Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Guest Post: A Shared Ethics for Museum Internships

Is your museum running on interns? In this guest post, CUNY lecturer and former manager of the Guggenheim Internship program Michelle Millar Fisher makes a passionate argument for the end of unpaid internships. It is a strong, museum-focused complement to an excellent three-parter on Fractured Atlas about the ethics and future of unpaid arts internships. 

One of the most poignant signs I saw waved during the Occupy Movement was held by a young woman who politely advised The System to "F**k your free internships." Free intern labor wasn't ever right, but it has become glaringly unethical in the current post-Lehman-crash era. That protest placard highlighted the unpaid internship as a simultaneous symptom and result of badly broken political and social systems.

If you're reading this at work, you're probably reading it within ten feet of an unpaid intern. It's probably a path you had to navigate too. There's a sense of "it worked for me...." And it does - it did work for me. I got my first real job in a museum (at the Guggenheim) after a life-changing internship. My supervisor was amazing, caring, and supportive. I worked so hard in those three unpaid months that I made myself indispensable and jumped ship from my home country (Scotland) and came to New York. My whole career path has been positively changed by that one internship experience.

However, my experience was an exception to the rule that internships increasingly prove: free labor contributes to the growing inequities of the non-profit labor system. Issues of class and economic status haunt the museum internship. You have to be able to afford to work for free in order to take an internship that will help you onto the career ladder. There are certainly excellent programs that try to circumvent this stereotype, and there are stipends to be had in some museums, but they are far from the norm.

My experience was exceptional for one simple reason: my internship at the Guggenheim was the only unpaid internship I ever did. It was the only one I could afford to do. It was made possible by a small, unexpected windfall. If I hadn't had the windfall, it's highly unlikely that as a first-gen college attendee I would have been exposed to the other opportunities it afforded me. (I have somewhat of a "control" in this social experiment in that my talented sister has plied a similar path to me, but was unable to afford the opportunity of one unpaid internship at a museum. Even though she worked just as hard as I did, it took her five years longer to get her foot on the arts employment ladder than it did for me.)

I have done my very fair share of perpetuating the cycle of unpaid internships. As an Associate Manager of Education, I coordinated internships at the Guggenheim museum for four years before I headed back to academia. I expanded the program from around seventy-five interns per year to over one hundred and thirty in almost every department of the museum. I loved my job, and I think many of the interns had amazing experiences at the museum because we tried to take care of them, introduce them to arts networks through a rich weekly seminar program, and encouraged supervisors to be the best mentors they could. But now, as I counsel my university students, I feel it unethical to recommend the same path I took. I have taken a firm stand. I will not forward unpaid internship postings that come my way and actively respond to the senders, even when I know them well as colleagues: “This is not ethical!”

Is unpaid participation in the life and operations of a museum always a bad thing? No. Are the worst offenders larger museums who know they can get away with asking people to work for free? Yes. Is it unethical to ask college juniors and seniors, graduate students, and recently qualified degree holders to undertake multiple free internships? Absolutely. Making small changes and offering some kind of basic compensation for interns in the arts would benefit us all. If the lowest wage on the ladder is zero, entry-level wages don't have to be much higher, and this affects the whole pay scale for the majority of those who work in non-director positions.

Would some form of universal museum internship standard mitigate this? How about a national Museum Internship Ethics Charter that would make three core promises to any museum intern:
  1. a stipend 
  2. a clear written statement of expectations given at the beginning of their internship 
  3. a final face-to-face evaluation with the internship mentor at the end of the internship 
I'm constantly surprised at how many students I speak with, even those who are working for college credit where this is meant to be regulated, do not receive any of these three components. A shared ethics on the subject of internships means a shared ethics for human resources in museum more generally. This type of shared ethics can only be a positive thing for both individuals at all levels, and the institution - and thus its visitors. Happy employees (yes, even interns!) mean greater productivity, creativity, and accountability.

 The students I teach in undergrad classrooms in New York are about a decade younger than me. They're the Internship Generation. The more I am faced with their predicament when they ask me about how to balance work experience that won't pay them with study and (especially at the city college where I teach) the jobs that are paying their tuition, or to write them letters of recommendation for unpaid labor, the more uncomfortable I have become.

How could we all better address this issue? Could museum managers agree to hire interns who need the work experience rather than those with a resume already the length of the Nile? Could they agree to put aside a small part of their yearly budget to compensate interns in some way? Could university instructors (especially those with tenure and a voice) steer their interns in the direction of paid opportunities, and campaign within their own departments to end the cycle of internships for credit? Could we all agree to a universal standard under the auspices of a body like the AAM? Are there already internship models out there that do this that we could learn from and offer as examples?

I'm truly interested in any discussion and feedback on this topic, and taking sustained action. I want to do better for my students, and to participate in the rethinking of a broken model I have helped to perpetuate.

What's your vision for the future of internships? Share your thoughts with Michelle and the Museum 2.0 community in the comments.
blog comments powered by Disqus