Unpaid Internship. A two-word phrase that makes any young creative cringe. The concept of providing work for free is an unfortunate reality in most every field and is particularly indicative of a troubling larger issue within the artistic community. In an industry that already has a difficult time solidifying the marriage of labor and capital, an expectation like the unpaid internship warps the entire market. What could be a hands-on learning experience often falls flat, discrediting and disheartening the next generation of artists, curators, designers, gallerists, museum directors and critics.
If you are a near or recent college graduate, you spend a lot of time thinking about, fretting over, and searching, searching, searching for a job. NYFA listings run through your head when you can manage to sleep. The feeling of a real job -- one with benefits, a salary, that means something to you -- is right there, beyond an unbridgeable gap. You can feel it brushing your fingertips: you know you are qualified and capable. What can take you from the seemingly uncrossable collegiate sea to the sands of the happily employed?
Give it all away, for free.
Internships can be a great thing. When the work is meaningful, your time is valued, and a kind of respectful reciprocity is observed, the work experience can be professionally crucial and personally revolutionary. A good internship provides the space to get a handle on the foundational elements of an industry: the ins and outs, the protocol, and routine. Interning offers a chance to present oneself, formally, to the professional community within which you are finding or creating your place. If this kind of exchange is happening, the banality of washing a few dishes or archiving news clippings isn’t even that big of a deal. When the quality or amount of work far overextends the time spent learning skills and exchanging ideas, however, we’re left with an inequitable relationship whose repercussions reverb through the art market.
A friend of mine is an artist. By next year, she will hold a BFA from a well respected private university. She religiously upkeeps her own practice, making work as often and varied as she can. She speaks two languages, writes well, studied in three countries, and has work experience in several facets of the art world. Yet, in her search for a summer job, she was expected to work full-time, five days a week, as a studio assistant for an established artist for no pay. This should make your jaw drop. “I asked the studio manager how he expected anyone to be able to do the job,” she recounts, “and he said, ‘Honestly, I have no idea.’”
This is the plague of young cultural producers: how can you find an entry point into a competitive community structured around connection and persona when the base requirement is free labor? For well-educated creatives, the quest for meaningful employment is a double bind. Even when your resume includes a roster of years of past internships, jobs, projects, you can still come up underpaid. How long can one give it up before something comes back? The expectation that college-educated cultural producers must work for free to eventually, hopefully, reach a reliable source of income sets a standard across the board that devalues labor within the industry at large. When the bottom line is free labor, the market shifts. In other words, there is always some twentysomething out there who can work full time for nothing, making what should seem a flagrantly impossible and illegal requirement somehow acceptable.
“Internships are the face of privilege,” writes Ross Perlin, author of the recently published Intern Nation. The stipulations of internships inherently vet the privileged and well-connected, “restricting opportunities to those able to work for nothing or for a pittance – or sometimes even pay the price in cold hard cash.” All internships at major New York art institutions require at least two full days a week for a standard, typically undergraduate- or recent-graduate-filled, semester-long position. Most all are unpaid, with a few exceptions of conciliatory stipends. The healthiest I found was $1600 for a semester’s worth of a twenty-hour work-week. Even then, compensation works out to around five dollars an hour, significantly below the New York State minimum wage of $7.25 for an hour’s work.
Not everyone can afford to give away their time for free. Last year’s New York Times expose on unpaid interns mentions an Amherst senior whose “parents were not delighted that she worked a summer unpaid.” Forget disappointed parents -- for some of us, it’s a landlord, gas company, and bursar office whom must be kept happy. The bone most often thrown is academic credit, a policy increasingly enforced in light of recent attention to the legality of unpaid interning. While well-meaning, the insistence on school credit simply reinforces the barriers that keep anyone but the most privileged from taking fancy internships with well-established cultural institutions often so essential to the beginning stages of professional life. “I am not going to pay a thousand dollars a credit to work for free,” a budding curator frustratedly insists.
In creative industries, the internship is seen as necessary stepping stone, a way to get your feet wet, break in, test the waters and all those other corporate-tinted cliches that fundamentally translate to entry-level. The general consensus of the internship as the connector between education and employment relies upon a few assumptions. For one, the intern relationship assumes a kind of gain in creative capital that could potentially be worth the value of labor and time. We assume the employer is fully invested in finding ways to transition the intern into an income-yielding position, whether that be a job, stipend, or reference. This can take time, especially in the creative world, where many qualified people work towards the same limited number of roles. How long can one wait?
Don’t get me wrong -- I have been an unpaid intern, and don’t regret a second of it. Sometimes, what you learn really does make your time worth it. Dissecting an arts publication from the inside, carefully peeling apart the specific work flow and getting to know the person behind each part is worth it. Spending time with an artist or curator whose work you respect, becoming a part of the process through which shows and works are birthed and raised, can be inspirational. Exposure can pay off too: in a community where friendship and business intermingle freely, getting to know and be known can make all the difference. Several artists' assistants I know have been paid in artworks, a kind of reward that can be incredibly meaningful. Not only does a print or drawing provide an intern with a value-filled monument of their labor made manifest, but also insists on the value of the artwork itself.
People have a hard time understanding the mostly closed circuit of the art market, and the misunderstanding of art as somehow outside of the sway of economics persists. What does it mean for an emerging generation of cultural producers to reconfirm the devaluation of creative and artistic labor? Can we afford to accept a baseline that blocks out much of our potential pool for exciting new ideas and energy because they can’t afford an internship?
An internship should be a life-changing experience. It should leave you with something more than with what you began. An intern should leave something behind too, and a good internship makes you want to do that more than anything. After spending months putting energy, time, and ideas into a project, you should feel inspired. If it’s done right, we could be encouraging an influx of brilliant, fresh cultural producers to work just that much harder to find work that makes a difference, a way to turn ideas into realities, and make the frustratingly resilient intern bubble, just, pop.
~Hannah Daly, a critic, curator, and creator living in Brooklyn.
(*Images: Collin Penetrates Module, Miami, 2010. Sarah + Olivia Color Chart, New York, 2009. Maya Looking, DC, 2009. Three Kids On The Edge, Portugal, 2011. All photos by Hannah Daly.)