On Internships and Equity: What Actions Can We Take? 

Authored by the AHTR Weekly Editors, parts of this article are excerpted with permission from the previously published op-ed on unpaid internships written by Art + Museum Transparency for ArtNews

It’s nearing the season when students of all ages and stages are thinking about applying for summer internships (application cycles start early). We want to amplify a conversation we know is already on many of the minds and lips of many who read AHTR Weekly: how do we responsibly counsel students–often in significant debt for tuition–about unpaid internships? And by counsel, we mean two things: how do we navigate conversations about the ethics of unpaid work with our students, colleagues, and with the institutions who offer them (our opinion at AHTR: unpaid internships are unethical, and we should not support this practice) and how do we mentor students during their internship experiences? 

The answer is both simple and complex. The simple part: if we are all in agreement that the field of art history and the professional roles in which art historical skills are eventually applied, should be committed to diversity, access, and inclusion, then we cannot advocate for students to undertake unpaid work. Unpaid work can only be undertaken by those with existing privilege. The more complex issue is how to break the paradigm of unpaid work in the visual and cultural sector without putting students at a disadvantage. 

One of our co-founders, Michelle Millar Fisher, is also a co-founder of Art + Museum Transparency, the collective of art workers that created the Salary Transparency Spreadsheet in May 2019. The project has to date gathered over 3,300 art world salaries and precipitated major and ongoing changes in pay conversations and compensation for individuals and groups. The work of Art + Museum Transparency is part of a wider art world activism that includes waves of unionization, protest about compromised board members, lawsuits over workplace harassment and discrimination, and calls for mission statements around equity and inclusion to be backed up by concrete change in workplace policies. 

As Art + Museum Transparency stated in their op-ed, “the most difficult numbers to read on the Salary Transparency Spreadsheet were the zeros entered by people working for free.” This is why they went on to publish a spreadsheet crowdsourcing responses from current and recent interns in the art word. Published in July 2019, it makes for some harrowing–if not wholly unsurprising–reading. Per their article, “If the base salary in arts fields is $0, then it’s no wonder that the next step up is not much higher. We know what working for free does to the chances of truly diversifying or addressing equity within any intersection of art and museum labor. And yet many of us still support unpaid internships, implicitly and explicitly. Unpaid labor is never truly free. It foists costs onto others, including interns themselves, and ultimately suppresses wages all the way up the pay scale. The elimination of unpaid labor is a necessary first step toward real and lasting change.”

Here’s the Unpaid Internships survey form, and here’s the results spreadsheet. They’re still open until Dec 31, 2019 (after which the data will be crunched) and so if you are a current intern, or someone who has worked as an intern in the last three years in an arts or museum organization anywhere in the world, or if you teach current/former interns in your classes, please fill out the form. (Anonymize your information as needed—be safe, be comfortable.) 


AMT are not alone in this highlighting the issues with unpaid internships in arts and museums, nor are they the first to call attention to it. Indeed, in June 2019, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) called for an end to unpaid internships. As Jill Medvedow, the director of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the chair of the AAMD’s Professional Issues Committee, said, “It is obvious that unpaid internships are only available to those who have the means to work without pay. This has been a long-standing practice, but it still needed to be articulated out loud as a first step toward change.”

One significant element that the AAMD resolution clearly wrestles with is one many art history instructors worry about too: for credit internships. The AAMD resolution allows for unpaid internships in “special circumstances,” including programs that allow students to receive college credit instead of wages. According to the AAMD, “many American schools do not allow students to receive both credit and pay for internships simultaneously.” As AMT wrote in their ArtNews article this summer, this is a key example of the complex, interlocking systems that contribute to inequity in our field. Instead of allowing university systems to extract course credit payments from students, who then pay to work for free in art institutions, we need to stand firm. We can’t dismiss working for credit as “not our battle.” AMT contends–and we agree–that we cannot accept any form of unpaid labor in our organizations. This compounds the very inequalities that the otherwise excellent AAMD proposal seeks to dismantle.

How though do we face this issue with our students, who are hungry for experience that will set them up for jobs when they graduate?


This last question is at the crux of the issues with internships in many academic departments. Little guidance is given to students on how to apply or where to apply, and there is often little follow-up regarding the Learning Objectives of an internship (which means that they’re rarely enforced or supported). One of the AHTR editors recalls that when she was hired into a CUNY school roughly ten years ago, there was discussion as to whether a paid internship could count toward the graduation requirement, as if getting paid negated any experience the student would gain. While the larger implications of unpaid labour were not addressed, she recalls that students were eventually permitted to register for an internship that paid them a wage — even though in many cases it was not a living one. As the CUNY case study professor states: “I teach in the Fine and Performing Arts Department. As an art historian I share space with the theater, graphics, photography, and arts administration departments. There is a wide disparity in how each of these disciplines addresses the required internship, which is a school-wide requirement. My goal is to model the requirements and guidance provided by the graphic arts faculty, which require weekly check-ins, discussions, and an extensive papertrail of the internship experience culminating in a presentation at the close of the semester.”

