Reflections of an Art History Intern: Sofia D’Amico
Japan Society Internship Experience
By Sofia D’Amico, FCRH '19
From working the electrifying exhibition opening of A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, to biting my nails at the volleying thousand-dollar bids placed by wealthy New Yorkers at a benefit art auction, to meeting influential Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, to giving medical attention to an unconscious man at a Japan Society Gallery staff luncheon at the midtown Smith, I never could have anticipated where my Japan Society internship would take me.
It began at the start of sophomore year, in the midst of a petrifying existential crisis as I began to shake off the shackles of the pre-health major I originally declared. As a student, I had no real direction, except that I was enthralled with Professor Ikeda’s “Intro to Asian Art History.” But an Art History major? What was that really? It sounded like a ticket towards a “starving artist” future, although perhaps with a scholarly twist. I knew so very little back then. In repeated conversations post-class with Professor Ikeda, she warmly encouraged me to ask questions regarding the implications of an Art History major. I finally sent her an email stating my plan to declare, but added I wanted additional experience outside of the classroom, a way to “dip my toes” into the New York art scene. She told me she had curated an exhibition titled A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints coming to Japan Society the next semester, adding she’d be happy to get me involved. Professor Ikeda’s great enthusiasm to help was real evidence to me of the dedication Fordham Art History Department faculty have to their students. She guided me to Japan Society’s Michael Chagnon, curator of exhibition interpretation, and Lia Robinson, Gallery associate, intern manager, and major domo. Michael’s witty sense of humor made every Japan Society function interesting and I was always moved by Lia’s thoughtful kindness. I interviewed with Lia, who would serve as my supervisor, and, despite not quite knowing what an internship actually entailed just a few months prior, I suddenly had one. I told anyone who would listen that I was interning at an art gallery in Manhattan, no big deal or anything, *wink.* I beamed with a wonderful fusion of nervousness and delight.
The Gallery team accommodated for my full-time student schedule by giving me a remote internship, where I would meet periodically with Lia to review my tasks, but did most of my work from Rose Hill. My biggest responsibility was social media content and management. I developed A Third Gender social media posts for Japan Society Gallery’s Instagram twice a day, Twitter four times a day, and Facebook once a day. I was also tasked with new ways to drive engagement and increase followers, as well as correspondences with the public on all platforms. Lia once described my position as “the voice of Japan Society,” and I relished it. I probably worked on social media content more than schoolwork, but with great satisfaction. From February to May, I created a calendar of social media posts for the month, which Lia would approve, and then schedule those posts.
I also worked with event/exhibition promotion through resource distribution, attendance management, and researching/stepping into different groups and institutions to network with Japan Society. It felt like I ran the gauntlet to get A Third Gender posters approved by Fordham’s Office of Student Involvement. I tacked posters up and laid palm cards throughout Fordham. The most rewarding and exciting part of the internship was in event support, where unforgettable experiences came out of public interface working check-ins and responding to questions about events and Japan Society. As an intern I was given tickets to exclusive Japan Society events, such as an incredible connoisseurship workshop on Japanese erotic prints and a screening for an upcoming documentary Queer Japan. Even when working check-in at lectures and scholarly panels, I was always ushered in when the talk began and told to “enjoy it,” which, of course, I did.
I left my spring internship a bit teary-eyed, but thrilled when I was told the Gallery team would love to have me next semester. I contemplated whether it would be better for me “career-wise” to try to intern elsewhere. Monstrous institutions like the Met or the Guggenheim sounded enticing. But when I decided to remain with Japan Society for another semester, it was arguably the best decision of my college career. With internships, it absolutely is a quality-versus-quantity issue. My second semester interning brought on bigger responsibilities and experiences. I worked at Japan Society with the rest of the staff on Wednesdays and most of my Thursdays since I had no classes those days. There, I was able to see first-hand what it took to run the institution and the Gallery, as well as become acquainted with the Society’s principals. As I had the previous semester, I worked on exhibition/event promotions, some social media content, and outreach. But additional assignments included editing didactics for press releases, cataloguing the huge numbers of Japan Society contacts, and, my favorite, auction support. I spent a lot of time in the office managing auction artworks, documenting art information, and writing correspondences with donors and artists. The climax of this was working the benefit auction itself, providing event support and getting to watch the auction take place, which I dare say was genuinely much more exhilarating than any World Series or Super Bowl could ever dream to be.
I’ve seen other students in internship programs where the interns were simply the unpaid stand-ins for full-time employees, a means to an end, or simply an answer to the question of “What can you do for our institution?” Personal cultivation of the interns may not be not high on every institution’s the priority list, but at Japan Society I was encouraged, with great enthusiasm. Japan Society’s standing as a reputable institution with a very intimate Gallery staff afforded this. In total, the Gallery team consisted of the director Yukie Kamiya, exhibition manager Rylan Buchholz, Michael Chagnon, Lia Robinson, and three other Gallery interns. Of course, I knew every Gallery member and intern by name, and as a small team, they were always approachable. Great connections and friendships were forged. What set Japan Society apart was, as interns did their best for the Gallery team, it always felt equally reciprocated. Lia sent me VIP tickets to the Frieze Art Fair, invitations to exclusive events, art group memberships, and more, continually encouraging me to dive into the art world and seize great opportunities. She made sure before I ended my internship, I would get program training in Raisor’s Edge, a marketable skill. In preparation for my semester abroad in Tokyo, Lia even tried teaching me Japanese and gave me my first Japanese book. Every member of the team provided much appreciated guidance and advice.
Interning at Japan Society was the passion project of my college career. If that sounds hyperbolic, Firstly, I am most certainly easily moved and secondly, a strong sense of gratitude is, in my opinion, a must in this field. Once as I attempted to navigate my career options, a fellow emerging museum professional Marina Nebro gave me a piece of invaluable advice: to take a step back, look at my position, and to practice boundless gratitude. It’s a privilege to hold an internship so impactful. I have immense gratitude for those who enabled me to take this internship, Professor Ikeda and everyone at Japan Society.
If I could list all of the experiences I had and all of the things I did at Japan Society, this post would be pages and pages. What I learned from my two semesters of internship is immeasurable; from learning about the curatorial process and nuances of the trade, to an understanding of job potential within this field, to interacting with great art, to developing a unique network I’ll cherish and carry with me into the future. Perhaps the most priceless element of internship was confidence, only to be gained from experiential understanding, seeing first-hand the workings of the Gallery and the art world, each guided by the team.
My internship at Japan Society provided me with a solid base of understanding in an arena I hope to make a career and its impact is immeasurable. I asked once for an internship, and from then on I couldn’t have asked for more.