The Alberta-Smithsonian Internship Program: A look at art and politics in Washington, D.C. | By Tori McNish

September 9, 2012: It was my birthday (24, does that make me an adult yet?) and I was leaving my hometown of Edmonton for two months, alone. I was flying (via Toronto, of course) to Washington, D.C. to partake in a work abroad program, interning at the renowned Smithsonian Institution.

As the recent recipient of a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) with a major in the History of Art, Design and Visual Culture, this was a major opportunity for me. I was one of ten successful applicants to the Alberta-Smithsonian Internship Program (ASIP), a pioneering partnership between the Alberta government and the Smithsonian Institution. Each year post-secondary students from across the province are invited to apply to the program, who, if successful, are selected to participate in a 10-12 week internship at one of the multiple Smithsonian establishments in Washington, D.C. Participants also automatically receive The Alberta-Smithsonian Internship Program Grant, a cool $6000 (Canadian) to cover all of your expenses.

After receiving my placement via the Office of Interns and Fellows at the Smithsonian (working in Education and Interpretive Programs at one of the Smithsonian art museums) merely a month before I was slated to leave, I scrambled to get my J-1 visa, accommodations, flights, insurance, and save as much money as I could before I left. By September 9, I was ready to go.

Fighting an imminent anxiety attack (what was my dog going to do while I was gone?) I hopped on a plane to the “crime ridden” city of Washington, D.C. I arrived in D.C. at 10 PM, where someone I vaguely knew from school who was also interning (thankfully) met me. We grabbed our 6+ bags, hopped in a van cab, and drove from Virginia (where the airport was) the ten minutes into D.C. to Capitol Hill, where our teeny, tiny, slanted apartment with bunk beds and a view of the Capitol Building was located. After pulling up to the blue and red brownstone it was housed in, we lugged our bags up three flights of stairs in 20˚ C heat and 75% humidity. Finally, we were there.

The next morning I woke up, jumped out of my top bunk, and headed to the Mall. Now, this Mall is nothing like our Mall, there are no amusement parks, movie theatres, or giant department stores. This was the National Mall, 3 km of national park stretching from the banks of the Potomac River into the heart of metro D.C. It boasts an array of memorials (think giant Lincoln in a marble chair), the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, a range of museums, and, on its Northern arm, the White House.

The American presidential election culminated on November 4, 2012, about two weeks before I was to come home. We all know now Obama won, but the race was neck and neck throughout the debates (all of which I watched, on CNN, not Fox). While it was heating up, a new exhibit opened on the Mall called Ai Weiwei: According to What?

Ai Weiwei is internationally famous, and not just in the art world. In 2011, he was arrested and detained by the Chinese government for three months. Ai was officially arrested on charges of tax evasion, but had been irking the Chinese government for years by publicly denouncing the Beijing Olympics (where he had worked on the Bird’s Nest Stadium), writing critiques on his blog (which was shut down in 2009) and Twitter (which, along with Google, is banned in China), and involving himself in the “citizen’s investigation” that was investigating the causes and number of student deaths from the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Ai has produced a number of works based on his involvement in these activities, many of which were included in the exhibit (which is also traveling to the Art Gallery of Ontario this summer).

The politics in Ai’s work can’t be separated from the work itself. Using art as a creative means of expression, Ai is following in the footsteps of many artists who use art as a way to question societal constructs. They include such a diverse group as Honoré Daumier, the caricaturist who critiqued the regime of Charles X in France, to Andy Warhol, the Pop artist whose work was a comment on the consumer culture of 60s America.

Physically and figuratively put in the context of the 2012 presidential elections (via that great green conduit, the Mall), Ai Weiwei’s work and its inherent questioning of values based on the rights of the individual left me drawing many parallels with the current political debates. Some of the hot topics during the election included education and minorities’ rights (including women, homosexuals, and immigrants) – rights pertinent to every individual.

The Alberta-Smithsonian Internship Program was probably one of my most valuable career and life experiences thus far. I got to take a “test-run” working in a major art institution, met a huge variety of people, and lived in a place where the culture is wholly unlike our own (and the beer was really cheap). There is no city that I’ve been to that is quite like D.C. While (obviously) being the mecca of American politics, it is also, via the Smithsonian, National Gallery, Corcoran, and other major art institutions, an epicenter of culture – which serves to create a unique dialogue between art and politics.

Photos taken by Tori McNish throughout her internship. 

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  • gaby

    very interesting post 🙂 you should publish more texts (especially on your tumblr).

  • Jeff McNish

    Very well written Tori. The use of art for political change was really interesting.

  • Marilyn

    Tori — Incredibly well written, intelligent with humor ! Loved it !!!