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In 1992, the J. Paul Getty Trust was doing some soul searching. A renowned arts organization in Los Angeles, it was established by oil billionaire John Paul Getty in 1953. It includes a grants organization, arts research facilities, a conservation institute, and a museum housing Getty’s extensive collection of Greek and Roman art in the hills of Malibu.
“We were still building the Getty Center at the time, and we had been talking a lot about what our relationship to the city would be once we moved,” says Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Foundation, which is the department that administers arts grants. (The Getty Center is now the Getty’s main museum perched on 110 acres in the Santa Monica mountains).
Then the L.A. riots happened. The acquittal of LAPD officers caught on video beating Rodney King lit a fuse in a community. The city was engulfed in chaos. At heart of it all was the highly-charged question of race and how diverse communities fit together.
“[The riots] really accelerated our thinking and our urgency about making a difference,” says Marrow. How would the institution be part of the communities around it? In the past decade alone, the county’s white population had slipped from 53 to 41 percent as the Hispanic and Asian population climbed to 38 and 10 percent respectively.
“We realized that audiences are changing, but what about the staffs of the cultural institutions? They weren’t very diverse with the exception of culturally-specific institutions,” says Marrow.
Like their counterparts in the UK, museum staff members in the U.S. were largely white. A report by London-based Museums Association found that in 1993, only about 2.5 percent of people working in UK museums were of minority origin.
“It’s not hard to realize [that fact] if you work in these institutions. It was more about deciding that we should do something about it,” says the director. Seeing this imbalance, Marrow and her three senior staff members team created the Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program in 1992.
“The pipeline for art historians—the feeder field for visual arts organizations—wasn’t very diverse, so we thought we’d go back farther—into the undergraduate level—and try to offer an opportunity that would give students a chance to see what visual arts organizations were like,” says Marrow. “Then, if they wanted to go into these fields, they’d know with plenty of time what they’d need to do to form a career.”
The program targeted promising young undergraduates of color. Rather than only offering internships at the Getty, the program partnered with about forty of L.A.’s art institutions, enabling the program to offer a wide range of work. “We wanted to get into different communities all around LA county,” says Marrow. The internships were paid, which opened the opportunity to those who faced the barrier of financial difficulty.
The program was an immediate success. L.A. institutions got a few extra hands to help with their key projects and ethnic youth found their eyes opened to the possibility of arts as a viable career.
“It wasn’t until the Getty internship program that I realized I could have a career in the arts without being an artist,” says Leslie Ito, an intern during the Getty’s inaugural year. “That summer twenty years ago was where I really started to build the foundation for my career.”
After her internship, Ito eventually rose to become executive director at Visual Communication, an Asian-American media art organization. Even now, she continues to work with the Getty as program officer for the arts at California Community Foundation.
And Ito isn’t alone. A 2008 survey showed 32 percent of interns pursued a career in museums and visual arts after graduation. Over two decades, the internship has introduced 2,700 youths to 150 cultural institutions in L.A.
Leslie Ito as an intern in 1992, and now today
In 2000, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission partnered with the Getty to build a parallel program with a focus on literary and performing arts. Together, they form the largest art internship program in the country.
In light of its success, the Foundation isn’t stopping at one-time summer internships; it’s looking for a long-term relationship. In June 2011, the Foundation launched its Leadership in Arts Management program, which brings together 20 alumni for a series of professional development programs over a 12-month period.
“Good ideas grow,” says Marrow, who knows from experience how one project can build on one another. With any luck, they’re well on their way to helping museums reflect the increasing diversity of their audiences—and our cities.