In February, Occupy Wall Street’s Arts & Labor working group issued a call on the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) to stop issuing ads for unpaid internships. Yet NYFA continues to publish the postings and why shouldn’t they, they’re everywhere. The art world is plagued by these unpaid positions that allow individuals from wealthier backgrounds to benefit from getting their foot in the door, while individuals who can’t afford the privilege of working for free — and it is a privilege — aren’t given the opportunity. When institutions and companies offer unpaid internships properly, the interns benefit from the experience and use it to supplement their education. An excellent unpaid internship is a mini-education, not a replacement for an employee.

So, that’s why this posting for an intern blogger at the Family Business gallery was troubling. Founded by former New Museum director Massimiliano Gioni and Italian art star Maurizio Cattelan, I thought it was odd that they would be seeking an intern for a position like this. The Artinfo blogger, Ben Sutton, even joked that he would be applying, along with his colleagues, but something didn’t seem right. I thought I’d test the waters and see if the position was paid or not. When I shot off an email this am to the email address listed I received this response:

No golden coins at family:( sorry:(

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

You’re telling me that a multimillionaire art star and his superstar curator/director cohort can’t afford to pay a blogger for a gallery?

Thankfully, there are signs that the “party” for unpaid internships — at least outside the art world — are coming to an end, and it’s about time.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

45 replies on “The Art World Plague of Unpaid Internships”

  1. Funny, it’s actually illegal to offer unpaid internships to anyone other than credit-earning students in New York state. 
    Furthermore, if I understand the laws correctly, the intern in question cannot be brought on to do a specific task, rather they are meant to get general training in their area of focus. So a super-specific position like blogger/social media person would just be an unpaid job in the eyes of New York labor law. 

  2. the only thing sadder about unpaid internships is the people who still sign up for them. if people would simply stop this merry-go-round. things would be forced to change.

    1. There’s nothing sad about taking advantage of an opportunity to make important contacts in a networking-necessary career field like the arts. It’s actually pretty smart. 
      However, it becomes problematic when those who employ interns exploit the fuck out of their “free” workers while also strongly confirming the (gross) class divisions that already exist by only making these opportunities available to those with means. 

      Telling people to stop taking opportunities to advance their careers is foolish, and blames the intern and excuses the intern-exploiting companies.

    2. What’s more sad is your generalization of something you have no understanding of. I am an art dealer (in Denver, Colorado) and I pride myself on my internship program, which is 95% unpaid. One of my first unpaid interns with the gallery is now one of the most successful emerging artists in the country, and still works with me to this day. Another is the executive director of a contemporary-focus museum group at the Denver Art Museum, the youngest ever in that position.  Another is the head of the most successful art consulting firm in the city, also the youngest ever in that position.  Every time I visit the Museum of Contemporary  Art Denver I run into either one of three interns that used to have unpaid internships with me. I personally wouldn’t be anywhere if it weren’t for the insight, connections, experience and opportunity I gained at a young age with unpaid internships.  Anyone towing your line in this debate is pretty deluded to the reality of the world, and not just the art world.

      1. Great that your interns are doing well and by all means you should continue with your successful program. However, you might be the exception that proves the rule. In other words, you are making a giant generalization about unpaid internships based on your own experience, which is by definition of a specious argument. 

  3. I feel the same way about residencies – am I the only one that has a mortgage/rent to think about while I’m gone?  Feels like this latent-ish preference for wealthier art students is only reinforcing the idea that art is a leisure activity and shouldn’t be held to regular labor standards. 

    1.  Many arts residency programs try to offset the cost with stipends and a place to stay… sometimes food.  This isn’t usually enough to make up for the cost of materials & time off, but in the long run residencies can mean a significant boost in networking, time to concentrate on your work.  I wouldn’t write them off completely, you would have to look at them as a strategic, “I’m going to such and such residency to network with other artists, work with whats his face and to have the opportunity to focus on work to blah blah blah.”  Also you could find a library with foundation directory and apply for grants to help with specific residencies. 

  4. Here are the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division laws for unpaid internships.  

    The following six criteria must be applied:

    1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment; 

    2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;  

    3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff; 

    4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;  

    5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and  

    6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship

  5. “The art world is plagued by these unpaid positions that allow individuals from wealthier backgrounds to benefit from getting their foot in the door, while individuals who can’t afford the privilege of working for free — and it is a privilege — aren’t given the opportunity.”

    Let me begin by saying I do not come from a privileged background.  Working for free (as time allowed) is what set me apart from all the other people who wanted to work in an art gallery.  I made many sacrifices to volunteer my time and that quality was recognized by those I interned with; now I have a paid position and I’ve earned it.

