Sarah Sandler was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1981, 55 years after R.C. Sprague founded the Sprague Electric Company in the same city. A communications major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she has been interning this summer in the development department at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. She lives in an apartment in the museum’s intern housing on River Street, just west of The Porches Inn. I asked her if she appreciates the history of her working-class street along the Hoosic River.
“I know a lot about it, because all of us were required to read Mass MoCA’s book From Mill to Museum. I like it on River Street. The intern housing is nice. We have our own rooms; we have everything we need. North Adams is beautiful. Every night before I go to bed, I go out and look at the mountains. They’re incredible.”
In the summer of 2000, after Peter Van Steemburg finished his freshman year at Williams College, he interned in the museum’s production department, even though he is an arts history major.
“It turned out to be a great opportunity,” he recalls. “I loved working for Larry Smallwood (production manager for performing arts). But it was all performance/theater-based, and what I really wanted to be doing was contemporary art. However, it set me off in a completely different area in my studies at school. I started doing a lot of work as a theater technician. And once in a while, Larry would call me for help cleaning up after a show. I even ran the video for the Luna concert.”
Two summers later, Van Steemburg is back for a second term, and this time he finally found his spot in visual arts.
“I do tours three days a week. The other two days I do various jobs like secretarial work, and I also do some research. The curators are always working directly with the artists, so there’s something new happening all the time. I get odd projects constantly. Once they asked me to find out if there’s a way to make sleeping bags float. I did some research on the Internet and came up with some ideas.”
An Albany-area resident, he has an apartment in the same house as Sandler. He finds that fact serendipitous.
“My ancestors – I think it was my great-grandparents – ran Van Steemburg’s grocery store on River Street. And I’m working in the mill where my grandmother worked. It’s amazing. My Uncle Peter still lives here.”
Intern Jon Christensen also lives on River Street, but his apartment is in the yellow house near Sun Cleaners. A native of Harvard, Massachusetts, he graduated from Colorado College a year ago, and was looking for some experience in audio and video production. He says that the Mass MoCA assignment has been a perfect match.
“I studied studio art in Colorado. I’ve played guitar and sung in bands since high school, and I worked with a student group in college that brought in outside acts. I helped the sound engineers unload their stuff, and worked a little bit with the bands. When I applied for this job, that’s what I put in my resume.”
“Here at MoCA, I do a little bit of everything. You have to work long hours, usually six days a week, doing whatever needs to be done to set up the performances. One of my tasks is to help set up the projectors and the soundboard. A lot of it is just running cables, making sure everything is connected right during the shows. If it’s a musical group, I’ll be in charge of deck audio, which is basically seeing that all the microphones are set up; and if something falls over and breaks, I have to replace it.”
According to Sue Killam, general manager of performing arts, Mass MoCA currently employs 20 interns, some from as far away as California. Three are students at MCLA, and two are from Williams College. Killam says they are paid a weekly stipend and get free housing, along with many other benefits.
“They participate in a weekly intern education program, which includes artists and Mass MoCA staff people speaking about their work. They are also given the opportunity to go to other local cultural institutions, such as Tanglewood, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Shakespeare & Co, and the Clark Art Museum. They get a great experience.”
One of Steemburg’s most fruitful experiences has been the guided tours he gives to visitors. He says he has learned a lot just from the give and take with a variety of art enthusiasts.
“In the course of a week, I will have many debates on what the definition of art is. Some of them fight it every step of the way. They question me personally, like, ‘Do you consider all this stuff as art?’ ”
“I mean, you’ve got to wonder. After all, I’m working in a contemporary art museum. And yet, there are also some people who are very open to it. They’ll say, ‘Thank you very much. You have illuminated this art for me, and now I can enjoy it so much more.’ I get a lot of strange questions. Every once in a while, someone will ask if they can purchase a piece.”
“Every tour, I learn something new. On the smaller tours, I’ll tell them, ‘If I say anything that you disagree with, or if you notice something that I don’t mention, please let me know.’ I’ve learned so many things that way. When I came here, I certainly didn’t like every piece in the show. A lot of the work takes patience and insight to appreciate. Over time, I have come to feel really close to it.”
“The only disappointing thing for some of us is that the projects that we’re working on in the summer don’t get into the galleries until after we leave. And we didn’t work on the Vienna show they have now, so we didn’t get to meet the artists. At least I have the benefit of going to college right down the road, so I can come back and see some of the shows I worked on.”
