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The Getty Center (photo by woolennium/Flickr)

There’s a saying: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” A new lawsuit by a woman named Samantha Niemann embodies this phenomenon.

As reported last week, Niemann, who’s white, is suing the Getty Foundation over its Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program (MUI), claiming that her civil rights have been violated. In her lawsuit, she asserts that she was deterred from applying to the internship because she is not a member of an underrepresented group, “including, but not limited to, individuals of African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, or Pacific Islander descent,” as the program guidelines state on the Getty’s website. Niemann is channeling the mediocrity-as-entitlement of Abigail Fisher, the white college applicant who sued the University of Texas for not admitting her, to cry “reverse racism.”

I participated in the Getty’s MUI program in 2003, interning at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles and receiving a modest, full-time salary for 10 weeks, paid by the Getty. That summer, I was given the opportunity to work with senior-level staff at MOCA, interact with directors at the Getty, and engage with my MUI peers in a safe space. In other words, the MUI program ensured that I, as a person of color, had access to people and experiences that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have had.

My experience is backed up by statistics. A survey conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2015 found that 72% of the staff at American art museums are non-Hispanic whites. That number goes beyond the general American population, which is 62% non-Hispanic white. A closer look reveals that 84% of non-Hispanic whites dominate positions that contribute to the “intellectual and educational mission of museums,” such as directors, curators, conservators, etc. This means that, of the people in underrepresented groups — mostly communities of color — who work at museums, nearly half of them do so within departments that oversee security, facilities, and finance.

A chart from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s report on diversity in art museums (via mellon.org)

What does this translate to? Exhibitions, education programs, public programs, and even the books being published by museums do not reflect the demographics of this country. While the missions of museums are undoubtedly good, the public is only being offered the perspective of the 84% supermajority.

One explanation for these contemptible numbers is the fact that, in the art industry, apprenticeships and internships serve as crucial routes into such intellectual jobs. And often, only those who can work for free or for very little can afford to take on these positions, which are mostly unpaid or underpaid, and clustered in expensive cities. These same people usually come from backgrounds of privilege; families buttress them with financial support as they cultivate their professional interests. As one of the few art internships that pays decently, the MUI program opens the door to those who would not otherwise be in a financial position to participate.

One of the valid criticisms I’ve heard leveled against the program is that it doesn’t take into enough account the issue of class: An attempt to fight underrepresentation should also consider people who aren’t financially secure enough to work in the arts, a field that pays notoriously low salaries (if it pays them at all). The Getty recently broadened its MUI inclusion criteria to consider an applicant’s circumstances beyond ethnic identity; perhaps this is an attempt to address the class issue. Nevertheless, it’s well documented that there are consistent intersections between people of color and those in lower economic classes.

But Niemann does not seem to be upset about class anyway — she’s upset that she was discouraged to apply for the MUI program because she is white. She does not understand the numbers. If she did, she would recognize what discouragement really looks like: grossly underrepresenting a group compared with their numbers in the general population. As a person of color, knowing that you have just over a 3 in 10 chance of being employed in any position at a museum at all, let alone one that allows you to make intellectual contributions, deters you from feeling like you might belong. While it only lasted three months, my internship instilled in me an unapologetic confidence to be vocal about my opinions in the workplace and to share them with the knowledge that they do matter. I’m an example of how the MUI program has succeeded in working to place members of underrepresented groups in institutions that are in dire need of perspectives that more closely represent the shifting demographics of this country.

So what is Niemann complaining about? That people of her background don’t fill 100% of positions at museums, but only 72–84%? That art museums here have traditionally told an entirely Eurocentric story of history? That institutions that  privilege exhibitions of Western art, and pay top dollar for such art to enter their already very white collections, are discriminating against her whiteness? Or is it that the discipline of art history has been written to canonize European and “American” art, while classifying art made by people of color as artifact and archaeology?

Nope, it’s none of those things. Niemann’s lawsuit is about someone who’s used to getting her way suddenly not — and who might end up denying others critical and transformative opportunities in the process.

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Linda Theung

Linda is a native Angeleno who's interested in architecture, conservation, art, animals, urban infrastructure, and yeast breads, among other things. She has worked at MOCA, the Getty, and LACMA, and is...

26 replies on “Why We Need the Getty’s Multicultural Internship Program”

  1. I like how programs like this open the door to exposure, but then close it when it comes to top staffing at those private institutions. I understand the Getty has a complete say in who gets to be curatorial director, or what not. It’s insulting, though, when, after more than 20 years, there is not one “multicultural” name on that list. Smacks of separate but equal. I’m sick of this crap. I guess 23 years is not enough.

  2. Racists calling each other racists. She’s going to win….and she should. You children are ruled by moronic PC crap.

      1. Most people who rail against political correctness have no idea what it means. To them it translates as “stuff too complicated to understand.”