    Now the tables have turned.  I work at an art college and also run my own exhibition space, I have unpaid interns at both.  The qualities I look for have nothing to do with money; qualities like accountability, passion, punctuality, willingness to learn, etc.

    I know my experience is mostly through academic and non-profit galleries, but in a job field like art (which is so heavily coveted yet sporadically funded) you have to be willing to go above and beyond, and sometimes that means working for free to order to gain the experience necessary to be working for pay.

    1. The question is whether companies and organizations are simply using interns as a way not to hire someone. Someone who works at a small startup mentioned to me that they wanted to hire an intern to do programming, even though they didn’t have a programmer to supervise them, in other words, they didn’t want to pay someone who wanted to do what they needed but wanted to do something for free. That’s NOT an internship that we should accept.

    2. But why?! Why does it hurt to pay at least a minimum to someone that is indeed working for you. Why can’t we have appreciation for other people’s time? Is it because they are young. We leave in a different time, a time where young people are wise beyond their years and have a wealth of knowledge, especially in the technological field, we are teaching to strive for so little by telling them that we can remunerate their time accordingly (they still have to pay bills) when they see other people making lots of money, the concept of paying your dues has been maximized to ” I can exploit you until you get smarter.”

  6. People who’ve done unpaid internships for non-profits can and should file for backpay when they’ve finished.

    1. I just mailed them some “gold coins” with this message (Amazon has limitations of 125 characters):

      U wrote “No golden coins at family:( sorry:(” in response to paying your “intern blogger” so here’s help.

      Hope it helps 😉

  7. One reason why this exists is because many arts organizations honestly have a management heavy structure. In my own gallery I have tried to fight this ideal by creating an incentive program that supplies stipends for my interns. 

  8. I think this issue needs to be considered in its more broad context: it’s clear that it’s not effective to think about it as a discreet problem (implying a discreet solution) but rather as a symptom. Unpaid labor isn’t bad; if it were up to most of us, we’d all be spending our time doing our own unpaid labor, or, hippie stuff: growing, cooking, and sharing food, making art, music, building ~ how often do you think that you’d just start taking language or music lessons if you had the time?

    The distinction between “life” and “work” is a false dichotomy, of course ~ so what does this mean for people who work in a field that is driven by individual will & vision? I think our work would like to be eliminating this distinction. So, it seems like if we volunteer our own labor for our own work, and getting an internship at a gallery could help us “work” (network), it feels like this is a good idea ~ but we’re not feeling inside our own desires, we’re feeling the desires of something else. Our work in that case (which is supposedly also to support our overall goals) no longer eliminates the distinction of “life” and “work” but pulls the former completely into the latter ~ big difference

  9. yeah it’s definitely a problem. full time “employment” for free, minimum 3 months…generalized from the commercial world to museums and NGOs. often has nothing to do with the budgets of any of these institutions. perks include networking, the insider’s perspective, whatever fits under the rubric: great opportunities, which might sometimes fall short of the great expectations. 
    + discounts at the museum store/restaurant, invites to events, free snacks, left overs. either way, opportunities certainly do present themselves, yet should not turn into opportunism for these institutions as great as they might be 

    stories about people taking loans in order to “afford” an internship at a prestigious museum have been passed on through the grapevine. for 3 months spent in NYC with no budget the bill would probably be around 4-5 grand…is it worth it? hard to say if there’s much of a choice. 

    the biggest problem in my opinion is that rather than creating distinctions based on merit, professionalism, personal worth this system of “voluntary” employment inserts the wealth factor as a qualification requirement – in a field that is already often plagued by a lack of thoughtful individuals in positions of culture/power. 

    i’m speaking in rather neutral terms here, since 1) this is not just the case in the US and 2) as a foreign national i can’t get paid anywaysies 
    & less neutral because 3) i’m speaking from the perspective of a young professional rather than an undergraduate student fulfilling a requirement – it has to do with how my job requirement is shaped 

  10. I think the implications are more profound…labor is more disrespected and made minimal than ever before. The social and economic conditions and thinking that push that state are ubiquitous for all sectors, even for qualified paid workers. Almost always those who get the opportunities through initial sacrifice, turn into worse oppressors than the ones who used them, and the reason always seems to me to be represented by the same tropes of surplus profit and personal triumph. Can’t sacrifice that profit!  It’s an inherited social addiction. 

  11. Shame on Family Business. These jet-setters are loaded with money, showing up at every international party the art industry throws to drink champagne and cultivate their “bad boy” personas, wearing beautiful shoes while insincerely disdaining global hypocrisies (if said hypocrisy is illustrated by this month’s hottest artist). 

    They can’t throw a few coins to a talented writer?

