Some of the Mellon Summer Academy and Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Alumni at LACMA, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA, by Hilary Walter

LACMA’s Mellon Summer Academy and Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Alumni Reflect on Their Experiences at the Museum

August 31, 2023
Hilary Walter, Manager of Academic Programs

In January 2014 I began my role at LACMA as the Manager of the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship (MUCF) program. This was an exciting new program for undergraduate students to learn about museum careers through a week-long intensive program, Summer Academy, and then decide if a curatorial fellowship was right for them—or not. Many of the participants discovered other career options, in conservation, collections management, registration, publications, and exhibition design, and more, that they had never known existed before and that they ended up liking more. Others were convinced that a curatorial path was for them and pursued the two-year fellowship at the museum. Together, both programs aim to expose undergraduates to museum careers and help them understand what possible next steps to take on their path before they graduate with their undergraduate degree. Moreover, museums recognize they must expand whose voice and whose stories are represented in the galleries and in their staff—creating a culture of inclusion that many art institutions have lacked.   

Now, almost 10 years later and during a year in which the fellowship is paused to complete a program assessment to re-launch the program, feels like an opportune moment to connect with LACMA’s Mellon Summer Academy and Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship alumni and find out how the programs have impacted them and their careers. I'm excited to share their reflections below. 

Eman Al-alami at the Dallas Art Museum on a research trip for Cartier, photo courtesy of Eman Al-alami

Eman Al-alami, 2018 Summer Academy participant

The witty curator Stephanie Barron [Senior Curator and Department Head, Modern Art, at LACMA] with her vast knowledge on Henri Matisse and German Expressionism provided the most memorable walk-through in LACMA’s Modern Art Galleries during my time as a student in the 2018 Mellon Summer Academy. She amazed me as an undergraduate student at Santa Monica College, the summer I accepted my transfer to study art history at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for my Bachelor’s degree. Barron’s voice, knowledge, and wisdom never left my mind. I aspired to learn how to be more confident, learn the inner workings of museums, and gain more knowledge on the arts in Los Angeles.

The following year, I went on to curate a library exhibit at the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA on medieval French manuscripts while balancing an internship position in development at the Hammer Museum for over two years. LACMA is instrumental to the cultural scene of Los Angeles and the Summer Academy sets up a spectacular cohort of young professionals to thrive in the arts. While I was at the Hammer, I saw my former LACMA cohort peers several times at arts gatherings, further binding relationships beyond that one summer in 2018. The Summer Academy set me up for years to come. I continued my pursuits after the phenomenal foundation, I completed my Masters of Fine Arts in Writing at California College of the Arts in May 2023, and I will be continuing onwards at arts residencies in Morocco in fall 2023.  

Carolina Benitez at the Brooklyn Museum, in front of Mona Chalabi’s The Gray-Green Divide, 2022, photo courtesy of Carolina Benitez

Carolina Benitez, 2019 Summer Academy participant

My name is Carolina Benitez and I am an emerging museum professional based in Los Angeles. I find purpose in working in conservation and preservation as a means to preserve art and cultural heritage for current and future generations.

I participated in LACMA’s Mellon Summer Academy as an undergrad in 2019, and the program provided an opportunity to observe the inner workings of an established museum while creating the opportunity to network with museum and arts professionals of all stages in their careers. After the academy, I determined that I was drawn to working directly with collections. My exposure to the program inspired me to pursue internships and work in various sectors before pursuing the art conservation field. I have since completed internships and projects at the Getty Conservation Institute and Getty Research Institute, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Autry Museum of the American West. I am most proud to announce that I have accepted a position as a 2023–24 Getty Post-Baccalaureate Conservation Intern.

Programs like the Mellon Summer Academy are invaluable because they make it possible for underrepresented young professionals to gain confidence in their professional careers, all while providing the network and support needed to cultivate change for future generations.

Lilia Destin with Clarissa Esguerra, Curator, Costume and Textiles, during the installation of Lee Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Lilia Destin, 2021 Summer Academy participant and 2021–22 Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow

The Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship at LACMA was truly an eye-opening and valuable experience as someone starting out in the museum field. The Summer Academy revealed the various opportunities for a career in the field of art history and within the museum, something I was not taught much about during my undergraduate studies. During the year-long fellowship, I made wonderful connections with the staff of my assigned curatorial department, had multiple opportunities to have my writing published on the museum’s blog, and learned an immense amount about the exhibition timeline and the many cogs at work in the museum machine. The most memorable and meaningful moments during my work on the Lee Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse exhibition, from visiting conservation and checking the progress of certain works, to installing the show, to working on a public program that centered on the queer DIY creative community in Los Angeles. I’m truly grateful to have had these wonderful opportunities and to have made connections that will last long into the future.

