did frequent trips to West Virginia and Florida. I was probably too caught up in the excitement that living in this remarkable place inevitably creates. I often felt overwhelmed after work when having left the office at 5:30 I was suddenly faced with an entire city at my disposal. Some nights I would walk all the way back to my East Village apartment simply for the pleasure of being on the street, taking it all in.
The internship provided me with a truly unforgettable experience and made me the envy of almost everyone I’ve ever met. I learned a lot about MoMA, museums, marketing and working in the United States. It helped me focus my career in a more specific direction, and confirmed my suitability to this particular field. I met some great people, and the whole thing just flew by, as I knew it would. My long-term plan is to remain in New York, and a great deal of passion, patience and dedication is required in order for that to happen. Yet even if I do one day work in Manhattan again, nothing will ever quite compare to the feeling of strolling down Second Avenue and jostling with New Yorkers aboard the V train up to 53rd Street, where my very own midtown office — OK, cubicle — was waiting just for me.