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The Growing Tide Against Unpaid Internships

Internships have largely remained outside the conversation about diversity and equality in museums. Economist Richard Reeves is bent on changing that.

The Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio has paid its interns since 2012 (courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art)

In a bold resolution on June 20, the Board of Trustees of the Association of Art Museum Directors’s (AAMD) urged art museums to end their longstanding practice of employing unpaid interns. Although it lacks any binding force, the resolution holds the potential to upend the way museums hire and compensate their interns.

In its resolution, the AAMD — a body representing 227 museum directors across the United States, Canada, and Mexico — underscored the importance of internships in the career trajectory of college graduates as grounds for its sea-changing resolution. “Internships provide critical opportunities for students considering careers in art museums as well as the experience necessary for entering the workforce,” the board’s resolution’s text reads, “Paid internships are essential to increasing access and equity for the museum profession.”

The discussion over museum internships suffers from a lack of official data on the scope of paid internships versus unpaid. However, the existing scholarship on internships generally supports the premise of AAMD’s resolution. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) spanning 43,000 graduating seniors across nearly 700 universities in 2014 showed that 56.9% had had an internship during college. More than half of those internships (53.5%) were unpaid. This figure, which encompasses all sectors including tech and finance, can be expected to be higher in museums as unpaid internships are recorded in higher rates in the fields of social sciences and humanities.

While some may still trivialize internships as a summertime activity offering students a glimpse into a potential career path, it is clear at this point that they perform as a crucial factor in the future success of a college graduate. Evidence to that end was provided by a 2012 survey of HR professionals, managers, and executives from 50,000 employers across all sectors, who ranked internships as the most important factor in their decision to hire a recent college graduate. A NACE Center study from 2017 found that the more internships students complete, the higher their chances are of succeeding in the job market.

“Internships are not a trivial issue,” said economist Richard Reeves in a conversation with Hyperallergic. “They are increasingly important labor market institutions that can act as a gateway or a stepping stone into a career in certain professions. They are highly valuable labor market opportunities,” Reeves stressed.

Reeves, senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution where he is also director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative and co-director of the Center on Children and Families, is a passionate advocate against unpaid internships. “Unpaid internships pose a financial barrier for people wishing to engage in them, which is intrinsically exclusive,” he said. “Those who were lucky enough to be born into families where the parents are well-educated, affluent, and well-connected can do much better in some ways that are unfair.”

In January 2019, Reeves was a key participant at AAMD’s Annual Meeting, where he spoke on issues of income inequality and social mobility in front of 150 museum directors. Reeve’s presentation drew from his book Dream Hoarders, in which he terms the existing allocation of internships as “opportunity hoarding.” Reeves writes:

When we hoard opportunities, we help our own children but hurt others by reducing their chances of securing those opportunities. Every college place or internship that goes to one of our kids because of a legacy bias or personal connection is one less available to others.

We may prefer not to dwell on the unfairness here, but that’s simply a moral failing on our part. Too many upper middle-class Americans still insist that their success, or the success of their children, stems entirely from brilliance and tenacity; “born on third base, thinking they hit a triple,” in football coach Barry Switzer’s vivid phrase.

Unpaid internships are accessible only to those who can afford them, says Reeves, thus forming what he calls a “Glass Floor“: a barrier preventing students from disadvantaged backgrounds entry to desired positions in museums.

The pitfalls of the “internship-industrial complex”

Richard Reeves: “The question of how [internship] positions are filled, and by whom, is an important one.” (image via Wikimedia Commons)
“The question of how [internship] positions are filled, and by whom, is an important one,” Reeves told Hyperallergic. Oftentimes, he added, interns are “recruited on the base of personal or social connections,” thus perpetuating inequality. “If internships become an exchange of favors, among already very affluent, well-connected, well-educated powerful people, then that’s a terrible thing for equality.”

At a time when museums are making conscious efforts to mend the historical underrepresentation of women and people of color, internships have largely remained outside the conversation about diversity and equality. “Internships are an incredibly rare opportunity to open the door to people who otherwise would find it very difficult to get into these institutions,” said Reeves. “Rather than being used in an exclusive way, we should be intentionally using them to try to attract people into the sector who would help to diversify it and make it more inclusive.”

Reeves is not the only public figure voicing concerns over the inequality that the current distribution of internship opportunities helps perpetuate. In a New York Times op-ed published in July 2016, president of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker criticized what he described as the “internship-industrial complex.”

“While some students take a summer job in food service to pay the bills, others can afford to accept unpaid jobs at high-profile organizations, setting them on a more lucrative path,” Walker wrote. “We often hear that success is ‘all about the people you know’ — as if it’s just a matter of equal-opportunity relationship building. We rarely talk about how one knows them, or about the privilege that has become a prerequisite to knowing the right people,” he added.

