“An Extremely Open-Ended Grant”: Using the Benenson Award to Fund Diverse Arts Opportunities
In this interview with Duke Arts, Jess Chen ’20 reflects on her experience as a two-time Benenson Award in the Arts recipient and offers advice to students applying for the award. “My two summer experiences were very different, but that’s the advantage of the Benenson: it is an extremely open-ended grant,” she says.
Each year, Duke University grants Benenson Awards in the Arts, which provide provide funding for fees, travel, and other educational expenses for arts-centered projects proposed by undergraduates (including graduating seniors). Ahead of the 2022 Benenson Awards application deadline on Monday, March 14, we spoke with Jessica (Jess) Chen ’20, who received the award twice: the first time, to fund an internship in Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (PGC); the second, to fund her participation in the Clazz International Music Festival. Jess is currently a critic based in Berlin on the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) fellowship.
Why did you apply for the Benenson? How did you decide on your proposed arts project?
I applied for the Benenson twice: the first time, to fund my internship in Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (PGC); the second, to fund my participation in the Clazz International Music Festival, which involved an independent project that would map the city’s spaces through sound. The festival was canceled, since it was scheduled to happen in August 2020, so I continued to work on my music portfolio with my flute professor, Carla Copeland-Burns.
“That’s the advantage of the Benenson: it is an extremely open-ended grant.”
My two summer experiences were very different, but that’s the advantage of the Benenson: it is an extremely open-ended grant. My museum internship was a clearly defined and institution-focused experience with its own set of responsibilities and goals, while my music festival project was independent and required more development on my end. I applied for the latter as a senior, so it arose from what I studied and worked on during my four years at Duke. Music performance, certainly, but also art history (my major, along with public policy), architecture, and digital humanities.
After receiving Benenson once, how did you ensure your second application was different and moved you forward as an artist?
The two Benenson art awards I received were in separate fields—the visual arts and the performing arts—but I find that refining one area of my practice feeds into the others; different critical skills and senses taken together strengthen my ability to work through artistic ideas. My internship at the PGC was entirely within the museum, so I learned a lot about its day-to-day operations, which was helpful in my later internship at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. My project with Professor Copeland-Burns, on the other hand, had more to do with my development as a musician interpreting music that hundreds, if not thousands, of flutists have already recorded. Thinking through issues of phrasing, authenticity, and prior interpretation required maturity that I acquired later during my time at Duke, but which I’ve found to be relevant to my current art history work.
What are qualities of an outstanding Benenson Award proposal?
Compelling arguments about why you are the person who should carry out the project. What skills, experiences, or ideas have you developed that are necessary for the proposal? That no one else has? How might this project affect your trajectory as an artist? Feasibility of the project is also important: is the project too wide in scope for a summer, does it involve equipment or technology that you don’t know how to use yet?
What is your favorite memory from your Benenson summer?
There are so many! In my first Benenson summer, the museum hosted an intern party at the end of every month to celebrate and bid farewell to the interns who were leaving. I still feel very close to many of the interns I met that summer, and the experience is a reminder of how transformative these artistic communities can be.
“The experience is a reminder of how transformative these artistic communities can be.”
In my second summer, during the pandemic, I spent a lot of time practicing alone. I doubt I’ll have that kind of space to focus on my music for a long time, if ever again. Working through passages of the music is always meditative, and I found that I was able to quiet anxieties about the pandemic by building a solid foundation of sustained daily practice and listening.
How did the two Benenson Awards factor into your arts trajectory, and how has it influenced your path post-graduation?
I’m currently a critic based in Berlin on the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) fellowship. The internship at the PGC gave me a very good foundation in European modernism and postwar art from the United States, areas which I hadn’t studied before that summer and which I refer to often in my writing. The second Benenson affects my work in a more roundabout kind of way: aside from having a better appreciation of J.S. Bach’s work on the level of music theory, I’ve carved out space in my week to attend live classical music whenever possible (many opportunities in Berlin!) and enrich my understanding of music history, theory, and interpretation.
Samantha Streit is a senior pursuing a major in Theater Studies, a minor in Psychology, and a certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This year, she is a writer/content creator for the Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).