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Occupy Unpaid Internships! An Open Letter to NYFA

By Ariel Greenberg
Every day, budding arts professionals scour job classifieds websites and postings in search of internship opportunities in galleries, museums, theaters, and art organizations. We all have to start somewhere, and many prestigious institutions offer internships to students and new job-seekers lacking the background required for paid positions. These internships provide important experience that ultimately leads to a job–not to mention an impressive name to add to a developing resume. But many art world internships are unpaid, begging the question: where is the line between an inexperienced worker gaining skills and connections at a prestigious institution, and a prestigious institution exploiting an inexperienced worker for free labor?
The New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) has come under fire for posting unpaid internships on their website. In a recently published open letter, Arts and Labor—an affiliate of the Occupy Wall Street movement—criticized the inequity of the unpaid internship in the art world, condemned NYFA for publishing unpaid internships at for-profit arts organizations, and demanded an end to the practice. Founded in conjunction with the New York General Assembly, Arts and Labor is comprised of artists, writers, designers, and other arts professionals whose mission is to address and rectify economic inequalities and exploitative working conditions in the arts through direct action and educational initiatives.Unpaid internships in the art world raise many important concerns, which the letter highlights. For example, while presumptively based on the historical apprenticeship model, unpaid internships today often do not provide the concrete skills and hands-on learning component of apprenticeship. Arts and Labor calls attention to the fact that in April, the US Department of Labor released a memo that outlined certain requirements for unpaid internships to avoid being exploitative, which many organizations do not follow. The group also point out that few people can afford to take an unpaid internship, which reinforces the social and economic divide in the art world.

However, the Arts and Labor’s letter glosses over relevant facts about unpaid internships. Many arts organizations simply do not have the funds for paid internships, and giving young professionals experience they need while they support the staff’s work can be a worthwhile trade for both the intern and institution. Unpaid internships are also frequently offered for school credit or on a part-time basis, so that interns can find other sources of income. Arts and Labor also targets only for-profit art and cultural institutions, and there are many not-for-profit and public institutions with equally exploitative labor practices. It should also be noted that NYFA does important work helping artists and arts professionals, such as offering direct financial assistance, professional development, and resources to artists and organizations that serve artists, as well as supporting arts educational programs and advocating for the arts in New York State and throughout the country.
The unpaid internship can provide precious opportunities to learn and gain practical knowledge, or it can exploit the enthusiasm and inexperience of interns hoping to break into a highly competitive field. The model may need some refurbishing, but there is still value in an internship that mentors and educates interns. It is for the art world to think about how to nurture the new generation of arts professionals, so that (in the words of Arts and Labor), “pursuing one’s passion and affiliating oneself with a culturally prestigious entity [does not become] a socially sanctioned rationalization for highly precarious working conditions.”