Asheville Art Museum Offers Valuable Career Development Opportunities for Youth with Disabilities

In a museum gallery, a man with a blue shirt and jeans addresses a group of five interns: four females and one male.

Former Asheville Art Museum intern Taylor Heasley stands fourth from the left and listens to the director of the nearby Blue Spiral 1 Gallery. Photo credit: Asheville Art Museum

The Asheville Art Museum in Asheville, North Carolina, offers university and high school students with disabilities the opportunity to explore careers in the arts, arts management, and arts education through its inclusive internship program. The internships, which last between three and six months, teach interns professional and life skills that help prepare them for future employment in the arts. We spoke to two former interns, Clove Barrett and Taylor Heasley, and the museum’s Adult Programs Manager, Kristi McMillan, about the program and how the internship influenced their current professional pursuits.

 

The Office of VSA and Accessibility: What does an average day for an intern at the Asheville Art Museum look like?

Kristi McMillan: Our interns work on projects with different museum departments —Administration, Curatorial, Education, Development, Marketing/Public Relations, Visitor Services—so their “average day” will vary depending on which department they are working with. For example, an intern in the Education Department might assist with summer art camp in the morning, then work with our K-12 educators in the afternoon to develop curriculum that corresponds with our collection or an upcoming exhibition; a Visitor Services intern might help design product listings in our online museum store, welcome visitors to programs, or help organize a pop-up sale. All of our interns participate in robust professional development opportunities, including roundtable discussions with staff and field trips to area arts and cultural organizations, so that they can explore a wide variety of career options in addition to the more focused projects they work on in their museum department.

 

12 individuals stand outside in front of a large, ornate building; there are long rows of trees on either side of the building.

Clove Barrett (fourth from right) stands in front of the Biltmore Estate with fellow interns and colleagues from the Asheville Art Museum. Photo credit: Asheville Art Museum

VSA and Accessibility: Taylor and Clove, what were some of your favorite experiences as an intern?

Clove Barrett: My favorite experiences over the internship actually ended up being the students in summer art camp who presented a challenge in some way, the ones who were shy or frustrated with themselves. There were a handful who needed someone to remind them that they were good and smart and important, even if they struggled with some aspect of their lives. The absolute best part of the summer was during one of the 3rd through 5th grade camp weeks. We had a couple of unique boys who I tried my best to give support to, and on the last day they both gave me hugs and told me I was their favorite teacher ever. One even came back the next week to give me a thank you gift! I almost cried it was so sweet.

Taylor Heasley: I had several previous intern experiences at larger museums, but I loved the fact that the Asheville Art Museum was a smaller scale and I could learn from people in a variety of departments. Everyone was so accessible. The museum was open but was under construction going through an expansion and renovation so I learned a little about fundraising and how they were designing the building for the art. The internship program also takes the interns outside of the museum to learn about the art scene in Asheville. But most of all, I had the opportunity to combine my love of art with teaching so that I can put together lesson plans for teachers of children of all ages.

 

VSA and Accessibility: Taylor and Clove, what kind of work are you doing you do now?

Clove: Currently I’m writing my art history undergraduate thesis on Rococo era French furniture designs. I’ll graduate from the Savannah College of Art and Design this coming November, and soon after I plan to pursue a masters in information and library sciences. My goal is to become a museum archivist; I adore history and would love to be a part of preserving it so it’s accessible to everyone.

Taylor: This is my third year teaching at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Washington, D.C.

 

VSA and Accessibility: How did your internships prepare you for future experiences, both professional and personal?

Clove: Professionally speaking, I think the thing I got that was most important was friends within my chosen field. The staff at the museum is full of incredible, brilliant, talented folks who are more than willing to give a beginner like me sound advice. I feel like I’m not going into the museum world alone now, I have people who can help me navigate and find my place. On a more personal note, I gained a tremendous amount of confidence in myself during my internship. Initially I was nervous to interact everyday with real professionals; I thought I would stand out and embarrass myself. Growing up with cognitive disabilities, I always felt out of place and like I didn’t really deserve success. But the Asheville Art Museum welcomed me the moment I walked in, and made me feel valued. I feel more confident in my talents, intelligence, and worth than I ever have.

Taylor: I love to incorporate art and different cultures in my lesson plans, and I would love to continue working with museums as I am teaching. In addition to working full time, I am currently working on my Masters Degree in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Virginia. I am concentrating on multicultural and special education. I am especially interested in how children learn differently. In the sixth grade I was diagnosed with a learning disability so I had to learn how to process information visually and through an audio computer program. Throughout high school I had accommodations and I realized that everyone learns differently and it was important for teachers to adjust to their student’s learning styles. I also look at museums differently now as I visit them. I think about the experience from a child’s point of view, especially if the child has special needs. The layout of the museum, the programs available to parents and teachers, and the stimulation that the child receives all contribute to the learning experiences at the museum. I would love to take one summer and tour a variety of museums to learn their best practices for exposing children of all ages to art, culture, and history.

 

A young man stands with his arm raised high in the air, wearing virtual reality goggles and holding a controller. The room is lit in blue light.

Asheville Art Museum interns experience virtual reality on a field trip to Better Than Unicorns. Photo credit: Asheville Art Museum

VSA and Accessibility: Kristi, do you have any advice for other arts managers who want to make their own internship programs more inclusive?

Kristi: It’s really important to find out what your community needs. I’ve spent a lot of time the past few years meeting with different advocacy groups in our area to learn about what experiences and programs we can offer that would make a difference. Arts organizations are always tight on financial and human resources, so it’s best to know ahead of time where there are demonstrated needs that your program can address. I’d also say that the more partnerships and collaborations that you can cultivate – especially with high-school counselors, youth program managers, and universities’ accessibility resources offices – the more you can get the word out about the great programs you have to offer!

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