The value of working for free in the arts

Public Programs office at the Brooklyn Museum / Photo: Meg Slater

Words by Meg Slater

A few weeks ago, I started my fifth internship in the arts. Until mid-May, I will be helping out in the Exhibitions and Curatorial departments at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Nailing down an internship in America was a particularly difficult and drawn out process. I spent one month researching and selecting galleries and museums that offer valuable internship programs to recent graduates, two months writing (and rewriting) my applications, and three months waiting patiently for answers from seven different institutions. Once I’d been offered and accepted a spot in the Brooklyn Museum’s spring 2017 internship program, it was all systems go. I began the lengthy (and expensive) visa application process, and was in a constant state of panic until I received my passport in the mail two days before I left Australia.

Throughout the application process, I would reflect on the amount that I had invested, both mentally and financially, into offering my services for free for the past five years. Then I would get pissed off and ask myself why I was going to all of this trouble just for another stint of unpaid work. Then I would immediately feel guilty, because I have gained a great deal from my experiences as an intern. I am also well aware that having the opportunity to work at a progressive and insightful institution like the Brooklyn Museum is a privilege, one that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

I’ve only been at the Museum for a little over a month, but I already know that all of the effort that I invested in coordinating the placement was worth it. I have never seen so many passionate people come together to produce socially and politically relevant exhibitions and public programs with such limited financial resources. Despite frequent cuts to arts funding by the US government, the Museum’s exhibition schedule and roster of public programs continue to reflect and strengthen its mission statement, which is far less common than you would think in this industry. This kind of output requires unwavering dedication and constant innovation, and makes for interesting work as an intern. My supervisors are assigning me projects that I have not encountered before, and take the time to explain their decision-making and answer my questions. They also thank me for my input regularly, and provide a great deal of constructive feedback.

In summary, I am developing new skills, continually learning, and being acknowledged for my efforts. For me, these three benefits make an internship worthwhile. It may seem simple and straightforward, but if these qualities are lacking, which they often are, you begin to seriously doubt your ability and worth. It has taken me a long time to understand the negative psychological impact of a shitty internship, and even longer to devise a set of criteria to judge whether or not an internship is valuable. So to save yourself a lot of unnecessary worrying, I recommend that you try to select internships using this framework. While it is almost impossible to avoid doing some unpaid work in this industry, I believe you can make the most of it by choosing to offer your time to institutions that make an effort to show their appreciation for your contribution.