7 goals for fairer internships

,  24 December 2012

The creative industries are known for their 'culture of internships'. How could internships in the arts be made fairer? Artquest commissioned a review and shared 7 aims for the future.

Artquest's debate brought interns and organisations together to share experiences of internships in the arts.
Artquest's debate brought interns and organisations together to share experiences of internships in the arts.

The value of work experience

The first piece of advice I got when starting my career in the arts was from a friend. I asked about how to get some experience working in galleries. 

I harboured ambitions to become a curator – something about which I knew very little, and had no experience of. This was in 1998, before most postgraduate courses in curating were widely available.

"Just phone up any gallery and tell them you’ll work for free" was the advice I got. I did, and it worked.

There’s a time to work for free. But there’s also a time to get paid.

A well-respected, publicly-funded gallery gave me valuable work experience. The staff were supportive, and there was an exciting programme of work that they were happy for me to get involved with. 

Many colleagues shared their experiences of working in the arts with me, and were both helpful and generous with their time. I still keep in touch with many of them now.

I also got the opportunity to meet incredible artists and understand more about the art world than I ever imagined.

Not all of the work was thrilling, but as I soon learned, not all of the work in any small arts organisation is. Some was plain barmy – trying to find a red carpet for an exhibition led to phone calls to Buckingham Palace. 

All in all, it gave me an excellent grounding in how an exhibition is organised, how a small gallery operates, and ultimately helped me work out that I didn’t, in fact, want to be a curator.

The problem of unpaid work

The second piece of advice I got was from a member of staff at the gallery I was interning at. They said, "Just because you’re not being paid, it doesn’t mean your time’s not worth anything."

There’s a time to work for free: 

  • when you can afford it
  • when you need the experience and there’s no other way to get it
  • when you choose to donate your time to a cause or organisation you believe in. 

I still work for free sometimes, whether it's on boards, in networking groups, in my own practice, volunteering for friends’ projects, or the occasions when I stay late in the office. 

But there’s also a time to get paid: 

  • when everyone else is being paid
  • when your work is valuable to an organisation
  • when you’ve gained the experience to deserve it
  • and most importantly, when you need the money.

When I did my work experience, I didn’t consider myself 'an intern', but on reflection, that’s exactly what I was. 

The post was unpaid, with no paid expenses and no paid post at the end of it. But without the experience, I wouldn’t have the job and interests I have today – and I might have ended up an unhappy curator after all. 

Was it worth it? Undoubtedly. Was it an easy time? Not entirely. Much of it was spent signing on and living off porridge and credit cards. 

Researching intern culture

Thinking about this experience and similar stories contained in research reports into unpaid work in the arts, Artquest commissioned a review.

The review aimed to look at the range of opinion and experience of internships in the arts, and to clarify the legal position on how internships should operate. 

New graduates are often unable to progress in the arts unless they can find paid work.

Intern Culture, written by Sophie Hope and Joanna Figiel, uncovered widely varying advice for interns and organisations.

One Government report the review turned up suggested interns take out bank loans to cover expenses incurred during unpaid internships. 

Meanwhile, artist-led groups have published provocative guides for interns. Some encourage them to challenge organisations who don’t pay interns to state how much their staff are paid.

Some important facts emerged during the review:

  • unpaid internships in companies are illegal
  • the legal definition of ‘work’ conflicts with the legal definition of ‘volunteering’
  • there is no legal definition for an internship
  • student placements as part of a course of study are exempt from minimum wage legislation. 

These points combine to create a confusing, not to say conflicting, landscape for interns – as well as for the organisations that seek to hire them. 

Much comes down to fine points of detail, of expectations, and of negotiation. 

Many small arts organisations are in need of workers, whilst at the same time new graduates are unable to progress into the arts sector unless they can find paid work.

Creating fairer internships

Artquest decided to test out some of these experiences by creating its own internship scheme, working with Common Practice and the University of the Arts Widening Participation scheme.  

The resulting programme, AWP Internships, started in September 2012, and early results are positive. 

Interns, as well as being paid above the London Living Wage, are offered induction, a mid-way review, a guaranteed reference for their next job, and an exit interview. 

A full evaluation of the AWP Internships scheme is planned for publication in the future.

Artquest hopes to able to continue the programme, and perhaps expand it.

The problems with internships

To celebrate the early successes of the programme and the launch of Intern Culture, Artquest held a debate at The Showroom in October 2012.

The aim was to provide a forum for interns and organisations to talk to each other, share experiences of internships, and to come to a common understanding of further ways forward. 

For interns, low or no pay presents a significant barrier to employment.

There was a hearteningly open discussion about the problems with internships, both from the point of view of interns and organisations.

For interns, the problems include:

  • low or no pay presenting a significant barrier to employment
  • little thought sometimes given to learning outcomes.

Organisations pointed out that:

  • many small arts organisations have barely enough money to continue to operate, never mind to pay interns
  • managing an intern can often be more time-intensive than doing the work yourself. 

From both sides, however, there seemed a real appetite to foster change and stamp out exploitative practices. 

A fuller report of the debate, by Jessica Benson-Egglenton from Birkbeck University, has now been published.

7 goals for better arts internships

During the final part of the debate, participants made a list of action points. Some were idealistic, and some were pragmatic.

These aims were:

  1. To promote high-quality, structured internships in arts organisations through example
  2. To draft a sector-wide definition of what an internship is, in response to their being no legal definition
  3. To engage the higher education sector and encourage professional development at art school, which can mitigate the need for internships as an experience-building process
  4. To communicate with prospective interns about their legal rights, helping build their confidence to negotiate quality internships with organisations
  5. To encourage a shared responsibility between interns and organisations to construct high-quality, relevant training experiences
  6. To promote an understanding that internships aren’t just for graduates, but can be a valuable way in to the arts sector for those who have not taken part in formal education

7. To provide meeting spaces for interns discuss their concerns and experiences.

Artquest aims to continue campaigning for better working conditions for interns and greater understanding for organisations, ultimately leading to a healthier and more diverse arts sector.

Artquest is also interested to hear from individuals and organisations that can get involved with its programmes over the coming years to help effect change.

Find out more about Artquest by visiting their website

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