    Of course, just as sick is the desperation of the young careerists who will spend hours crafting their snarky paragraph in the hopes of networking with these celebrities. 


  12. And then, artists like myself who barely have an income, if any from their work but need some studio assistance often end up subsidizing these ‘interns’ who by the way often have big names and institutions attached to their resumes but NO experience- to make it that much worse.

  13. This whole system sucks the most for those people with an art history BA or, god help me, a master’s degree, who did their unpaid internship time at NYC art galleries as undergrads but now can’t land an “entry level” job, despite all of their well wishing “connections,” because such positions have been repurposed as aforementioned unpaid internships, but now “real life” financial responsibilities (ie. student loans & health insurance) have reared their ugly heads.  When waitressing becomes too much to bear the clear solution is a move to China.

  14. If you can;t afford a full timer, you could hire someone part time. If you need someone full time you need an employee. If you can’t afford an employee, you don;t have a viable business. If you have a business plan and are growing, offer some form of equity. 

    I wish someone had told me how important internships were when I was in college. I worked at a factory, just to make money and make my parents happy.

    1. Not sure what you’re trying to say, Carolina. The post actually didn’t say all internships are bad, just those taking advantage of the situations when they obviously need an employee. Also, interns don’t really have “intern” duties. It’s more like blogging bootcamp. Every week is a new adventure for the three month period. Do we pay a salary, no? We pay a daily stipend for every day they come in. Does C-Monster, your blog, pay interns?

  15. The education (especially for arts) bubble has burst, and something we overpaid to invest in (education) is not paying us the anticipated dividends (via salary or wages resulting from the education). 

    Ironically, true internships are needed now more than ever. There are a lot of middling educations out their being peddled at cadillac prices, and some people are better off getting B.A.’s from public schools in good cities than overhyped private schools in the suburbs. 

    Organizations (particularly in the arts) should be willing to participate in the education of a next generation of artists, curators, writers, administrators and directors, and offer them criticism and guidance (and not “connections” that will honestly never give them the time of day later). And the organizations should be willing to be inconvenienced to do so. It’s in everyone’s best interest that a generation of savvy, thoughtful and critical workers comes up, not just the desperate and the title-hungry. I hate the word, but dare I say, young people looking to participate in the arts could stand to be a little more “entrepreneurial” and make meaningful structural changes, and not just grasp at the first opportunity to have “curator” attached to their name in an e-blast.Also: NYFA really is a culprit here. The decent thing for them to do would be to create a separate listing page for Internships, and one for Jobs. It would save those looking for the latter time sifting through all the galleries looking for interns (once upon a time called “Receptionists”). I haven’t read A&L’s letter to them yet, maybe they are already on that.

  16. We/I have used unpaid interns that could earn school credit or voluntarily wanted to get experience working in production. I have always made it clear that this was a fair trade, I make sure that the intern is tutored and that the work process is transparent. They learn what it takes to be a part of a working team, and I treat them like gold. I make the coffee and even cook when there is time. It’s not a rich kid’s game, it’s real, and if I could pay everyone, believe me, I would. I see value in the internship, it does turn into jobs. There is a lot of discussion of process, and everyone including interns’ opinions are given the same respect across the board. 

  17. I don’t have interns… The blog is pretty much me, and a few friends that occasionally contribute. And no, there’s no money involved… mainly because my website doesn’t make any…

    But my above comment is terrifically un-nuanced, so I’ll follow up:

    You are right. There are a wide gamut of intern experiences. Those that are rich and provide a wide range of learning experiences and those that are a cheap way for a company to staff up (as is apparently the case with Family Business, above). I did a stipend internship myself when I was first starting out ($75/week) and it was a good investment in my career as a journalist. Do I regret doing it? No. But would it have seemed like a reasonable thing to get paid for work I spent 40 hours a week doing? Um, yeah. Especially since I had to work another job to subsidize my internship and because I did plenty of stuff that fell well outside of an editorial internship’s parameters (messenger work, receptionist, accounting, etc).

    My frustration in all of this arises from the fact that I continue to see writing and reporting devalued as work. And I think that unpaid and under-paid internships have been a cheap way for media outlets and even well-funded non-profits to take advantage of young writers and, worse yet, to find cheap administrative support staff. (The kinds of lower-tier jobs that once went to the working class: receptionists, assistants, etc.) Certainly, this is not just about Hyperallergic. But I do think it’s a fuzzy boundary to draw — that its ok for some organizations to have unpaid interns and others not? Or that a certain level of good will can make up for a paycheck? I’m not sure what the solution is. This is a blurry area. But maybe most organizations should assume that if they can’t afford minimum wage ($55 for a 7.5 hour day in NY State), they can’t afford interns…

    One thing’s for sure: perhaps someone should send this Harlan Ellison clip to the wankers at Family:

  18. although the art world is just sporadically funded, commercial galleries doing quite well at selling , do still recruit interns. Having done my bit of free work, I can tell that most duties carried out in these positions are trivial and do not add anything to the the intern’s profile. 

