It is time to fire your internship. More specifically, if you are an intern you should fire yourself--eliminate your position. This is one of the most powerful actions you can take. Up to this point a majority of the efforts to reform the internship system have focused on convincing/coercing change from guilty organizations. But this is only one side to this chicken-or-the-egg continuum. The other, involves individuals everywhere recognizing and taking action on behalf of their labor. Only reformation in both hemispheres will produce an equilibrium of value.
Nowhere is the culture of internship labor more ripe for change than the creative practices. Through institutional rhetoric and societal misrepresentation the labor of creativity has been supplanted by the recreation of creativity. In the way that most citizens toil through the day in order to recreate (e.g. skiing, pinball, jager bombs) artists have been taught to toil through the day in order to make art. One of the chief perpetrators of this mutated equivalency is the internship. The contemporary art internship is the hazy den where recreation and labor; experience and compensation; education and data-entry are confused and muddled to produce a pathological yoke of undervaluing that can burden the artists through his or her professional career.
In this spirit we would like to provide two working resources. One for the individual and one for the arts organization.
>>>FOR THE ARTIST: APPRENTICE OR FREE LABORER?
Not all internships are nefarious exchanges. Many organizations run programs that provide hands on education in a working environment. But there are many shades of ambiguity between the laudable internships and the worst-of-the-worst bathroom stocking coffee serfdoms. How do you know where your program lies on this spectrum? Here are some quick litmus points:
Have you done this before?
The point of an internship is to learn new skills. If you are performing tasks that are blatantly within your abilities then there is cause for concern. Similarly, if you are over the age of 11 you probably know how to send emails, answer phones, and make copies. These are not learning opportunities or even “paying your dues” this is just shit rolling down hill.
Don’t confuse appreciation with compensation.
Receiving gratitude for a job well done is always nice especially if it is from someone you admire like the owner of a gallery or the director of a museum. Just remember, Thank Yous are pretty easy to produce and distribute. If you are performing tangible labor then your compensation should be equally tangible. I’m sure Comcast would love to pay their employees with ‘at-a-boys, shift beers, and thank you notes if they could.
Clock in Clock out
Your time is just as valuable as your labor and any employer or administrator should know this. Project based internship work has the potential for limitless inflation and thus limitless exploitation. If your internship is working towards school credit remember that your education always takes priority. There should be strict boundaries set for time spent interning and they should always facilitate not inhibit your main studies.
>>>FOR THE ARTS ORGANIZATION: PAY YOUR INTERNS
Running an arts organization of any size is a taxing operation. Money is always short if it is there at all and there is never enough time and energy for the amount of work that needs to be done. In such a strenuous environment, taking on an unpaid intern seems like a sensible solution to make your labor ends meet. And while this might address your immediate gaps in production you are ultimately undermining the longevity of your organization and the sustainability of your field. Here are some good reasons why:
MATT KALASKY &
Who can afford to work for free?
By progressing a culture where the unpaid internship is a “foot in the door” your are alienating a giant segment of the work force--specifically those who can’t afford to work for free. Instead what you see is a staggeringly homogeneous class of privileged interns ushered into the heart of your operation. Your arts organization could be missing out of the most talented and passionate candidate for your cause all because they have to pay the water bill.
No one can beat free.
Free is the ultimate bottom line. By establishing a standard of free labor within your organization your are effectively pressuring the rest of your employees to validate their position against impossible standards. Why not replace all positions (including yours) with unpaid interns?
Do you think that interns are necessary for the size of your organization or the realities of the current economy? With just a little imagination we can see that this is a failing of logic. Any organization or economy that relies on free-labor will only perpetuate further dependence as time goes on. It is a free fall with no bottom. Paying your interns is the first step in the right direction--establishing a sustainable arts organization and fostering a responsible work culture for the future.
These are just a few points among many. This is only part of the picture. Once again the Nicola Midnight St.Claire is teaming up with FJORD Gallery to host an open conversation. We are inviting all players in the internship system to attend and share their respective views and experiences. We will discuss and expand on the points presented in this letter and hopefully formulate new areas of action. We are challenging all interns and all arts organizations that employ interns to meet face-to-face and commit to proactive change. The time is now. Let’s fire the internship.