I graduated from college a year early. To many people, this sounds like a mistake—especially considering I opted to leave the safety of the university quad to dive into the Great Recession of 2008. Determined to make the most of my “extra year,” I applied to intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
From my small room in Berkeley, California, the opportunity to help organize the Folklife Festival sounded like an absolute dream. I grew up in and out of Washington, D.C., and visited the Festival many times—peeking through the fence at the behind-the-scenes staff trailers. Who transformed the National Mall into other reaches of the world for two weeks every year?
Betty Belanus, a curator and education specialist at the Center, returned my earnest application with a friendly call. My art history degree, folklore classes, and gallery experience fit the internship needs, but Betty was more interested in me—my background and my family. She suggested I spend five months with my parents (who were living in Canberra, Australia) and then intern with her in the spring. Betty gave me this time with my family, and a leg-up into my career in cultural work.
At the Center, I took my experience in layout and design to the next level. Betty trusted me with tracking down photos, securing rights, and submitting content to the staff designer for on-site signs and the Festival program book. I helped see the book to its completion, and then was hired as “program book coordinator,” which involved moving between information booths and volunteers on my own golf cart.
I used the skills I built at the Center to apply for my first position: communications and marketing assistant at The Textile Museum. It was on a hot July D.C. day that I headed to the museum at 8 a.m. for my first interview so I could be back on the Mall by 10 that morning. I needed to feel the excitement of seeing visitors learn from materials I helped create to know I truly enjoyed this work.
I eventually left The Textile Museum for graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill and returned to my first passion: folklore. For my master’s thesis, I researched a small community of immigrants from Laos in Morganton, North Carolina. (Learn more about that project, and listen to a recent Southern Foodways Alliance podcast.)
I made dear friends with the Phapphayboun family, a cornerstone of the community, who helped establish a Buddhist temple in a double-wide trailer and now own and operate a Lao-Thai restaurant. I had the great honor of organizing an exhibit of photos from this project at UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South—a full circle that combined my museum work with folklore.
Today, I’ve coined the work of writing, editing, and designing print and web materials for museums and other arts organizations “cultural communications.” In the coming months, I will curate and coordinate a series of programs for the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina, presented in coordination with Arts Greensboro. In this work, my previous jobs, and in graduate school, I continually draw upon the sensitive interpretation and creative presentation I was exposed to at the Center.
Plus, driving a golf cart on the National Mall has to be one of the best first jobs out there.
Katy Clune graduated from UC Berkeley in 2008, earned a master’s degree at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2015, and interned at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in 2009. She is now a freelance digital editor and multimedia storyteller in Durham, North Carolina, and still asks her former boss, Betty Belanus, for advice. Learn more about her work at katyclune.com.