At Christie’s Auction House, a New Intern and Fellowship Class Is Diversifying the Art World

Changes at Christie's Auction House are ushering in a new, more diverse wave of talent.
A group of interns stand in front of Christie's building in New York City
(L-R): Jalen Turner, Avani Sastry, Talisa Mohammed, and Jack Nelson, part of the 2022 class of Christie's interns.Photos by Lelani Foster. Courtesy of Christie's

Growing up in Houston, 20 year-old Jalen Turner often heard from his parents, “Get used to being the only person in the room who looks like you.” Jalen shares this from a conference room at Christie’s in Manhattan, where the young Black man and rising junior at Morehouse College is interning in the public relations department. As recently as two years ago, it’s almost certain that Jalen would have been the lone minority in the program, and that’s if he was able to get in at all. Prior to 2021, the only way to land an internship at the renowned auction house was through referral from someone who worked there. Amid 2020’s racial reckoning, that’s one of several company practices Christie’s changed.

Jalen Turner, part of the Christie's intern class.Photos by Lelani Foster. Courtesy of Christie's

“Revamping the internship was probably one of the very first things that we looked at,” says Sayuri Ganepola, global managing director for art finance at Christie's and the company’s co-chairman of equity, diversity and inclusion in the Americas. “We wanted a complete overhaul, so we changed this into a program that’s a meritocracy [and] and also focused on bringing diverse talent into our pipeline.”

Last year, for the first time, Christie’s opened the application process for their summer internship program to any rising junior or senior enrolled in a U.S. college. Previously for school credit only, the eight-week internship is now paid, with additional money allocated towards travel and housing expenses for students who need financial assistance getting to New York and paying for a place to stay. “Somebody who is a candidate that we absolutely want to be here will have the opportunity to do so,” Ganepola says. Last summer, Christie's received close to 1,000 applications for 20 spots. Previously, it was common for interns to be just “marginally interested in the arts” but granted the opportunity through their parents’ art world connections, Ganepola says. “Now we have a really engaged group of students who are continually blowing us away with their questions, their interests, and the work that they're able to do.”

Jalen who discovered the internship through an Indeed search, is among those students. As is Talisa Mohammed, a rising senior at Texas A&M University who interned in the public relations department last summer and returned this year to work alongside the social media team.

Talisa Mohammed, part of the Christie's intern class.Photos by Lelani Foster. Courtesy of Christie's

“By the second day we went right to work,” says Jalen, who is majoring in business administration with a concentration in marketing. “We had a few auctions that just closed, so I’ve been working on drafting press releases for those and getting acquainted with the [workplace] systems.” Meanwhile, Talisa is learning the ins and outs of running Christie’s Instagram and TikTok accounts. “I'm part of a first-gen college student program at school [and] the advisors are always sending us opportunities,” she says. “I saw the Christie's one and I was like, oh, that seems interesting. I'm studying business and art; I feel like that's the perfect fit."

While both Jalen and Talisa have found Christie's to be a welcoming environment thus far, that wasn’t their initial perception. “It felt exclusive,” Talisa says, “like just a certain type of person could get into it. It wasn’t very accessible.” It’s a sentiment shared by Jack Nelson and Avani Shastry, two members of Christie's 18-month Graduate Training Program based in New York.

Avani Sastry, member of Christie's 18-month Graduate Training Program.Photos by Lelani Foster. Courtesy of Christie's

“I went to a small college in South Texas that wasn't really known for art history,” says Avani, who studied at Trinity University. “I didn't know anybody who worked in the art world; it seemed so foreign.” Despite feeling like acceptance was a long shot, Avani applied to the program and “was pretty shocked” when she got the offer. “I rolled into Rockefeller Center and I was like, ‘this isn't real life.’” While the application process for the graduate training program has always been open to all who want to apply, priority has historically been given to former interns — interns who got their foot in the door via an internal referral. Neither Jack, who attended Brown, or Avani interned at Christie's during college, though Jack tried to.

“My junior year I was looking for internships, and at that time Christie's hadn't changed over to the program that they have now,” he says. “I got in contact with someone in the museum services department, hoping that in talking to her and building a relationship she might be able to assist me in getting a referral for an application, [but] unfortunately, at the time, that wasn't possible.”

Jack Nelson, member of Christie's 18-month Graduate Training Program.Photos by Lelani Foster. Courtesy of Christie's

Currently, Jack and Avani are approaching one year with Christie’s. Throughout the program they rotate to different departments, learning various sectors of the business. Both began in client services, acting as liaisons between the house’s specialists and those interested in attending an auction, buying or selling art, or inquiring about appraisals and auction house visits. Jack went on to join the trust and estates team and is currently working in the post-war and contemporary art department. After a few months in South Asian art, Avani is now with impressionist and modern art. Since joining the program, the two have witnessed record-breaking auctions — including the $195 million sale of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portrait — and viewed rarely before seen art, as well as studied pieces in person that they’ve only ever read about or seen on a computer screen. “There's one artist that I really love named Bhupen Khakhar, who was one of the first openly gay artists working in India in the ‘80s,” says Avani “His Banyan Tree painting, which is just gorgeous, was right behind me [at an auction]. I kept turning around and taking little pictures of the details.”

The opportunities, they say, are not ones they grew up being privy to. “I was raised in a family whose socioeconomic conditions would never permit us to be in an auction space [or] consider purchasing art at the level that Christie’s works with,” says Jack, adding that there were no art history courses at his high school in Branford, Connecticut.

Currently valued at $61.5 billion, the global art industry is reflective of such gaps in access, pertaining to both socioeconomic status and race. A costly graduate degree is often required for the field’s most prestigious roles and, according to a 2021 ArtNet News survey, most entry-level gallery assistants earn less than a living wage. As such, the field is extremely difficult for young people who can’t rely on their family’s financial support to break into. Further, a study published by the Mellon Foundation in 2015 found that 84 percent of those holding positions as curators, educators, conservators, and in leadership roles at museums nationwide were white. Just six percent were Asian and four percent were African-American, while three percent were Hispanic and three percent were two or more races.

Brown exposed Jack to the affluent communities that comprise the art world, and he was accepted into the highly-competitive training program at Christie’s. Still, entering a homogeneous industry where few peers share his socioeconomic background — and also one where the prevalent, formal codes of dress differ drastically from how he presents himself — initially gave him pause. 

“It can be difficult when you're walking into a space and you see an entire group of people that all look like they belong to one particular avenue and then I have my own street,” he says. “I'm very clearly an openly gay person, but also someone who is incredibly flamboyant in both the way I interact with other people [and] the way that I dress.” Though he wasn’t expecting it, he’s found that he’s been encouraged to be distinctly himself, while also finding “a confidence and personal voice” that serves him well in his role.

(L-R): Talisa Mohammed, Jack Nelson, Jalen Turner, and Avani Sastry.Photos by Lelani Foster. Courtesy of Christie's

“Sometimes when you're coming into a space that you don't necessarily feel like you belong in, you think you need to know every single thing,” Avani adds. “I used to be really intense about studying a lot and knowing every single artist and every single fact. But one thing I've realized is how much of my own experience and day-to-day life informs the art that I love, and how I should embrace that.”

Talisa, Jack, Avani, and Jalen all acknowledge that there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done to diversify spaces like Christie’s. Still, they’re glad to be part of those efforts, and hopeful that they’ll be sustained. “It's amazing that we're here,” Jack says. “I would love it to be such that in five years, it's not an anomaly.”