    1. there’s no way she can win. The Getty’s a private organization that can pick & choose whoever it wants to play with; EEOC has no authority. Niemann is either wealthy enough that this is a vanity suit she can talk about at cocktail parties for the next 40 years, or non-wealthy enough to hope for a small settlement just to go away.

  3. According to the New York Times wedding section, this author’s “parents own residential and commercial buildings, as well as liquor stores, in Los Angeles County.”

    Nice article on privilege.

    I’ve spent most of my adult life without the ability to afford health insurance. F*ck you. Seriously, f*ck you, your silver-spoon life, and your ignorant racism. Next time I’m in LA, I’m stealing a bottle of Grey Goose from your dad.

    1. You’re dumb. Owning property and liquor stores doesn’t necessarily make someone “privileged”. That’s a pretty stupid basis for accusing the writer of living a “silver-spoon life” and having “ignorant racism” (and also for threatening to steal from her dad’s liquor store! That’s just criminal and awful and vengeful and mean!). Being underprivileged myself, I’ve known many people who have grown up dirt poor, lived off welfare, picked cans off the street for money and worked in sweat shops to put themselves and/or their kids through school and now they own property. They didn’t know what silver spoons were, let alone ate from them. You should be ashamed of yourself.

      Also, Obamacare should have ended the pity party for yourself over there in cuntville without health insurance, right? Or did you have to spend the money you had on your hair color every month?

      1. Everything in your comment makes sense except the sentence about owning property. Owning property and businesses automatically DOES make someone privileged; it’s what they do with that privilege that matters. There are intersectionality issues I won’t get into here that can reduce that privilege as well.

        1. Dude doesn’t know I’m joking about robbing a liquor store. But he/she also don’t now The New York Times wedding section wrote “owns X,Y,Z” because it’s code for “rich” when not having a proper job title to give her father.” People who go into museum curating generally have family money because the education requirements are very high and the pay is very low. Ms. Top Shelf’s argument could be taken apart quite easily – as has been done before in these comment sections on museum diversity articles – but the point is privilege doesn’t cut across racial lines. Just read the New York Times wedding section, that vanity publication for the snottiest among us.

          1. Guys, this google stalkin’ and trash talkin’ is getting away from the point the author made…

            What is Neimann upset about?
            “That people of her background don’t fill 100% of positions at museums, but only 72–84%?”
            “That institutions privilege exhibitions of Western art, and pay top dollar for such art to enter their already very white collections?”
            “Or is it that the discipline of art history has been written to canonize European and [white] “American” art, while classifying art made by people of color as artifact and archaeology?”

            These are the *real* questions and issues to be concerned with–not dissecting someone’s wedding announcement. Personally, I am not ok with any of these 3 issues. It’s appalling and needs to evolve.

          2. I googled Ms. Top Shelf to see if she fit the profile of an LA museum intern princess – meaning, one who does not need money and never will because plumbers on average make more money that museum curators do – and found her to fit the bill, to the point of a cartoon. That isn’t stalking. That’s taking 15 seconds to follow up on a hunch. Sorry to be the spoiler. Ms. Minority Intern isn’t the voice for the poor and oppressed you’d like her to be.

          3. I can’t imagine why someone who: 1) google-stalks a writer 2) pre-judges their life with the use of a single NYT article 3) posts “F*ck You” multiple times 4) advocates petty theft and then redacts it as a “joke” when called out…wouldn’t be able to afford health insurance for most of their adult life.

            Then again, it looks like you’re using blue Kool-aid to color your hair, so perhaps your claim to poverty is genuine.

            Go with God Bitch Warrior

          4. I have an extra “f*ck you” here sitting on some empty Kool-aid boxes. It’s all yours, but not my copy of The New York Times. I’ve got some creeping to do on America and the world and whatnot. (I am going to steal your dog’s knit sweaters.)

      2. Yeah, Obamacare is here in Cuntville and I’ve had it since January.

        But it should go without saying that my robbing Ms. Top Shelf’s family was a joke. It should also go without saying that when Daddy Top Shelf submits his own bio to the New York Times wedding section as “owning X,Y, and Z in Los Angeles County” it means he “rich as shit” and you need to know it.

        I think you honestly could not put either of those together in your mind, so I am not going to insult you for that. Maybe you tried.

    2. Ha ha these arguments are like when people say Obama (or any Black person for that matter) is getting “too uppity.” because you know, only people who are starving in the saharan desert can talk about oppression and being poor! bitch warrior, money does not equal across the board privilege. chris rock still gets pulled over by cops despite being a multimillionaire.

  4. This is one of the most opinionated articles on hyperallergic yet and it found its way into my email box. I am beyond disappointed that this constitutes as (what I would hope) is journalistic art coverage for an event that needs proper discussion. Y’all may have lost a reader.

    1. Are you sure you’re a regular Hyperallergic reader? There are opinions all over this site–that’s what makes it worth reading!

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