Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: An Intern's Perspective

Text and photo by Jamie McCrary

I wasn't sure what to use as a picture, but I figured a notebook and some coffee are a pretty accurate portrayal of my work here.

When I moved to Washington, DC in August, I hit the ground running. There were so many things I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to waste any time getting started. Beginning graduate school, jumping into a couple of part-time jobs, meeting new friends and colleagues---these were all things on my agenda. Perhaps the most anticipated beginning, though, was the start of my public affairs internship at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. I knew I would be learning the ins and outs of the agency, giving me the chance to more deeply grasp what the NEA does. I knew I’d have a chance to exercise my editing and research skills. I knew there would be a lot of writing involved, which is a skill I hope to hone in on as my career. What I didn’t anticipate was how much I would learn from meeting and talking to so many focused and inspired people. The perspectives I’ve developed through listening to conversations, conducting interviews, and simply talking with NEA staff has deeply impacted my understanding of what “art works” truly means.

When I started in September, I had never transcribed or conducted an interview, and had no idea how challenging---and rewarding---this process could be. At first, much of my work consisted of listening to a staff-conducted interview and transcribing it to text. Though I’ll admit this could tedious at times, listening to so many conversations with artists, grantees, and leaders in the arts world proved to be deeply engaging. It’s phenomenal how much I’ve learned by simply listening to a conversation. One afternoon I would listen to an interview with Chairman Landesman about creative placemaking. The next day I’d learn about Okinawan dance and how its roots have transformed Hawaiian society. Later in the week I’d listen to how a theater has changed a small community in Michigan. Not only did these varied conversations further inspire my passion for the arts, but they initiated a curiosity in me. How are the arts really affecting these communities? What different things are people doing with our grant money? What is it inside these individuals that make them so incredibly committed to the arts?

Conducting my own interviews proved to be a bit more involved than transcribing one. I’m a naturally curious and inquisitive person, so the thought of drafting interview questions didn’t seem too challenging---until I sat down to actually do it. Asking deep and probing questions doesn’t just require curiosity. It demands real insight into the interviewee’s perspective. It requires you to drill down to the core of what is fascinating and moving about your subject, and ask yourself how you can inspire this same thought process in your interviewee. I found I really had to think for myself. While people could make suggestions of good questions to ask, no one could really tell me what I found fascinating, or how to craft questions around this curiosity. This is not a process that is black and white; it requires an open mind and deep, critical thinking. Exploring this thought process was unexpected, and also something I think I will be working on for the rest of my life. I can’t think of another internship where I would have the freedom and encouragement to discover myself in this way.

Though I am incredibly grateful for the experiences I’ve had at the NEA thus far, I am most thankful for the people I am working with. The staff has been incredibly welcoming and encouraging, making themselves available to any questions, concerns, or difficulties I might be having. I’ve worked internships in the past where my role was to grab coffee, make copies, maybe run a few errands. My experience at the NEA has been completely the opposite. I am treated as an equal and a valued as an important part of the public affairs team. I’m not here just to be an extra body; people listen to my thoughts, value my opinions, and are very open to what I have to say.

I’m looking forward to a lot of things when I return to the NEA in the spring. I’m looking forward to further developing my writing and interviewing skills. I’m certainly excited to learn more about all the grants, initiatives, and programs the NEA supports. Most of all, though, I’m looking forward to continuing to discover different people’s perspectives, exploring how art works not only in individual lives, but throughout the nation.

Jamie McCrary is currently working on her master's degree in Arts Management at American University. She recently moved to Washington, DC from Denton, Texas, where she earned her Bachelor of Music in viola performance from the University of North Texas.

 

 

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