  19. I am watching six unpaid interns work away on a beautiful saturday afternoon at projects that they have a passion for.
    They work because they love what they do, perhaps this is the exception again., 
         I worked for Seward Johnson, an heir to the Johnson and Johnson estate, got paid like crap as did others .But we were afforded opportunities available nowhere else.i guess some people are willing to suck it up and eat shit for a spell.
    Hated it while I was there, but got something from it.
    could,would,should we have been paid more?who knows
    Just think your time would be better spent providing paid internships 
    then trying to deny others opportunities ….

  20. Can we state the obvious issue of turning unpaid internships to paid ones? If a company or organization doesn’t have the means to pay an intern or doesn’t have a large budget for interns that means less internship opportunities!! This would be disastrous! 

  21. I think this whole discussion would benefit from more specific examples of what constitutes a fair and meaningful educational experience vs an exploitative one.  For example, the nonprofit I work for does benefit from interns who do fairly menial office tasks that the 3-person staff doesn’t have the time to do, and can’t afford to hire a full-time admin assistant to do. However, we only expect interns to commit to one day per week, meaning someone who can’t work for free or is getting school credit for the internship can still attend school and work other part-time jobs. Plus, despite the mundane nature of a lot of the work, it does involve teaching the interns new skills in photoshop, database management, installation, etc. that beef up their resume. We do offer a modest daily stipend for travel and lunch.

    I agree that the inequalities and labor violations created by this unpaid internship situation can be extremely problematic– but I think we should consider all the grey areas like these before writing off the use of unpaid internships completely. Another grey area: skilled professionals who choose to volunteer for creatively-fulfilling, resume-building or career change-enabling positions like unpaid writing fellowships for widely-read blogs, or pro bono PR work for nonprofits. These are, of course, in a different category from unpaid internships that target college students or entry-level employees for less exciting work.  But do they also pose the same issues of equal access?

    As a possible solution to all this, I do think there need to be many more programs out there (such as the Harlem Children’s Zone College Success Office, or Exploring the Arts)  that pay students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds to intern/work at nonprofits that otherwise couldn’t afford to pay a stipend. In my capacity as an arts program manager I’ve worked with some of these amazing programs that not only pay the interns on our behalf, but help recruit and train them, relieving even more of the administrative burden. Also, there are plenty of companies that offer employees incentives to do volunteer work for nonprofits.  It would be great to turn the discussion to creating more viable programs like these rather than trying to legally mandate an end to all unpaid work in the arts.

  22. The true irony here is that now, instead of unpaid internships, businesses will instead start paying their interns minimum wage. Which is still not enough to live off of pretty much anywhere in the country. That is, those businesses that still choose to maintain their internship programs.

    The end result here is that nothing will change, except there will be fewer internship opportunities, that will still primarily go to people that can afford to live in NYC on less than $300 a week, which MAY cover rent, assuming that you find 6 roommates. The people who can’t afford to do internships now will still not be able to afford to do internships, and with less of them being on the table, even more they will go to the well-connected.

    People should be paid for the work they do, but a good (and even a decent) internship pays in experience, knowledge, and networking. If you can afford to attend a college (where not only do you NOT get paid, you also pay for the privilege of instruction), it seems ludicrous to suggest that you can’t afford to do an internship. I have yet to hear anyone address this dichotomy within the “unfair to the poor” argument.

  23. Lesson learned. Please don’t get sucked into the nasty interning cycle believing that Golden opportunity will come…eventually.

    1. Recognize when someone is leading you on, especially with talk of pay, or tests of proving yourself, Its a ploy. If the employer genuinely felt you were worth paying they would just employ you or pay you.

    2. Admit when something is too much work for you. You have a life outside of the internship, and while you should treat it as a job, you are not an employee and shouldn’t be expected to carry as much responsibility or put in as many hours of work as a paid employee.

    3. Learn how to spot dysfunction. If your supervisor is constantly late, your boss is always re-scheduling meetings, if employees talk to you about how they dislike their job, stay away. You will not get the experience you deserve as an Intern at that location.

    4. Don’t stay as an intern longer than 3 – 6mos if you don’t have a job. With a job you can spend time at a place you like and continue to learn. But if you’re struggling and don’t have the financial support keep your Internship at 6mos and move on.

    5. Think about how you feel about working under people, because you may find that Entrepreneurship is in your cards, if that ends up being the case find a mentor. Mentors are much more valuable than Internships because you develop a relationship.

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