Help Desk

Help Desk: Internship Woes

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is co-sponsored by

In general, blog writing is a tricky area in terms of authorship. I wrote the blog for a gallery for over six months without having my name attached. The blog did very well and was picked up on by a local magazine that asked the gallery owner to contribute a regular guest column for their publication. Unbeknownst to them, the blog was written by me, the intern. I proceeded to plan and outline the next six months of art-related subject matter with the pretext that I would be getting paid as my internship was completed. After the internship had ended, I wrote three posts for the gallery’s blog before the owner told me it was no longer in his budget.

I was never paid for those entries and my ideas continue to be used thereafter. As interns I realize that we must be willing to work without pay and cannot expect full agency in the work we do without a real job title. Still, I am wondering how you would suggest interns find a balance here? Where do we draw the line on our unpaid time and efforts while aspiring to get recognition for the work that we do?

Yoyoi Kusama, Dots Obsession, 1999. Mixed media, Collection Les Abattoirs,Toulouse

I talked to Jonathan Melber, the co-author of ART/WORK, about your dilemma. He had a few thoughts about your predicament: first, in terms of authorship of a blog, “If you write it, then it’s your intellectual property unless you’ve granted it to someone else in writing, for example in the blog owner’s terms of service or in a gallery’s employment agreement.” Second, “You can still ask to get proper credit for this work. Maybe you can get them to add a byline, or get permission to link to it, or to list it on your resume.” Mr. Melber recommended that you talk with the gallery owner to see if you can get credit for the blog; and, if you manage to obtain that acknowledgement, then talk to the editors at the magazine about retroactive credit there. He also pointed out, “Of course, you could threaten a lawsuit which might result in the gallerist having to take the blog entries down, but the repercussions are probably not worth it,” so think long and hard before you travel that route—lawsuits are ugly and expensive. If you have no luck with the gallery owner (and you didn’t hear it from me), there’s a blog called How’s My Dealing? where artists vent anonymously about how galleries have treated them. At least you’d have your revenge.

Beyond the problem of this particular gallery internship, let’s talk about working without pay and the notions of agency and effort, as you do in the second part of your letter. What is an internship for? Ideally, you receive on-the-job training (essentially, an education) and your employer receives a helping hand (of sorts). As with any educational or business agreement, there should be a contract that outlines responsibilities and expectations—for you both. Now, having said that—and acknowledging the massive imbalance of power in traditional internship situations—let me say that in the cases where no contract is forthcoming you should at least have a conversation about your role and the benefits that your work will have for both the company/gallery and your professional life. Take notes! Ask specific questions about the duties you will be asked to perform. Do interns ever fill in for a sick receptionist? Will you be expected to clean up after openings? And for what, if anything, can you expect to take credit when you leave? Put your cards on the table and expect your internship mentor to do the same. If you want training for the “real world” then this is definitely it, so don’t be shy.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life, 2011. Installation, Tate Britain

It’s important to point out that the popular idea of an internship—from the employer’s perspective, at least—wherein a bunch of lackeys fetch coffee and write blog posts and clean toilets for free, is actually against the law. For gallerists who want to take on interns, attorney Katy Carrier has some excellent advice at her Law for Creatives blog: “Interns can be a great asset to your business, but it’s important that you understand the restrictions and restraints imposed by the government on the hiring of interns. …[I]t is very hard for a for-profit employer to meet the requirements necessary to engage unpaid interns.” Or, as Jonathan Melber puts it, “If there is no pay, then it needs to be educational. An internship is not an end run around minimum wage.” While I agree that this can be hard on both small business owners and hopeful future interns (and me: I was looking forward to finding some unpaid winged monkeys to do my evil bidding in 2013), the fact remains that the federal government defines unpaid internships in part on the premise that, “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainee, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.” In short, if your work as an unpaid intern is of material benefit to the company, then it’s probably not a legal internship. Whoops! That sound you hear is my winged monkeys flying away.

Of course, the legalities of internships mean very little to both the employers who derive major benefits from unpaid labor and to entry-level workers who hope to gain experience and contacts that will help them with their careers. The best you can hope for if you stay on this path, it seems, is to intern with someone who won’t take advantage of you too much, which is perhaps the saddest advice that I have yet typed for this column.

There’s some further reading for both future interns and their potential mentors here:
At the Stanford Fair Use Center: Copyright Ownership: Who Owns What?

At The Law For Creatives blog: Do You Own the Rights to Works Created by Your Workers?

An excerpt from the 2012 book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

At the New York Times: Former Intern Sues Hearst Over Unpaid Work and Hopes to Create a Class Action

At The Atlantic: Unpaid Internships: Bad for Students, Bad for Workers, Bad for Society

Good luck!