How Internships Are Changing the Art World
Internships have never been more prevalent or essential for aspiring art workers. Putting in one’s time as an intern is an important career stepping stone—a way to gain key on-the-job skills, experiences, and connections for art-world success. Studio Museum in Harlem director and chief curator Thelma Golden, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, and the late artist Chris Burden all had formative internships early in their careers. According to a 2015 report by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), a full 69 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. who graduated from arts programs had been an intern at least once while they were in school.
Creative industry internships have come under growing scrutiny over the unequal opportunities they may offer and the insufficient compensation and experience they may provide. Many arts internship programs can be invaluable for gaining a foothold in a creative field and discovering which creative pursuit is the right fit, but others are downright exploitative. A report published in November by the Sutton Trust found that an astonishing 86 percent of internships in creative fields in the U.K. are unpaid.
“Everyone acts like an internship is this stepping stone. But a lot of internships aren’t, and you learn a tremendous amount from that.”
Unpaid internships are common in every sector of the arts and at every level, but sometimes such “opportunities” cross the line. Earlier this spring, London’s Serpentine Galleries and the architecture firm designing its summer pavilion, Junya Ishigami + Associates, came under fire after it was revealed that the firm was planning to use unpaid interns who would be expected to work 13-hour days for 6 days per week. In 2017, the Olsen twins paid out $140,000 to 185 former unpaid interns of their fashion label The Row who claimed they had been paid nothing to do the same amount of work as an employee. Scandals over unpaid internships in creative fields are legion.
Large art organizations, from major museums to mega-galleries and auction houses, are increasingly proactive about making diversity and equity core pillars of highly structured internship programs, while also working to ensure that interns will gain valuable experiences and connections, and not end up serving as glorified temp workers. Current and prospective interns can make more informed and pointed decisions about the roles they pursue, what they seek to get out of them, and what career tracks might not actually be right for them.
“Everyone acts like an internship is this stepping stone. But a lot of internships aren’t, and you learn a tremendous amount from that,” said Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the Metropolitan Museum’s chairman of education. “I never want to go into PR, but I actually have tremendous skill sets around how to communicate because one of my first internships in college was with a communications department.”
Even when an internship isn’t a perfect fit, it can be immensely valuable. “We would always encourage internships—always—because that’s how you not only gain professional proficiency, but make connections and become a known quantity in the field,” said Georgianna de la Torre, a vice president at Museum Management Consultants, a San Francisco–based consulting firm. “When we work with art museums in planning, internships are something that is tremendously desired not only to increase the labor pool, but it’s a service to the field, as well, because there’s a great need to build the future of museum professionals.”
And just as some parts of the art world have begun to address their diversity issues, institutions and organizations have increasingly seized upon internship programs to prioritize greater accessibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Getty Marrow Undergraduate Internships (GMUI) initiative at the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles offers paid, 10-week internships at the J. Paul Getty Museum and other L.A. organizations to undergraduate students from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
Launched in the aftermath of the Los Angeles uprisings of 1992, the GMUI sought “to make people from underrepresented groups feel welcome and feel that museums are a place for them,” said program assistant Selene Preciado. But in the 26 years since it launched, the program has taken on the additional role of bringing greater diversity to a field that remains disproportionately white. Because of the current state of the field, Preciado believes it’s important to have a network of colleagues, supervisors, and peers to support individuals through the many leadership challenges institutions are facing.
“It’s a service to the field, as well, because there’s a great need to build the future of museum professionals.”
In its first 25 years, the Getty Foundation put upwards of $12.7 million toward supporting more than 3,200 GMUI participants’ internships at over 160 L.A. organizations. The program’s alumni include the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s outgoing assistant curator Lanka Tattersall (who starts her next role, in the Museum of Modern Art’s department of drawings and prints, in July); the associate director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, Sanchita Balachandran; and the general manager of the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series, Duke Dang. In a report marking the program’s 25th anniversary, Dang noted that his supervisor during his internship is now his colleague, adding: “We still meet up when I come to Los Angeles, and sometimes our conversations even end up inspiring the next round of programming at our respective institutions.”
For Preciado, stories like Dang’s show just how effective internship programs like GMUI can be, and how important the roles of mentors and supervisors are to their success. “It’s not only that your intern could be your successor, they might one day be your colleague,” she said.
A similar drive to open up the art industry pipeline is at the core of an initiative by Souls Grown Deep, the Atlanta-based foundation devoted to the work of African-American artists from the South. Its program supports three undergraduate students of color per academic year, providing each with a $10,000 stipend while they pursue a part-time internship with partner institutions. The first three participants took internships at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The next three will intern at the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
For the foundation’s president, Maxwell L. Anderson, the decentralized approach of the Souls Grown Deep internship program was partly informed by his own days as an intern at the Metropolitan Museum. “I’m still friends with a lot of the other interns from literally 40 years ago, and the network in the museum field is as important as it is in so many other fields, where friendships forged in one’s beginnings are often very important later in one’s career path,” Anderson said. “Having colleagues in different cities and different institutions, and binding them together through a joint experience we’ll be providing them in the southeast…is intended not just for the individual benefit of the students, but also for their connecting with each other and remaining in contact should they pursue a museum professional track.”
