Our suggested change to the sign at the Serpentine Gallery in London. (original image via Walter Lim's Flickrstream)

Our suggested change to the sign at the Serpentine Gallery in London. (original image via Walter Lim’s Flickrstream)

Over the weekend, an activist group calling itself Future Interns descended upon the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park. Their objection, the Guardian reports, was to yet another instance of the art economy’s exploitative labor model: uncompensated, administrative work under the guise of internship. The infraction at hand was a recent and particularly egregious “volunteer” listing from Serpentine, for which the not-for-profit gallery was quick to apologize to the Santa-attired activists:

“The points you make are valid and we have listened to your protest. We take our responsibility as employers very seriously, and this advertisement is not in line with our current terms on volunteer placements.”

The Guardian‘s story quotes Future Interns member Woody Morris, one of the protesting Santas, on the serendipitous timing of their Serpentine affront matching “a thing called SantaCon [it occurs simultaneously in London and New York], so the park was just full of Santas.” The more the merrier, and ever more so at Serpentine, where Hyperallergic hears that Director Julia Peyton-Jones has been known to have quite an appetite for assistants, with three of them working for her, according to an anonymous source familiar with her office (and seemingly corroborated by this archived “About” page).

Future Interns were joined in the cause by the Precarious Workers Brigade, who sent a missive expressing concern regarding the same “volunteer” job posting to the Serpentine. The ensuing exchange culminated in the apology noted above as well as an HR assistant at the institution claiming that “I started at the organization as a volunteer and I am now employed here — following my application for a role. We currently have many employees that started that way. I am glad to answer any other question you might have.”

Is shaming the Serpentine into an apology an end in itself? Anything that draws attention to the fiscal exploitation of arts institution aspirants must be so. Just ask Hans Ulrich Obrist, Peyton-Jones’s colleague as co-director and tireless champion for those born after 1989 — at least as art-world fetish objects, if not as subjects of fair economic exchange. And so the precarious lilt between the internship-as-gateway and internship-as-career-mirage continues.

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

3 replies on “Santa’s Con: Protestors Challenge Serpentine Gallery on Unpaid Labor”

  1. It used to bother me a lot when I would hear about unpaid internships at for-profit venues. Now it bothers me much less because of the circumstances.

    The candidate, they can always reject the offer. They could also negotiate something; land the interview prove self worth and angle for some compensation.

    The internship provider is usually taking some type of risk or opportunity cost when the candidate in question is unskilled and without experience.

    It’s easy to call foul, but if the intern can prove their worth, why are they applying for a position that doesn’t pay? And why are they doing this knowingly? Perhaps of you are skilled and you do possess the necessary moxie in which case richer opportunities await, so stay away! There will always be someone trying to get the upper hand on you and if you feel it isn’t worth your time to work with them don’t. But don’t mistakenly assume protesting will make this practice disappear.

    1. I would like to answer some of your questions:
      Many university programs require all students to have an internship. Also, it isn’t really that internships give you a leg up in post-grad job search; employers require seeing some sort of experience before giving you a job. Internships are mandatory and it isn’t as simple as saying “well don’t take the job if they don’t pay.”

      Internship providers are expected to take a loss when they decide to bring on interns. The United States Department of Labor states that “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.” http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm

      We are all worth compensation for our work. If a candidate proves him/herself enough to land the job, they should be paid.

      Protests do not have to end with anyone deciding to change business practice. The point is to raise awareness. The idea of an unpaid internship is very normalized in our society. Protests such as this allow more people to see that this is a societal problem that needs to be addressed.

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