Curator Josh Yiu at the Seattle Art Museum

Josh Yiu at the Seattle Art Museum

This summer the Getty Foundation’s Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program is celebrating 20 years of supporting internships at arts organizations across L.A. County. Started  in response to our city’s civil unrest in the early 90s, the program aims to increase diversity within the staffs of museums and visual arts organizations by offering paid internships to outstanding students of diverse backgrounds.

I managed this intern program for several years, and one of the many highlights was hearing from alumni and discovering the incredible strides that they’ve made professionally. So when it came time to mark our 20th anniversary, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to reach out to past interns and find out what they’re doing today.

Below is my first in a series of alumni interviews we’ll feature this summer. To kick things off, I spoke with Josh Yiu, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art at the Seattle Art Museum.

So Josh, let’s start with the obvious: When did you do the Getty Foundation internship program and what are you doing now?

I was a Getty intern in LACMA’s Asian art department in 1999. I am now a curator at the Seattle Art Museum, where I manage our Chinese art collection comprised of roughly 2,500 objects. It is one of the first Chinese art collections assembled in the nation, and remains one of the best, with particular strengths in jade and ceramics.

What was the most beneficial aspect of your Getty internship at LACMA?

Even now I look back and appreciate the opportunity my Getty internship gave me to do in-depth object research. I completed comprehensive research on one artwork a week. People assume art history majors are trained to do this, but only when you start working in a museum do you realize that object research is much more than stylistic analysis. At LACMA I discovered the whole system of going through collection resources—registrar files, conservation reports, curatorial notes—which are crucial to our understanding of works of art.

What was the greatest challenge you recall from your internship?

This is mundane, but transportation and LA traffic!

I’d love to hear about one lasting memory you have from that summer.

I have so many good memories, but what I really appreciated were regular visits we had to other arts venues. It was an eye-opening experience to see all these different non-profit organizations, such as museums in Pasadena or the Japanese American National Museum downtown. I began to see the relevance of my work to the society. In school I was one of only ten people majoring in art history in my year, so I felt somewhat out of place in that context. But when I came to the Getty program, I saw that I was a part of this larger community and it gave me more confidence in what I wanted to do.

So did you know then that you wanted to work in a museum?

No, not really. I did the Getty program at the end of my junior year, and I went into it with an open mind. But at the end, I wanted to learn more, so I pursued a doctorate. And ultimately I did end up in a museum.

Buffalo and Herder Boy in Landscape / Chinese, Yuan dynasty, early 14th century

Buffalo and Herder Boy in Landscape, Chinese, Yuan dynasty, early 14th century. Fan-shaped painting, mounted in a frame; ink and slight color on silk. 9 7/8 x 11 1/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection, 48.208. Photo: Paul Macapia

Which brings us back to your current position at SAM; what are you working on now?

We’re putting together an exhibition celebrating SAM’s 80th anniversary in 2013. With this I’m also writing a book on the institution’s collecting history, as it really began with the Chinese collections. There has been a lot of scholarly interest in institutional and private collecting patterns recently, so in writing SAM’s history in this way I’ll also be serving, I hope, a wider academic audience. Then I’m also connected to the Getty Foundation through the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI). It’s been a happy coincidence for me that our OSCI project focuses on Chinese painting and calligraphy, and we hope to launch our online catalogue later this year.

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