To Pay or not to Pay? Why is the Question of Paying Interns in the Art Sector a controversial one?

An interesting debate has started recently on the topic of paid internships in the art world. Of course it’s a debate that has been going on for a while in other sectors too, not least a few years ago in the centre of our democracy Parliament itself.

Art Map London, the free listings site, started the debate last month when editor Jenny Judova posted a few internship opportunities online and received a mixed bag of responses. Those opportunities were generally speaking modest research roles but still included the sort of tasks which could provide real experience.

So why the commotion? The job posting according to Judova prompted a flurry of responses from “confusion, to backhanded compliments, to cheers and salutations”. Many friends and aquaintences in the art sector were she says “surprised and could not get their head around the concept of ‘paying an intern’”.

Jenny Judova has received a mixed response to paying for internships

Jenny Judova has received a mixed response to paying for internships

So why is that, what is it about the art sector which expects people to work for free? In an open letter on Art Map London, Judova explains some of the reactions she received being described as a youthful idealist by one acquaintance because of this offer to pay for work. “I found these reactions upsetting” says Jenny in the letter. “How desperate are people in creative businesses for paid entry level positions that even a modest salary is met with applause. Moreover, how threatened are other creative/art businesses that even the smallest gesture of good will got a nasty reaction. And how bizarre is it that I was called crazy or saluted just because I decided that I will pay my employees”

We have some mixed opinions about the subject here on Inspiring City. Without doubt there is a need for these types of role to provide the sort of experience people need to fill up their CV and show that they’ve got what it takes to do the job. Many employers look for relevant experience prior to hiring so things like internships and work experience opportunities are a valuable gift indeed.

A government scheme at the moment known as ‘Traineeships‘ aims to tackle this very problem. Attempting to address face on the problem of youth unemployment, the programme takes young people and builds employability skills through a six week programme during which expenses are received and crucially the job seeking benefits they receive remain in place. Following the training, a work experience placement is sourced which provides real life experience in the work environment which would not have been received otherwise. Not everyone gets a job, but a good proportion do and for those who don’t, the experience could prove invaluable.

Art Map London have been hiring

Art Map London have been hiring

In my view it comes down to what the structure of the internship is and what it offers. As part of a course of further education these exist already and they are not eligible for the national minimum wage so long as the internship does not last over one year. As these are generally packaged as an integral part of a learning framework then this is as it should be but ethically should the business receiving the intern pay if they can? I would say absolutely yes but if doing so would prevent the internship from happening then would I support an unpaid internship in these circumstances, yes I think I would.

Internships offer a different status outside of a learning environment namely if the job that they are doing classes them legally as a ‘worker’. To be classed as such there are several conditions which can be found on gov.uk but some of the key points being ‘they have to turn up for work even if they don’t want to’ and ‘they aren’t doing the work as part of their own limited company in an arrangement where the ‘employer’ is actually a customer or client’. Crucially if there is any promise of future work then the person is classed as a worker.

Back to the open letter and Judova also issues an interesting observation on what the nature of appropriate paid work is. Having recently successfully raised money through crowdsourcing site Kickstarter the plan was to fund the development of a new and improved website. That work was to be carried out by a developer who was to be paid for that work with the money raised. “Why on earth do we think that paying a web developer is normal and paying an employee with an art degree is an anomaly that goes against the status quo?” says Judova. She has a point!

Jenny on Chance Street as she raised money for her Kickstarter campaign

Jenny on Chance Street as she raised money for her Kickstarter campaign

Offering work for a fair wage in order to fill a particular role or position no matter what the time period is just the right thing to do. Putting a bow on the job, calling it an internship and then expecting to get away with paying nothing is not. Maybe it’s the term internship which is the issue here. Is the term itself prompting employers to think that there is a lesser standard in terms of pay expectations?

Work experience and internships done correctly and set within a real learning framework are vital for the career chances of many people wishing to work in the arts sector and elsewhere. To be truly effective they need to involve real experience of the job role, on the job coaching and even the provision of a mentoring relationship if that’s possible.

Too many young people struggle to get work because they don’t have the experience. Employers can give this by providing an environment in which learning is expected and encouraged and in which the employee is given meaningful tasks. There’s a statistic that gets bandied around quite a lot at the moment when it comes to how people learn, 10% is through formal training, 20% through developmental relationships and 70% through challenging assignments (or work in other words). All three are needed to create a healthy learning environment but that 70% is crucial, it’s learning by doing and that’s why work opportunities no matter how they are badged, work experience or internships, are so important.

This article is in response to the open letter on internships issued by Jenny Judova from Art Map London. The letter entitled ‘If art is work then why arn’t we paid?‘ was issued on 1 November 2014 also contains a list of 8 reasons to hire an intern which is well worth a read.

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