Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: Intern Perspective, Part 2

J. Rachel Gustafson on the banks of the Seine before joining the NEA team. Photo by Maggie Shackleford

2012 has been a flurry of change and firsts in my life. I moved from a town I had called home for a decade. I quit my ‘career’ to branch out into a new one. I surpassed my mid-twenties. I lived in Europe. I went to the best concert of my life. I watched a few sunsets and greeted the sun from rooftops and riverbanks---sometimes within a 24-hour period. I broke old rules. I made new ones. I doubted myself and had to ask for help. I slowed down to reflect on where I have been and where I want to go.

More than change, however, I think 2012 was a year of education---the kind of education that only comes from a willingness to take risks and embrace your passions, rather than hide from them, which brings me to my internship at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Flashback: July 2012, Paris

An email from my new graduate school, American University, alerted me to an opening at the NEA within the Public Affairs department. I read the internship description and swooned. I had just left my job of six years as a public relations director to pursue a master’s degree in art history and the internship responsibilities matched my previous experience. In my former life, I ran an internship program---now I was on course to be the intern. I sent in my resume and held my breath.

A few days later, I was on the phone with the NEA and was asked to join the team. Joy---in a word---could not have quite encompassed my feelings. Overjoyed probably couldn’t even describe it. It’s just an internship, you say? Nay, sir, it’s an opportunity for professional exposure to the arts. All arts, all the time.

Today: NEA Offices, Washington, D.C.

The hallway outside the sixth-floor Public Affairs office smells like waffle cones. I’m not sure how or why the hallway always smells like candy and with a hint of old books, but it does. I’m working on an interview transcription while I reflect on my last four months with the agency. What I am amazed at--- beyond the kindness and intelligence of the people I have met since I started---is the NEA’s scope. The NEA commits to a vast artistic curriculum and furthers the dialogue about art in America---whether it’s creative city planning, reading for all ages, celebrating the nation’s artistic leaders, or simply tweeting about the latest arts research infographic.

And the best part is that I get to help tell that story. This past semester I was able to actively participate in that process and talk with the people on the ground that make the arts happen everyday. In editing interviews and conducting my own, I’ve collected some words of wisdom from those individuals that I believe will always ring true and helps to sum up my experience here at the NEA. Some poignant, some funny, some heartbreaking, they all speak to what the future holds the arts and arts lovers alike:

Johnny Paschall, The Paschall Brothers, regarding the recent passing of his brother and father as his gospel group accepts a National Heritage Fellow award:

“Frank is with us, and every time we hear these songs, they are archives of those things we have done in the 31 years. Even though they're gone, those things that transpired still exist today, and that's what I call eternity.”

Nicholas R. Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator of American Craft & Decorative Art at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, regarding the artists in a recent craft exhibition honoring the top 40 under 40 artisans in the US:

“They are very interested in the process by which things come into being. They believe if we spend more time actually engaging with the process and do this on a more personal level, there will be a value that comes out of it. That is not necessarily the default setting of our culture. The default setting is toward ease of obtaining things and obtaining things cheaply…They feel value lays elsewhere.”

Jim Toole, Capitol Hill Books, regarding the fate of the physical book in the digital revolution:

“Digital books will eventually drive me out of business. What would be the necessity for an organization like me to exist? Right now, we haven’t crossed that divide yet because some people still like to touch the books but at some point in time, this generation, if not the next will wonder what they need books for.”

Don Ball, NEA, regarding my literary challenge post on the Big Read Blog:

“Everyone should read Faulkner before they're 30...”

In my year of change, the internship at the NEA has given me the opportunity to turn what could have been another year of passé into passion. Every story I hear and arts advocate I get to work with, in one way or another, furthers the dialogue about arts in America. They are fighting the good fight and I am honored to be ringside. But this is not goodbye yet---I must have done something right because I’ll be continuing my internship next semester. There are more stories to share and arts to explore with the NEA as my guide.

J. Rachel Gustafson is an art historian in training at American University in Washington, D.C. She previously worked in public relations in Tallahassee, Florida and adores her family, kitties and Florida State Seminoles. Follow her on Twitter at @jrachelgus.

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