On April 29, 2016, Southern Utah University undergraduate student Samantha Niemann hit the Getty Foundation with a lawsuit alleging discrimination. It appears that in February 2015, Niemann was considering applying for the prestigious Multicultural Internship Program sponsored by the Getty Foundation but was dissuaded by a Getty representative.
There were some qualifying factors on the Multicultural Internship Program application that Niemann disregarded, or, may have misunderstood: the internship was specifically created for undergraduate students from backgrounds that have been historically “underrepresented in the arts,” which includes students from African-American, Asian, Pacific-Islander, Latino and Native-American backgrounds.
Given that Niemann’s background has German, Irish and Italian roots, when Niemann expressed interest in applying she claims she was “deterred from applying” in February 2015 after conferring with a Getty Foundation representative. Since Los Angeles, as with other major cities in the country, is a city comprised of minority groups being the majority, the need for diversity in the fine arts is paramount: without the contributions of fine arts leaders from diverse backgrounds, our cultural institutions lack the realities of the communities from which we live.
The Getty Foundation’s Vice-President of Communications Ron Hartwig, responded to the lawsuit with a written statement, “Over the past 23 years the Getty grants have supported over 3,000 internships at 152 organizations throughout the country. We review and revise all of our grant categories from time to time and over the years have made a number of policy and procedural changes to the internship program.”
Niemann’s legal case against the Getty Foundation has ignited a firestorm of cutting internet reactions - but this discriminational lawsuit is no joke. If the Niemann case had a judgment rendered in court, it will have a significant impact on the approaches private foundations utilize to close the diversity gap in fine art institutions.
In a 2015 survey released by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, 84% of high-level museum positions (curators, conservators, educators and leaders) are occupied by whites; nearly 70% of these high-level positions are occupied by women.
To rectify this critical gap in the arts, in 1993 the Getty Foundation established the Multicultural Internship Program for underrepresented students in order that these interns will occupy high-level museum positions.
To achieve this goal, an element of the Multicultural Internship experience is the requirement that interns learn and practice the professional aspects of arts management: curation, stewardship of collections, conservation, installation and education.
Acceptance into the program is highly competitive: undergraduates apply throughout the country and internationally; there are Ivy League applicants as well as undergrads from public colleges and universities.
The Getty Foundation has been successful in whittling away the historic inequity in the fine arts: some interns have been hired by the programs they have worked for while others, after gaining valuable institutional knowledge of the arts, have moved on towards other prestigious positions within the field.
It is not simply a stellar grade point average that determines who receives an internship position: the students accepted into the program have shown a high-level of intellectual curiosity and have represented a wide range of social, economic, racial, ethnic and geographic demographics. The interns bring a complex range of experiences that the future of museums require - qualities not encapsulated in a grade point average.
Niemann’s legal complaint alleges that the Getty “harassed, discriminated, and retaliated against Plaintiff due to and substantially motivated by Plaintiff’s race/national origin” under California code 12940, which prohibits discrimination in training programs, and the Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959, which prohibits racial and other discrimination is private business. Niemann’s suit states that her grade point average of 3.74 meets the requirement for acceptance into the program and when she protested against the application’s requirements, she was “still denied opportunities to work for the Getty Foundation. The getty [sic] failed to investigate and failed to take appropriate remedial action and failed to hire me.”
As the legal claim makes its way into the court system, the non-profit Getty Foundation will be forced to spend large sums of money to defend itself for attempting to correct an issue that is a very real problem in the fine arts. It is apparent that Niemann perceives the world through her own particular set of grievances - and her case is on vulnerable grounds since the Getty Foundation has accepted white students into their internship program. The arts community is watching this case and arts enthusiasts are hoping that the Niemann case does not unravel all of the Getty Foundation’s great work.
Published by Nancy Snyder