Rejection hurts. So much, in fact, that Samantha Niemann sued the Getty Foundation in 2016 on the grounds of racial discrimination after the institution refused to consider her for an internship program that is open — explicitly and exclusively — to undergraduate students from minority groups.
The Getty’s Multicultural Undergraduate Internship, launched in 1993, was implemented specifically to “encourage greater diversity in the professions related to museums and the visual arts.” It is through this program that I will be working with the Getty Research Institute’s web and new media team this summer as a research, programming and communications intern, alongside some of the vanguards of visual culture and gatekeepers of the art world. Needless to say, I’m thrilled — and not just because I was affirmed access to a collection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s original X Portfolio photographs.
I began my painstaking summer internship hunt more than six months ago and had my sights set on this one from almost the very beginning. Not only will I be able to stay in Los Angeles and work within the venerated walls of the Getty’s panoramic hilltop museum, but I will also be a part of a legacy and a conversation that was finally ready to include someone like me. I’m grateful for this program because it ensures that I, as a person of color, am granted access to people and experiences I otherwise wouldn’t have had and am being actively welcomed into a realm that has traditionally been a white boys’ club.
That’s why Niemann’s lawsuit deeply troubled me. As CBSLA first reported, she is a non-Hispanic white woman of German, Irish and Italian descent. She contended that her 3.7 GPA made her “well-qualified” for the position and alleged that she was denied the internship opportunity because she is white. Ultimately, Niemann’s lawsuit is no more than her parading privilege as a basis for legal action and racketing up a “reverse racism” storm.
A study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that 84 percent of non-Hispanic whites fill top-tier positions in American art museums as directors, curators and conservators. Meanwhile, notably excluded from intellectual and educational decisionmaking in the arts, nearly half of people of color employed by museums work in low-level jobs that oversee finance, facilities and security. As a result, museums’ exhibitions, publications and public programs predominantly echo the perspectives of the 84 percent white supermajority.
The art world has a longstanding history of marginalizing underrepresented groups whether by excluding them from museums altogether or including them in a manner that exploits or exoticizes them for their cultural differences. There is a clear pattern of canonizing European and American work as forms of high art while relegating art of other cultures to artifact and archaeology. The only way to combat this is by including more members of minority groups in senior leadership roles, especially because the arts have a responsibility to perpetuate inclusive discourse and accurately represent all human experiences — not just those of white people.
There are tragically few pipelines for managing positions held by minorities and the Getty is fiercely distinct in that it not only recognizes the racial disparities in the art world, but is actively taking steps to alter them by setting foundational segues through its Multicultural Undergraduate Internship. During the weeks of the interviewing process, I spoke with supervisors from at least three different Getty departments, all of whom were white. And yet, here I am — a hired testament to the Getty’s self-awareness and commitment to shifting its demographic makeup.
It would be a different matter entirely if Niemann had sued over gender or class discrimination but she didn’t seem concerned with either of those things. Rather, her actions displayed a blatant tone-deafness to the Eurocentricity of American art history and proved her blindness to what true marginalization feels like. Her complaints could very well end up denying someone else a transformative opportunity that Niemann herself can find more easily elsewhere.
I wrote in my personal statement in my initial application that writers, artists and creators of color gave me the confidence to finally harness the power of my background and exercise agency over my own experiences. I never thought that I would be so wholeheartedly embracing my Asianness, much less shouting it from the rooftops (metaphorically) by publishing columns and personal stories discussing it. Representation is critical to the development of minority identities, including my own, and I am eager to contribute to forging new narratives for others like me. I can only imagine how unapologetic and fearless I will become by the end of this summer.
Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Wednesday.