Paying interns is of high importance, Walker wrote, “because employers should not only compensate students for their time and contributions but also eliminate barriers that prevent low-income and underrepresented students from pursuing these opportunities.”

Internships are a relatively new invention

Although they share similarities with the medieval concept of apprenticeships (which still exist in the business and government sector and they are regulated by law), internships are a different and relatively new addition to the labor market.

The term “intern” was first used in the medical profession to define a person with a degree but without a license to practice. Later on, the word seeped into politics to identify those training for a government position. Internships as we know them today did not evolve until the 1960s and remained largely marginal. In the 1970s, with an unprecedented rise in the number of college graduates, internships were perceived as a new and welcomed tool to introduce graduates into a tough job market. According to a 2009 Time Magazine report, the number of universities offering internship programs increased from 200 in 1970 to 1,000 in 1983. In the decades since then, internships have grown so much in number that they have begun to replace entry-level jobs.

“Internships are an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, prevalent mainly in the US and the United Kingdom, and rarely found in continental Europe,” Reeves explained. The reason for that, he said, is the strength of trade unions in European countries. “Internships don’t flourish as much in the presence of trade unions, who oppose internships because they can undercut pay,” he said.

Unlike the US, the British government has taken measures to abolish unpaid internships. “The recognition dawned in the UK five or ten years ago but the US is still a long way behind,” said Reeves. “People [in the US] still struggle to see what the problem is.”

Many museum budgets are not structured to pay interns

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston. The museum’s director, Jill Medvedow, co-chaired the AAMD’s Professional Issues Committee. (photo by Chuck Choi)

“Many museums are working in the direction of paying interns, but it has been a challenge,” said Alison Wade, AAMD’s Chief Administrator, in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “It is really important for our museums to be paying interns but in the way they operate at the moment, that, unfortunately, has not been built into their budgets, and that’s a change you cannot necessarily make overnight,” she said.

AAMD’s resolution followed lengthy discussions at the organization’s Professional Issues Committee, co-chaired by museum directors Jill Medvedow of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston and Mark Bessire of the Portland Museum of Art. According to Wade, members of the committee discussed alternative ways to sustainably move in the direction of paid internships before museum budgets are rebalanced to factor in salaries for interns. Some of the ideas discussed were seeking grants from NGOs like the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to subsidize paid internships. Other museums are looking into partnering with local colleges and universities, hoping the academic institution will pay the student or help identify a funder who would.

Some of these proposed solutions came from Brian Kennedy, who was until recently the director of the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) in Ohio. He spoke in front of the committee on his museum’s transition into paid internships. “The Toledo Museum of Art has offered paid internships since 2012 when, through the generosity of John Clement Sr., a fund was established to offer this opportunity to students,” wrote Kathryn Robinson, TMA’s director of human resources, in an email to Hyperallergic. “The Toledo Museum of Art believes that paid internships allow us to select from a more diverse candidate pool and recognizes the importance and value of the work contributed by the interns,” she added.

Kennedy’s presentation, said Wade, helped mellow the initial resistance of skeptical museum directors. “When this issue first came up there was maybe a little bit of resistance, but it’s the same type of resistance we see to a lot of new ideas,” Wade explained. “As we talked about this more and more, and shared more examples of how it is possible for museums of all sizes to pay more of their interns, with the goal of paying everyone, the resistance has chipped away,” she said.

“They [the AAMD] can’t force anybody, including their members, to do anything,” said Reeves. “They don’t have that power, but this is a form of soft power that changes the conversation … it changes the default.”

Real change, Reeves concluded, cannot only come through rules and regulations. “The really important shift is in the social norm around the acceptability of having internships that are unpaid or the social acceptability of handing out internships on the base of who you know,” he said.

A step toward transparency

A screenshot of the Arts + Museums Transparency Internship Survey (courtsey Art+ Museums Transparency)

Last month, Michelle Millar Fisher, an assistant curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, started and circulated the “Art/Museum Salary Transparency” spreadsheet wherein museum workers shared their salaries. In an op-ed published in ARTnews today, July 16, Millar Fisher urged interns to respond to a separate survey form as part of a new campaign against unpaid internship.

“The most difficult numbers to read on the ‘Salary Transparency Spreadsheet’ were the zeros entered by people working for free,” Millar Fisher wrote. “This is why our next step is to ask for another pooling of knowledge from current and recent interns.”

“If the base salary in our field is $0, then it’s no wonder that the next step up is not much higher,” Millar Fisher continued. “We know what working for free does to the chances of truly diversifying or addressing equity within any intersection of art and museum labor.”

Speaking on behalf of the group Art+ Museums Transparency, Millar Fisher welcomed the AAMD’s resolution to end unpaid internships but expressed her reservations over a “special circumstances” caveat in the resolution allowing students to receive college credit instead of wages. “We cannot accept any form of unpaid labor in our organizations,” she wrote. “This compounds the very inequalities that the otherwise excellent AAMD proposal seeks to dismantle.”

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