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Things to Know and Consider Before Taking an Unpaid Internship

A sentiment that is becoming more typical of Intern Industrial Complex. (photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr)
A sentiment that’s becoming more typical within the Intern Industrial Complex (photo by Sean MacEntee/Flickr)

A few years ago I worked at a commercial art gallery on the Lower East Side as the communications manager. In this role I was responsible for interviewing our unpaid interns, hiring them, and supervising their daily tasks. One day when I asked one of the interns to help me with a research project, she confided in me that she couldn’t because she was stuck doing the owner’s homework (at the time he was taking a continuing-education art history course at a university uptown). When we were alone, I gently questioned him about his decision to use interns to complete his personal responsibilities, saying it was bad form and citing the likelihood that word of this sort of behavior would spread. His response was to say that he thought that the intern completing his homework was ultimately of benefit to the gallery.

The topic of unpaid internships is a highly contentious matter, which often breaks down to the key questions of whether these internships are actually useful in terms of securing gainful employment, or whether they merely further privilege the sons and daughters of the upper class who are able to afford working for free while accumulating beneficial knowledge and experience.

(via Sophie Blogs)
(via Sophie Blogs)

These questions are complicated by our system of legal regulation. What has been termed the “Intern Industrial Complex” has lately been shaken by a raft of lawsuits that essentially allege that unpaid internships are an institutionalized form of wage theft. The latest reported ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on a case brought by unpaid interns against Fox Searchlight Pictures, which was rendered last summer, is that the test for unpaid internships should be if the intern is the “primary beneficiary” of the program. Critics of these internships are dismayed by this ruling since, according to them, it would allow employers to make deals with educational institutions for school credit, and thus allow the continuing exploitation of student labor.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted a survey in 2015 that adds somewhat convincing statistical evidence to the argument that taking paid internships versus unpaid internships brings about very different results for prospective employees. According to the survey results, at private, for-profit companies, unpaid interns were offered jobs only 43.9% of the time with a median salary of $34,375, while 72.2% of paid interns were made offers with a median salary of $53,521. For nonprofit organizations the gap is less, but still considerable: unpaid posts had a 41.5% offer rate with a $31,443 median salary, while paid posts received a 51.7% offer rate and $41,876 median compensation. The caveat to this report is that more than eight times as many responses were received for those in paid internships at private companies. Nevertheless, based on this data, it is clear that paid internships are more beneficial in the long term. At least one college professor, Nizan Shaked, at California State University, Long Beach, has established a policy of not writing recommendation letters for students who want to apply for unpaid internships at commercial galleries in order to discourage students from taking these positions.

Nevertheless, despite the growing awareness around the disparity of advantage between paid and unpaid internships, many New York City art museums offer mostly unpaid posts. My own brief survey seemed to support this conclusion, though the difficult process of confirming information gleaned from websites produced contrary accounts. Many of the associated websites declare that their internships are mostly unpaid, but when I phoned human resources and education departments for clarification, the responses were cagey, many respondents insisting that they speak off the record. One person listed as the director of education reached by phone gave me a “no comment” in response to the question, “do you have any paid internships?” then had someone from PR email me to offer information. What I gathered is that the Guggenheim offers stipends of $500 for undergraduates and $1,000 for graduate students. Brooklyn Museum has one major program, the Museum Education internship, that is paid; all or most of the other internships are not. The New Museum indicated that the majority it offers are unpaid, though it was stressed that some are paid (these particular internships could not be named). The Queens Museum claims that it has a mix, and its agent would not clarify how many or what percentage of the total available were paid. The Museum of the City of New York did not return calls by press time. The Whitney Museum, according to Lisa Dowd, has four funded internships for the summer, and for the rest, including academic-year internships, it provides a MetroCard to cover public transportation costs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and El Museo del Barrio also offer a select few paid positions, leaving the majority unpaid. Alternatively, the Studio Museum in Harlem offers paid internships for both the summer and academic year.

With paid positions few and far between, it’s critical for those who feel compelled to take an unpaid job to understand the criteria by which to judge whether the internship is actually structured to benefit them. Emily Turner, writing for the Incluseum blog, provides a crucial list of criteria by which to judge whether organizations are providing this kind of framework. Prospective Interns should look for the following signs:

  • Is a warm welcome and orientation to the organization given?
  • Are you supplied with clear, written learning objectives, goals, and assignments?
  • Do they provide useful readings and resources in an orientation packet?
  • Do they Include research regarding what other museums do as part of typical tasks and projects so you can compare the work you do with what is done across the museum field?
  • Are there regular check-ins throughout assigned projects to demonstrate proper procedures and follow-up steps, or to provide feedback and monitor progress?
  • Do they schedule training session or workshops on a skill of your choice?
  • Do they acknowledge your efforts and show appreciation for them?
  • Are internal job postings made available to interns, and are paid job postings from other institutions also provided?
  • Is a bulletin of upcoming local museum events, museum news items, relevant social media posts, or short, readings offered?

While it’s likely that most institutions will not provide all of the above resources, it is important that they provide several — even small, commercial galleries that have relatively fewer resources than museum. An unpaid internship after all is an investment of labor and time in one’s future in the field. No intern should spend their intellectual capital doing the boss’s homework.

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