Audrey Min at Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, among works by Guadalupe Rosales and Beatriz Cortez, photo courtesy of Audrey Min

Audrey Min, 2015 Summer Academy participant and 2015–17 Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow

Looking back on my time as an MUCF at LACMA, I am profoundly grateful for the immersion the program offered. Being a part of daily working life at an institution is a rare privilege—I was exposed to the many moving parts it takes to sustain a large museum, as well as to its part in the larger ecosystem of the art world. From researching objects in LACMA’s collection for my undergraduate thesis to my work at contemporary galleries Commonwealth and Council and Friends Indeed (Micki Meng), my experiences in the fellowship have shaped my academic and professional life. The professional and personal network I gained has been invaluable. I am thrilled for my next chapter as an MA candidate at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Payan

Jennifer Payan, 2019 Summer Academy participant

The 2019 Summer Academy has had a profound impact on my career in the arts, shaping my trajectory and inspiring my professional choices. Through this transformative experience, I gained invaluable knowledge and skills in curatorial practices, exhibition development, and the preservation of cultural heritage. The one-week intensive program provided me with a comprehensive understanding of curatorial ethics, collection management, and the importance of representing diverse perspectives in museum spaces. Equipped with this newfound expertise, I embarked on a path to make meaningful contributions in the field. Currently, I am fortunate to be working at the Autry Museum, in the Library and Archives department, where I am dedicated to preserving and safeguarding Native collections, fostering cultural appreciation, and promoting community engagement. Additionally, my role as an Art Associate at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery has allowed me to refine my curatorial abilities by working on exhibition texts and summaries and providing invaluable support to the curator. The Summer Academy at LACMA has been instrumental in shaping my journey in the arts, empowering me to make a lasting impact on cultural preservation and artistic representation.

Jenebrith Pastran, photo courtesy of Jenebrith Pastran

Jenebrith Pastran, 2019 Summer Academy participant

My time at the Summer Academy left an indelible impression upon me back in the summer of 2019. The week-long program was a jam-packed sampler of various art professions that I now work and collaborate closely with as a Curatorial Cataloging fellow at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco. During the Summer Academy I was most intrigued by our meetings with the publications, exhibition design, education, and curatorial teams. Learning about the lengthy and rigorous process of exhibition catalogue editing and design invigorated my interest in publication projects, especially independent publications and artists books. My current position at the Legion of Honor museum is in the Achenbach Foundation of Graphic Arts, which houses over 100,000 prints, drawings, and artists books! (Lucky me.) In this role, I work closely with the curatorial as well as libraries and archives and, interestingly, conservation teams to research, verify, and update the rich intellectual dimensions of artworks and projects beyond what is currently on view! I am incredibly grateful to have participated in this program at LACMA, most of all for the wicked smart and talented peers-cum-FRIENDS I made, all from a single week several summers ago. I’m excited to see how far we’ll go and how many alumni I may cross paths with in the years to come. It’ll be a pleasure, I’m sure.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Pesqueira

Danielle Pesqueira, 2018 Summer Academy participant and 2018–20 Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow

My time as a Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow at LACMA gave me the opportunity to work in a museum and experience an arts institution as an undergraduate scholar. I met some of the most amazing mentors and was able to conduct research based on my interests and contribute to work done on institutional exhibitions. For the last year I have been working at a national nonprofit called Step Up. This organization supports women, girls, and those who identify with girlhood to pursue their unique paths to success through mentorship and programming. I see my work at Step Up as a helpful guide towards furthering my knowledge and support of equity and inclusion in higher education and the workplace. I want to continue in the arts and eventually return to school to pursue an MA and Doctorate in museum studies or photography.

We’re thrilled to learn how meaningful the Summer Academy and Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship programs have been to these emerging leaders. We recently hosted an alumni event at the museum and it was wonderful to connect individuals from different years in the program to one another—furthering the network of peers they have in Los Angeles and in the arts.