Last January, I had the opportunity to go to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), to shadow alum Natalia Choi ‘15. Natalia works in the Multi-Generational Learning department and her responsibilities included creating family and multigenerational programming, designing accessible kits for visitors of different needs, managing and cultivating a multicultural, multilingual library, enlisting the help of local artists among other things. I lived with and went to work with Natalia for a week (January 6th till the 14th). The externship was outside of the traditional Career Services externship program. I met with Professor Lisa Smulyan of the Education department and she took the time to reach out to Natalia and connect us!
While many people don’t get a chance to work directly and in a hands-on way in the field they’re interested in or studying while in college, I was able to dive into the museum world—a world that I have a strong interest in. I was able to ask difficult questions about grappling with institutional history, making the museum more community oriented as well and just talk to many people there about what they had studied and how they arrived at Mia.
Working at a traditional art institution, Mia staff have been reconciling the institution’s history by disrupting limiting frameworks. While I was there I had the opportunity to speak with a co-curator of the Mapping Black Identities exhibit to discuss the ways you need to be subversive in the museum space in order to make change. I sat in on meetings with the head of the education department and was able to see what initiatives they were troubleshooting and trying to get funding for. I attended a private photography gallery opening that was co-curated by middle schoolers and high-schoolers in the neighboring area and learned about the process of opening up that space for new interpretations. I co-designed a gallery hunt with Natalia for children of various ages that connected Black History Month to Jazz and served as an educational and community building tool for children and their families which will be used this month. This externship gave me perspective on what the problems and difficulties of working in a traditional art museum are, but also gave me a new perspective about transforming and reframing art spaces. My experience engaging with people at Mia, assisting with activities, and having constructive conversations about resistance was super exciting.
But my experience with Natalia was super flexible. I spent the time I was not doing work or meeting with people, exploring the galleries, getting to know the museum and just acting as a visitor. Natalia and I made dinner almost everyday and when we didn’t, we enjoyed pho and Mexican food. We brewed tea at least three times a day. We took a day trip to the Northern Clay Center and Textile Center in Minneapolis and I was able to see even more artwork and art spaces. When we travelled, Natalia pointed out the mural that Mia staff (and a few Swarthmore alums) had worked to create.
Natalia and I bonded not only through our shared, but general experience of being at Swarthmore, but also because she danced in Rhythm N’ Motion when she was here (and I do now), we shared several professors, and she even had my uncle as her dance professor too. We talked a lot about dance. When we were at home drinking our tea, we’d sprawl out and read magazines or talk at her dining table. Other times, I’d Facetime my family and friends to give them updates and work on embroidery.
We went to a Puppeteering show at the Open Eye Theatre that was absolutely amazing and emotional. Apparently Minneapolis has a thriving puppet scene. I will definitely go to a puppet show in Philadelphia soon. In general, it seemed like Minneapolis had quite an amazing arts scene. At the Mia staff holiday party, I met even more people, had amazing desserts , pizza, danced around, and felt a sense of: “Oh wow. I think I would like to do this work and be in the company of these people”. Now, I can honestly say I miss it/them.
Overall, my experience at Mia could not be replicated. It posed some hard questions to me about what I wanted to do, but also answered so many as well. Everyday, I learned something new. Everyday, the Minneapolis cold felt more manageable.
I am so very thankful to have had this opportunity and would not have been able to do it without the support and encouragement from Professor Lisa Smulyan, Natalia Choi ‘15 who opened up her home to me, made the arrangements, and chose to give the gift of this experience, the Art History department for completely reimbursing me for all of my expenses (yes, that’s right: my flight, Ubers, food, performance tickets etc.) and Mia’s staff for welcoming me with open arms. It will definitely be a highlight of my college experience and something I look back on as a formative one.