By Published: July 7, 2021

Dexter and Gina Williams, friends of the university and fans of art, establish fund to pay students to work in the CU Art Museum


When students work at museums while still in school, they gain experience that can boost their careers. But unpaid museum internships and volunteer work can exclude students who need a paycheck to finish college.

Catch-22.

At the University of Colorado Boulder, the newly established Dexter and Gina Williams Student Endowment Fund aims to square this circle. The fund will support paid student positions at the CU Art Museum.

Dexter and Gina Williams

At the top of the page: On the left is a student reviewing ancient points in an Art of Ancient Roman coins class at the CU Art Museum. Photo by Glenn Asakawa. On the right is Persuasive Prints (Installation view), CU Art Museum, February 6–March 12, 2020. Photo by Patrick Campbell, © University of Colorado Boulder. Above: Dexter and Gina Williams

“This helps set a more level playing field for everyone who wants to do the work and be involved in the museum,” said Dexter Williams, who earned a master’s in art history from CU Boulder in 1984. His thesis focused on photographer Robert Frank and the Beat Generation.

Williams also holds a BA in social ecology from the University of California, Irvine, and, like his wife, Gina Padilla Williams, enjoyed a successful career in finance. Since taking an undergraduate class in art history in the 1970s, however, Dexter’s passion has been art and art history.

In recent years, some observers have debated the utility of unpaid museum internships and volunteer work. Last June, the Association of Art Museum Directors formally urged art museums to offer paid internships, which the group said was “essential to increasing access and equity for the museum profession.” 

The Williamses agreed that it’s important for students to gain museum experience, with a paid position opening the opportunity to a wider and more economically diverse audience. 

They also believe that “while working in a museum is certainly rewarding, just as importantly, that experience gives students a little bit of a leg up” as they seek jobs in museums, galleries and auction houses.

Gina and Dexter hope that students working at the CU Art Museum not only burnish their credentials but also expand the museum’s institutional knowledge of its growing collection, “so they'll leave a legacy behind as well.”

When they interact with museum experts and mentors, students help to shape the museum’s in-gallery activities and exhibitions. CU Art Museum student employees also support art research, writing and business while working on programs and projects throughout the academic year.

Traci McDonald, visitor experience coordinator at the CU Art Museum, said the museum’s staff is dedicated to paying students for their contributions and to building a program in which students are trained in professional skills to engage meaningfully with museum visitors. 

Students in this program learn the inner workings of museums and work directly with staff and faculty.

While working in a museum is certainly rewarding, just as importantly, that experience gives students a little bit of a leg up."

“We are so grateful and excited to have Dexter and Gina's support, as it helps us to achieve our goal to employ all our students while offering them the unique training experience that will help them throughout their careers and their life,” McDonald said. 

“We recognize an overreliance on unpaid labor in museums presents obstacles for future professionals who wish to gain entry to the field,” she added. “We are committed to identifying and shaping new paths forward and are truly honored to receive this generous gift.”

Sandra Q. Firmin, the CU Art Museum’s director and chief curator, praised Gina and Dexter Williams as “stalwart supporters for the arts on campus.” 

The couple has also funded a scholarship for graduate students in the Department of Art and Art History, and Dexter serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Board and the Art Museum's Community Council. 

Firmin added that Dexter and Gina Williams’ “bequest of the Williams BEAT Collection is a transformational gift, featuring the cutting-edge literature, photographs and paintings of this important era in the history of Colorado and the United States and will enrich the educational experience of students.” 

For more information or to support students in the Department of Art and Art History or the CU Art Museum, contact Associate Director of Development Amber Story