The Souls Grown Deep program aims to support diversity throughout the entire art organization workforce, not just among curators. Anderson cited the impact of ongoing efforts such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s curatorial fellowship program for undergraduate students. A recent Mellon Foundation study found an increase in hiring of people of color for curatorial positions, but the study also found that 88 percent of people hired for leadership and conservation roles at U.S. museums between 2014 and 2018 were white.
Just as every sector of the art world can benefit from a more diverse intern cohort, prospective interns can benefit from the field’s incredible range of programs. “Museums desperately need talent in all sorts of positions—curators represent a fraction of the staff of museums,” Anderson said. “We’d be thrilled if an accountant emerges from [the Souls Grown Deep initiative] and finds their way into the museum profession, but they’re an accountant who has knowledge and experience in a particular cultural remit that otherwise they may not have.”
Excelling at interning
The resounding recommendation from people within galleries, institutions, and organizations is for prospective interns to do their research so they can be intentional with their applications. Before even picking individual places to apply, would-be interns can weigh the merits of different sectors, regions, areas, or scales. Internships are offered by global and regional museums, small nonprofits, major auction houses, galleries of every size, and artists at every career stage.
A spokesperson for Christie’s gave this advice: “Find something that is going to set you apart from the rest of the applicants. The pool of candidates that apply to all early careers here are tremendously competitive, we are always looking for something that is different than the rest.”
While some interns may thrive in the structured environment provided by a big museum or auction house—with supervisors, mentors, intern projects, and departmental specialization—others may relish the opportunity to try on several hats by applying to a smaller organization where they may be the only intern.
“Ask yourself if you are more comfortable working within a global gallery setting or if you enjoy a more intimate team.”
“When you’re at an organization like, say, Self Help Graphics & Art in East Los Angeles, and there’s a [small staff], in a way, you have an opportunity to work with and interact with all of the staff, which is really valuable,” Preciado said. “You get to do a little bit of everything, and you get a different kind of training than at a larger institution where there’s one person for one role.”
A spokesperson for Pace Gallery—which has 10 locations around the world, and typically hires 5 interns for the spring and fall semesters and 10–15 in the summer—concurred. “Ask yourself if you are more comfortable working within a global gallery setting or if you enjoy a more intimate team. Go to a few openings and see how they interact with visitors and what kind of mood they set for their staff.”
For prospective interns looking for hands-on experience with an artist’s practice, many individual artists offer internship opportunities, as do many leading artist residencies. Artpace, a San Antonio–based nonprofit, offers about 15 intern positions per year in several different departments, according to education coordinator Ashley Mireles. Those positions include studio interns, who “assist artists in the residency program with the production of new projects and may work with technical and studio staff to plan, install, and de-install artwork and exhibitions,” she said.
Irrespective of what specific role an intern may take, Mireles said a key component for any successful internship is clear communication. “The ability to self-identify qualities the intern would like to improve during their time” is essential, she said, “as well as being able to communicate how they believe their supervisor could help them meet their goals and expectations.”
There’s no efficient way to go about finding and applying for art-world internships—short of visiting the websites of individual organizations and artists—and there are relatively few centralized resources for finding opportunities. One popular resource is the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA)’s classified listings database, which features a range of paid and unpaid internships at organizations from the Museum of Modern Art to nonprofits like the Judd Foundation and galleries like Sperone Westwater.
NYFA monitors internship listings on its classifieds site to make sure they aren’t job listings in disguise. “NYFA requires that all internships that are listed on our board highlight the educational value to be gained by the intern,” said NYFA’s senior manager of advertising and data strategy, Molly Martin.
Another popular listings site, Jobs.art, has a strict policy against listing internships. “The ‘no internships’ policy is one way to promote fair pay for honest work,” said Clynton Lowry, the editor-in-chief of Art Handler, out of which Jobs.art was born. “Even if we were to list paid internships, it would still be impossible to make a living on an internship wage alone. ‘Paid’ internships rarely equate to a minimum wage, and we have a responsibility to both the employer and the job-seeker.”
While paid internships offer vastly different compensation across the art industry, SNAAP’s 2015 study confirmed that art students who’d had paid internships consistently found jobs more quickly following graduation. A full 89 percent of students who’d had a paid internship found work within a year of graduating, compared to 77 percent of students who had never been paid interns. Unsurprisingly, paid internships are the most competitive.
Last year, the Met’s paid summer internship programs received over 1,700 applications for 40 slots. “So many of the students in that 1,700 should have been here, but we just don’t have the money or resources,” explained Jackson-Dumont. For the ones who do get an internship, she said, “we tell them: not to stress you, but you need to make the most of this.”