Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Notes on What Makes Interns Great

A couple of weeks ago we took one of our interns to lunch on her last day to celebrate her successful completion of her time with us, and to thank her for all the great work she did. As we prepared to wish her well in the world after she left, it occurred to me that I have managed a good deal of student workers over the past several years, with varying results. It also dawned on me that they have all been very different in their capabilities, demeanor, professionalism, and interest level in the work at hand.

[NOTE: We have had very good interns as of late, so if you are recent, this is not about you!]

I am not aware of whether or not college internship programs are conducting general orientations of what internships require, or if they leave that to the individual organizations taking them on from semester to semester. However, in terms of a non-profit arts organization, there are some very key points that need to be taken under consideration by both students and companies before deciding an internship is worth pursuing.

First, what does the internship entail? For many non-profits the list of responsibilities an intern will be given includes a wide variety of activities, from routine administrative tasks to specific research, to coordinating small projects under the supervision of staff.  It is essential that there be a written description of what shall expected, not only in terms of duties performed, but behaviors and etiquette required as well. Having this agreement acknowledged by both company and intern serves as a template to ensure everyone knows what they are getting into for the next few months.

A few DON'Ts: 1) Do not show up with holes in your pants or dirt on your clothes. You are an ambassador for the organization at which you are interning, look presentable. Just because we are an art organization does not mean you can dress like you're sleeping in your studio. 2) Do not be late. Just because this internship is on a volunteer basis, does not mean we do not have other things to do than wait around for you to roll in an hour late or longer. There is work to be done on a schedule and in sequence. If you are not where you are supposed to be when we're planning for you to be there, you disrupt the schedule and tasks do not get done the way they must. 3) Do not skip work. Preparing materials for you to work on, then to not have you show up at all is very aggravating. The time it takes us to get tasks ready for you to complete is time we could be spending on other, most likely more pressing, matters. Likewise, do not call an hour before you're supposed to be here to say you can't come in, unless it's an emergency. Having to study for a test is not a valid excuse. 4) Do not show up wiped out from partying late the night before. If you are lethargic and inattentive, you are wasting our time. 5) Do not come to the interview having no idea about what we do or how we work. Research our business, its history, its past projects, as well as the context in which we operate prior to walking in the door. If you can demonstrate you've done your homework and know even a little about the world of public art administration, you will start off on an infinitely better footing. We value the opportunity to treat your internship as an education into public art, and want you to succeed. Please show show us a basic level of respect by taking an interest into the issues that affect how we do what we love under often extremely high pressure conditions.

So, with that bit of frustration over with, what does it take to be a GREAT intern? First, if you remember nothing else, remember this: attitude really is everything (well, not also have to be articulate enough to handle the phones, write a grammatically correct press release, and do what you're asked completely and in a timely manner, but attitude goes a very, very long way...). Come to work ready to work, and prepared to take on pretty much anything. You may be asked to update websites and newsletters, go along on studio visits or City Council meetings, or take out the trash. It really does run the gamut in a small non-profit. Be flexible enough to conduct research into public art policy internationally, format presentations, or roll up your sleeves and help paint a mural. The rest of staff (including the director) will be doing the same without question, so jump in feet first and just adopt an attitude of wanting to help with whatever is needed day to day, as well as producing longer term projects. 

Public Art Internship Myth #1: Unless you are interning for 18 months to 3 years, you will not be able to participate in every aspect of managing a public art project from start to finish. Because of what we do as project coordinators (not patrons, designers, fabricators, or funders...) public art administrators are essentially the most literal definition of the 'middle men' of any aspect of the art world. We connect clients with artists and artists with communities, shepherding all the disparate parts through to completion. Because there are so many stakeholders with varying schedules and availability, the process takes a long time. You will most likely get to see and help (in small ways) all of the various pieces come together, but over a range of several projects, rather than any single one in its entirety. 

Next: Communicate! If you cannot find something you were asked to research, or could not reach a project stakeholder you were instructed to contact, let us know! Do not play with Facebook or listen to music after a single attempt, waiting for us to tell you something new. We need to know the progress you're making on whatever project we've given you, so that it gets done properly and on deadline. What may seem like small jobs most often play important parts in larger endeavors. If we've asked you to run an errand, answer your phone if we call when you're out of the office. Something has come up, and we need you to alter your route or do something else on the way back.

Third: Confidentiality is crucial. Our work is often proprietary, and it is important that this is respected. Ask what you can share with your friends, and what you should not. If something is sensitive, we will usually say so, but err on the side of discretion unless we inform you otherwise.

Finally (for now): Everything we ask you to format, compose, research, compile, organize, record, etc., should be 'presentation ready'. I need to spend as little time polishing your PowerPoints, aligning your margins, correcting your spelling, or cropping your jpegs as possible. 

This is not a comprehensive list, as the needs and tasks of our work are subject to outside factors beyond our control much of the time. However, these tenets should get you started on the right path to being an awesome intern, not just for art non-profits, but anywhere. 

We appreciate your desire to learn, assist, and make your mark, and all we ask in return is that you work your tail off while keeping a sense of humor and a passion for the profession.

Good luck!