Graduating senior receives career confirmation through PFI internship with art museum
How do you know if your education will translate to career success? That’s the question fine arts major Ashr Burgess was asking himself as he prepared for his final semester at East Carolina University.
Burgess has pursued photography during his time at ECU and has an interest in alternative processing, a more creative approach to the medium. With his sight set on graduation and potentially opening his own business, he wanted a chance to step into the art world he hoped to pursue outside of school — but without all the pressure.
“I’ve done some graduation photos. I helped film my best friend’s wedding. But you don’t get comfortable until you’ve done it enough,” Burgess said.
When Burgess received an email about the State Employees’ Credit Union Public Fellows Internship (PFI) program from a professor, he jumped at the chance to apply for the position with the Greenville Museum of Art. He wanted to see what the professional art scene was like and if it was something he could successfully be part of.
The SECU Public Fellows Internship program at ECU partners undergraduates with local government and nonprofit organizations that work to improve communities and the quality of life for its citizens. It’s a paid internship that also provides students with networking and professional development opportunities.
Burgess was one of 16 undergraduates to apply for the position at the Greenville Museum of Art.
Trista Reis Porter, executive director of the museum said, “We had a lot of applicants to choose from this year, and we really thought about who would benefit the most from the internship. We wanted to find someone who this would be helpful for their career path but who also had good experience. Ashr has a lot of photography experience, and he’s been able to utilize that.”
The Greenville Museum of Art is one of the few art museums in eastern North Carolina where artwork is acquisitioned and a permanent collection is maintained. Its mission is to preserve and grow the collection for the community. The museum also engages with the community through events, tours, local and regional artist showcases (including students), traveling exhibitions and educational outreach programs.
“We have an outreach program at the detention center for those recovering from addiction. We work with the Boys and Girls Club, Operation Sunshine, the Pitt County Council on Aging, ECVC, Autism Society of NC … So we do a lot of programs that are not on site at the museum. But we’re taking the arts, learning and engagement to where it’s more convenient for others,” said Reis Porter.
Burgess was able to use his talent and expertise by photographing events, tours and artwork at the museum. Reis Porter says those photos will be very helpful.
“Often times, with the events we put on and with our small staff, we don’t have the extra hands to walk around and take photos. And we realize after the fact that we really could use photos to help get funders and sponsors. So having someone to help with documenting our tours, programs and events — that’s been really helpful for us. We’ll be able to incorporate his work into our marketing materials, our bi-annual newsletter and our annual report,” she said.
Burgess said using his photography training for the museum’s purpose was a great professional experience.
“I’m trained in the fine art way. I work in controlled environments with portraits where I’m thinking out those shots and can control the lighting. It’s very different from doing an event where you don’t have a lot of control and you just have to move around and try to get the shots. So, that has been a learning process and a good opportunity to get that kind of experience outside of the stress of doing it for a client,” he said.
Over the summer, Burgess also helped the museum with graphic design for promotional material, youth camp programs, website design, welcoming guests at the front desk and writeups on artwork and artists.
“My only job right now is to look at this art, research the artist, think about the art and then try to talk about it. I’m being paid to actually research art and get to do something I enjoy,” he said.
In the beginning, Burgess said that the idea of working in a museum was a little intimidating because of the advanced degrees required of the positions. But he has found the environment welcoming.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into a museum. This isn’t a side of the art world that we talk about in class,” Burgess said.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t be at the intellectual or academic level. That made the idea of working for a museum a little unapproachable. To be able to come into a museum, and see the environment, talk to the people and see how it really is – it changed my mindset. It let me see that maybe I do have it in me to go to graduate school. So, it has given me some direction in that it’s given me more options to think about,” he said.
Reis Porter said she has appreciated conversations with Burgess and getting his creative perspective.
“I’ve enjoyed hearing from him about things that he likes and doesn’t like in museums, like folk art. It’s been helpful since all sorts of people come through a museum. It’s good to have that point of view,” she said.
The opportunity also gave Burgess the perspective he needed to follow his dream.
“The art world is hard,” he said.
“Without this opportunity, I never would have proven to myself that I actually know what I’m doing and can talk about art for a while. That has been one of the most rewarding things — getting the chance to see that my education mattered, and it actively made me a better person. I’m not just throwing money away to say I have an art degree,” said Burgess.
Reis Porter knows all too well how valuable the internship is for fine art students.
“I know how hard it is for people to get experience in museums — I went through that when I was a student. So, I know that there’s value here. Most get their first job and have to figure it out on the fly,” she said.
“I’m really happy to have this opportunity where a student can focus on something that’s going to be beneficial for their future and their professional development and their education but they don’t have to give up working a summer job to do it. That’s really impactful for students and a rare opportunity. It’s an amazing partnership, and we’re grateful for it.”
As the museum looks to grow its outreach programming during a time when extra funding through the state won’t be available, Burgess said he hopes more people in the community get involved and participate in all the museum has to offer.
“I’ve been able to see the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes with such a small staff. A lot of museums are that way. These are dedicated people who are spending their lives doing something that is valuable to a community. They need more people who want join in,” Burgess said.
“I hope I had some impact and took some of the burden off of them. I think I laid some of the groundwork that they can build off of and helped set the foundation for later projects.”
This fall, Burgess plans to continue volunteering with the museum as a photographer while he finishes his degree at ECU.