Even though Sandler spends most of her time in the fourth floor offices working on grants and fundraising, she has also been touched by the art.
“I’ve been through the galleries many times. When I started, they trained me to give tours, so I would know about the art. I am also working in the membership department, so I need to know what’s in the galleries and what we’re doing in the performing arts.”
“I’ve done everything from writing grants, to doing 500-piece mailings. I research other museums to find out what kind of membership packages they offer. I research stuff for grants. I wrote a grant for a show opening in October. It’s different than anything I’ve ever experienced before. I am learning an incredible amount.”
Christensen has enjoyed the benefits of hanging around and working side by side with musicians and sound technicians.
“When we have resident artists, the crew works with us every day, so you get to know each other. With the Martha Bowers dance group (The Dream Life of Bricks), they lived right next door to my house, so we hung out with them almost every night.”
Some of the performing arts programs can place big demands on the production crew, what with endless sound and video checks, and deadlines to meet.
“When the Bang on the Can All Stars came, it was a little stressful, because there were recitals every day in different places, and there was a lot of equipment to be moved around. I think it worked out well, and the Bang on the Can people had a good experience. This job is hard work, but it’s given me some perspective. I realize now that I’m really capable of dedicating myself to something that I’m interested in.”
I asked the group what it’s been like to live in North Adams.
“I don’t have a car this summer,” notes Steemburg, “but it isn’t a problem, because I love my work. Most of us, on our days off, will find our way to the museum sometime or another, if only to pick up our mail or check our e-mail. Some just wander around the galleries. A lot of interns have their own projects. They are a talented bunch of people. My roommate is constantly working on stuff. He comes home from work and pulls out his sketchpad and starts drawing and writing things.”
“There’s a lot to do here. There are films to watch. The bars, like Key West and the Mohawk Tavern, are really friendly. They’re great. We have a wonderful time. We’re occasional visitors at these institutions. It’s a comfortable atmosphere that you wouldn’t expect.”
“Don’t you feel like strangers in town?” I asked the trio.
Steemburg says he feels like he fits in fine. “I think we’re expected. We’re the new intern group, and that’s become a familiar scene. I don’t get out that much. By the time I do get out, it’s too dark for anyone to notice me.”
Christensen finds the city a lot different from his hometown of Harvard, a small community of 12,000, halfway between Worcester and Lowell.
“My town is very spread out, and there’s not a lot of houses close together. There’s just one main road through town. If you take the back roads, you’re liable to get lost. About the only shop downtown is a pizza joint. Here, there’s a nice Main Street, with some shops, and a lot of restaurants. And there are more things to do for the residents. When MoCA has the dance parties and concerts and outdoor movies, a lot of the local community comes and has a good time. I think that’s a great thing.”
Sandler has enjoyed her summer here, but her friends from home are a bit bewildered.
“I’ve had a few come and visit. They say things like, ‘Why would you waste your summer working in the middle of nowhere, and not making much money?’ I’ve taken them to see the galleries, but they just don’t get it. I guess since I don’t have an art background, a lot of my friends don’t either.”
“I just tell them that it’s such an incredible experience. Actually, I’ve been working so hard, that I haven’t had time to reflect on it. Once I step back from it, I’ll probably find out that it’s changed me. Maybe being stuck in the middle of nowhere has made me more independent.”
And so the summer is nearly over. By Labor Day, all three interns will be on the other side of the mountain. In two years, Sandler plans to graduate from UMass with a Bachelor of Science in Communications and Judaic Studies. She thinks she might pursue a career as a fundraiser for charitable organizations.
Christensen will take a few weeks off, and then look for work. He has a new career interest, graphic arts, and will take several courses in it. Ideally, he would like to wind up doing freelance graphic design, while moonlighting as a sound technician at some music venues in the Boston area.
Van Steemburg finishes up at Williams this year, and then he may be off to Japan to work in contemporary arts programs over there. Meanwhile, you can be sure he will be returning to Mass MoCA frequently to see the new exhibits and the friends he’s made during his two internships. And he has high hopes for the city where his roots are deep.
“You see a lot of artists wanting to move to North Adams. Anytime you have those kinds of people moving to a community, there’s going to be a lot more interesting things happening.”