The careful structuring and scaffolding of experience is as important as being correctly compensated for work (whether internship or any other employment role!). In many of the cases we have seen ourselves or read about on the Internship Spreadsheet, students are provided little in the way of institutionalized programming within the internship requirement. A clearly defined relationship between the internship, coursework, and individual student goals post-graduation can be sorely lacking. Some students end up at internship sites that have little to no connection to their major. Many students in art history or arts administration who enroll in an internship in order to meet the requirements of the ad-hoc art history major and minor are only required to turn in a short summary of their experience at the end of their semester. The advisor at the internship site fills out a short questionnaire. And then a grade is assigned. There is little to no faculty/student mentorship during the semester even though the faculty member who assigned the final grade for the internship holds the title of mentor. For students, an internship can become (a very expensive) something to check off of their list or requirements rather than a meaningful professional experience.

There are bright spots. In Fall 2016, CUNY launched a program to support undergraduate internships. Partnered with New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and The Rockefeller Foundation, the CUNY Cultural Corps creates opportunities for CUNY students to work in NYC’s cultural sector. The CUNY Cultural Corps is modeled after the CUNY Service Corps, which provides hundreds of CUNY students with paid work experience in civic-oriented jobs in community-based organizations and government agencies. This internship program was created as a response to a report released by the Department of Cultural Affairs that highlighted a lack of diversity in NYC cultural institutions. The program responds to a need to provide financial support for students in internships, but it does so solely through the lens of diversity — which is to be lauded as the lack of diversity in cultural institutions is profound — rather than addressing the ethical issues surrounding internships in general, as well as issues surrounding the pedagogy of internships. However, progress is made in increments. One our AHTR Editors serves on the Board of Advisors for the CUNY Cultural Corps/Department of Cultural Affairs and will advocate for these changes from within. 


In terms of concrete actions that can be taken within academia and the wider art world, AMT offered the following set of guidelines and provocations: to effect change. Which action(s) can you take?

  1. Submit your own recent internship experience to the internship transparency spreadsheet, or share the link with current or recent interns you know. Knowledge is power, and data-sharing can effect change.
  2. Don’t repost listings for unpaid internships. This includes internships that allow participants to receive college credit. We all know that means students are paying their institutions thousands of dollars to work for free.
  3. If you work in an arts or cultural institution, don’t benefit from unpaid labor by managing or working alongside unpaid interns. Just say no. Refuse to participate in using the labor of unpaid interns. Do not agree to take unpaid interns in your department. Do not agree to manage them. No matter how good a manager you are, unpaid labor hurts the person undertaking it, along with everyone overseeing them.
  4. (We’d like to add to the AMT proposal) If you are an art history instructor, make this conversation transparent in your classrooms. Bring in speakers to your classes or pair your students with mentors who are sensitive to this issue. Campaign at your school to end for-credit internships or work around this requirement wherever you can. 
  5. Pay it forward. If you make enough money, consider donating a percentage of your income to fully or partially fund a needs-based internship, either at your own institution, or via an external program, until our institutions step up.
  6. Educate yourself and others on the importance of this conversation for our field. We encourage you to cite the 2018 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation report “Interrogating Institutional Practices in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” which identifies unpaid internships as “functionally exclud[ing] populations that are unable to work for free” and calls on museums to “pay all interns.” Makeba Clay, chief diversity officer at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has written on the “power of a paid internship.” WLike AMT, we subscribe to the Fair Museum Jobs UK Manifesto on Internships, which makes a clear and useful distinction between interns and volunteers. We add to their excellent recommendations that:

— Internships should have an exit reflection between manager and intern to take away key learning outcomes on both sides, and they should be carefully and thoroughly mentored by the supervising faculty, too.

— It is not ethical or adequate to change internships to “volunteer” positions to avoid meeting the above standards.

As art historians, we have an ethical duty to foreground this issue of how people enter the cultural field, and the current barriers to access–and then we have the moral imperative to make change in support of our students and the field at large. 

Resources for further in-class reading with your students: 

Pavithra Mohan, “The Intern Economy: How Unpaid Internships Hurt All Workers and Worsen Income Inequality,” in Fast Company, August 21, 2019


Museopunks Episode 37: Experience doesn’t pay the rent, Posted on Aug 8, 2019

Rachel Kubrick, “A Conversation With Michelle Millar Fisher Of Art + Museum Transparency,” in Squinch, Sept 16, 2019


Hakim Bishara, “The Growing Tide Against Unpaid Internships,” in Hyperallergic, July 16, 2019



Sarah Cascone, “Culture Workers, Just Say No to All Unpaid Internships,” in ArtNet, July 16, 2019

Michelle Millar Fisher, “A Shared Ethics for Museum Internships,” in Museum 2.0, December 2013


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