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New York

The Plight of the Intern
by Natalie Hegert

April’s New York Times reported that the number of unpaid internships has increased while actual job openings remain scarce.  Many of them may even be deemed illegal, which might come as no surprise to those of us who have recently been "interned" at an institution in the arts.

Federal regulations deem the difference between unpaid training, as in internships, and paid employee work as such: that an intern cannot displace a regular employee, and the employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.”  This is clearly not the case in many art internships, especially with some smaller galleries reliant only on interns’ work to keep the gallery open during their usual hours.

Often these internships require mere manual labor: as one source said, during his internship at a contemporary gallery in Chelsea he was asked to build a set of shelves and other furniture for the gallery office.  He admitted, “I gained a lot of woodworking skills, but that’s not what I was there for.”

Browsing Craigslist and New York Federation for the Arts I’ve come across some ridiculous activities with outrageous stipulations advertised as “internships.”  One full-time, unpaid internship, with a laundry-list of experience requirements, described the intern’s responsibilities in managerial terms—the intern would direct this, manage that.  This sounded like a full-time job for no pay. Another Chelsea gallery advertised an “internship” position for someone to guard an interactive sculpture, monitoring the amount of people who walked in and out of the installation.  According to the ad a comfy chair would be provided, but tell me what sort of experience would be gained from it?  They were obviously in need of an actual security guard, but decided an “intern” would do the job just as well.  What they really needed was a “volunteer,” which would be perfectly legitimate, but the fact that they termed the position as an “internship” points to a troubling trend in an industry that largely views interns as a source of free labor in a dwindling economy.

This isn’t only a problem in New York—a friend and ArtSlant contributor in London, Benjamin Ferguson, fresh from a rather exploitative internship at Sotheby’s, first brought the issue to my attention.  On his CV he suggestively describes his position there: “The bottom rung of such a prickly institution is a place where the imagination investigates boundless avenues of desire. At such depths one plots fictitious graphs that describe the relationship between virtuosity and drudgery as they perform endless clerical tasks.” Ferguson talked about organizing a sort of intern strike day, to expose the reliance on free labor to which the industry had become accustomed.  “They leech us not teach us” might become a rallying cry.

As an intern, however, it’s hard to strike back or even to speak up.  Worried about future job prospects and eager to please, many interns cheerfully comply with unreasonable demands. But until the “No Pay Day” arrives, maybe it’s time for the interns around the world to speak up and insist on their right to gain meaningful work experience, or get paid.

Perhaps the better model for art internships can be found in organizations like ArtWorks in Cincinnati which hires highschoolers to work for minimum wage on public art projects.  It’s definitely better experience than McDonalds, but it doesn’t pay less.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that all unpaid internships are a scam for free labor--many provide invaluable experience and contacts.  The key to having a successful internship is research and motivation.  Know what you’re getting yourself into, and don’t just take anything.  Ask questions, aim for diversity in your experience (for instance, don’t take only gallery internships but try different areas), and focus on the long-term benefits.  It’s also important to remain open-minded and inquisitive, but definitely know your rights.

--Natalie Hegert, a writer living in Los Angeles

(Image: Benjamin Ferguson.)

Posted by Natalie Hegert on 6/19/10

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