Career in arts management

Ethical standards for unpaid internships

After graduating from university, highly educated people frequently start working as interns and then find themselves in an endless loop of internships. This situation is even worse considering that only few of them get paid. In addition to that, internships only seldomly come with job description and performance feedback is rarely given.
During last years election campaign in Germany the introduction of Minimum Wages became a major topic. Part of the discussion was if interns who hold a university degree should fall under the minimum wage provisions. The situation of interns has become worse over the years, to the point where a few years back the term Internship Generation was coined in regards to young academics in search of full-time jobs, which have instead entered an endless loop of internships. Several industries such as media, arts and entertainment have come to rely heavily on unpaid interns not only in Germany but, as I experienced in my professional career, in the US as well.

I realize now how lucky I was when I started interning in the early 2000s. During my internship at the Art Institute of Chicago I received free board and lodging at the historical Three Arts Club. For another internship at the Semper Opera in Dresden I received a scholarship from my university. The costs associated with these internships were covered through fundraising efforts by the respective organizations. And the only unpaid internship I ever did turned into a paid job.

The situation is completely different nowadays for the interns that I worked with as a supervisor in different arts organizations: None of the interns were paid, there rarely was an internship job description available and on even rarer occasion performance feedback was provided. Free admission to concerts had to suffice as a reward for all contributed work hours of the interns.
A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that in the US unpaid internships across majors dont seem to give students a strong competitive advantage. 37% of students who had completed an unpaid internship received a job offer compared to 35.2% who did not intern anywhere and still got a job offer. Further data analysis suggests that, in some majors, unpaid internships may even have a negative correlation to job offers.

Many arts organizations depend heavily on interns, but they can only offer jobs to very few lucky candidates. So what can be done to improve the experience and reputation of internships in the arts?

Recognizing the importance of job descriptions, participation in team and staff meetings, weekly feedback and a personal review at the end of the internship, these elements became part of my internship guidelines. For those interns who stayed over a longer time period, I organized meetings with staff members from other departments to raise awareness about how all departments come together and should work together as one team. These meetings seemed to be particularly valuable for future cultural managers who are educated to work both artistically and business-oriented.

Michelle Millar Fisher, former manager of the Guggenheim Internship program, developed a program for the many unpaid interns at the museum. In lieu of paying the interns she looked at providing other rewards such as introductions to arts networks through a weekly seminar program and assigning supervisors who act as mentors. Based on her experience in the museum world and now as lecturer at the City University of New York she proposes three core promises, published on Nina K. Simons Blog Museum 2.0, to be adapted by all museums:
The Museum Ethics Charter

1. a stipend
2. a clear written statement of expectations given at the beginning of the internship
3. a final face-to-face evaluation with the internship mentor at the end of the internship
I recommend these minimum requirements to be adapted by arts organizations on both sides of the ocean. Relatively low cost and time spent quickly pay off as an investment, resulting in rewarding experiences to motivated interns and future employees.

Written by Sonja Ostendorf-Rupp
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