Intern Affairs

I did not expect that this would be the subject of my first blog post, but there you go..

So, Arts Council England and Creative & Cultural Skills have published guidelines that lay out legal obligations regarding internships in the arts. On the one hand, I obviously fully see the extreme importance of having some safeguards in place to protect interns from being exploited. On the other hand, I am irritated by this move. Why is it that the sector that faces one of the biggest cuts and in which people are on average already paid extremely low salaries, is the first to publish an official document that puts even more restrictions on itself?

Yes, the importance of the arts is highly underestimated and undervalued by those ‘in power’ and in an ideal world, the arts would be better financed and everyone would get paid a wage in line with their job description and/or effort. (I’ll save my opinion on the crippling effect I feel the funding dependency of most arts organisations has on their creative development for another post). But for as long as we live in a capitalist society, this is – in my humble opinion – the reality for the arts.

I’ve had many different jobs in my life, but in my experience people in the arts work incredibly hard and work many (unsocial) overhours, much more so than in any other sector I’ve worked in. Also, most people I’ve worked with in the arts have been overqualified and could earn a lot more money for a lot less hard work in other industries. So why are they putting up with this?

First and foremost, people who work in the arts do so because of their passion for the arts and their deeply rooted belief in its importance as a tool for social change. This is at the heart of why on many occasions that I have been part of interview panels for the arts organisations I have worked for, the priority in the selection process was which candidate had demonstrated this passion and not which had the most directly relevant skills and experience for the job at hand.

One sure way for (especially small, underfunded but no less important) arts organisations to find out whether potential employees have got this passion and therefore have got what it takes to give their all to their job and make a valuable and unique contribution to the creative development of the organisation  as a whole (plus not leave at the first opportunity for a better, more well paid position at the advertising agency or accountancy firm around the corner), is to check whether they have a track record of creative thinking, taking initiative, and volunteering/getting free work experience as an intern at a time when no other option to work in a paid role in the arts was available to them yet.

If arts organisations are forced to pay for their interns, many of them will stop accepting interns as they simply cannot afford them. Let’s not forget either that many arts organisations offer internships precisely because there are so many people desperate to work for them. Also, I’ve never worked for an organisation which replaced an otherwise paid key position for an internship to save money. Most of the time, especially because arts organisations are keen to make an intern’s time as worthwhile as possible for the benefit of their future careers, they invest a huge amount of extra time training and mentorning them to the extent that it often puts a lot of pressure on paid staff who might already work at more than full capacity.

I’m not justifying anything and not saying this is an ideal situation, but as I said above I feel it is simply reality for (much of) the arts at the moment. In any case, I feel that the arts (which mostly consists of charitable organisations) cannot possibly be judged or treated the same way as commercial sectors (which includes a large part of the creative industries) publicly held to account at the moment for  not paying their interns. However well intended their advice is, in my opinion the Arts Council should have anticipated that their publication of ‘Internships in the Arts’ yesterday is highly unlikely to result in arts interns from now on being paid, and extremely likely to have as a consequence that many arts organisations will now feel morally or otherwise obliged to no longer offer internships. This will be a tremendous loss.

I’m not completely unbiased. I moved to London after completing my A-levels to try and pursue a career in the arts. I decided against going to University and was not financially supported by my parents (who lived in another country) in any way. I ironed shirts, babysat and worked as a children’s entertainer in the weekends to be able to live in London and afford to work for free at a number of public art galleries and performing arts organisations I loved. It is unlikely my employers would have been able to offer the positions available if they would have to have been paid ones. Even if they had been able to offer the positions as paid ones, so many more people would have probably applied for them and I doubt I would have stood a chance considering my lack of experience. As it stands and to cut a long story short, I am very happy where I am right now and have been able to build a very satisfactory (though still rather underpaid) career for myself in the arts in the meantime. If it hadn’t been for the voluntary internship opportunities I was given, I doubt very much that I would have been able to say the same thing right now.

Further reading/references:

http://www.a-n.co.uk/students/article/1709463 – Pippa Koszerek,

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2011/nov/28/creative-training-arts-education#start-of-comments

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2011/nov/30/internships-unpaid-arts-culture

http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication_archive/internships-arts/

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One comment on “Intern Affairs

  1. Pingback: Live chat: internships in the arts – how can we use, not abuse them? – Indialens.in

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