Arts feature

Arts administration: Questions of privilege

The rights and wrongs of internships for those who are seeking a first job have been hotly debated in the press recently, and nowhere more so than with reference to young people who hope to make a career in arts and music administration.

18 December 2010

The rights and wrongs of internships for those who are seeking a first job have been hotly debated in the press recently, and nowhere more so than with reference to young people who hope to make a career in arts and music administration. But the principles remain the same whatever the discipline: is it legal for an organisation to employ people who are usually given a stipulated job when they become an intern, and not to pay them; and is it acceptable that these opportunities tend to go to young people who are already rich enough (through parental support or earnings from a gap year many cannot afford to take in the first place) to underwrite the costs of living while earning nothing?

The argument in favour runs along these lines: there are so many applicants for jobs these days that it has become necessary for employers, in order to make a decision, to have more evidence of how suitable the candidate is for the position on offer. Since the candidate is in an unprecedentedly weak position — assuming it is true that numbers have indeed gone up — it has not been difficult for employers to call all the shots; and those shots are fired in the context of a credit crunch when businesses are thought to be poorer than they were. Add to this the fact that jobs in arts administration have never been thick on the ground and tend to be financed out of the public purse, which is shrinking, and you will understand that young people with a sense of vocation for the arts will do almost anything they are told to get on to that career ladder.

An internship is not the same thing as an old-fashioned apprenticeship, or what is still called work experience. An apprentice was someone who was taken on by a firm, or an individual in a trade, with the specific intention of training him or her to become qualified, in return for which the student would receive board and lodging. In other words, a commitment was made by the employer to see the process through from the beginning.


Work experience is usually undertaken by students on a course, where the experience will contribute to the final degree. In this case no money needs to change hands since the arrangement is well defined: the business is doing something charitable for a small return and the student’s costs are covered by his course. Compared with these the intern system is palpably, one might say desperately, one-sided. The business can make use of the intern, forever brandishing the carrot of future employment, without any cost to itself or obligation to the student whatsoever.

And what of the charge of élitism? Is it true that only the already well-off can afford to indulge in these internships, meaning that poorer students are pushed yet further down a hierarchy they were anyway going to have to struggle against to find a position? Well, the Jerwood Charitable Foundation has clearly thought so.

Here is what it says on its website:

The Scheme, which springboards talented young graduates into their careers in the arts, focuses on offering opportunities for individuals from less affluent backgrounds who are least able to support themselves throug unpaid internships, work experience or training…Running initially as a pilot programme across a two-year period until March 2012, there will be 40 bursary places in this initial stage. Successful candidates receive a bursary of £15,000 per annum pro rata. Alongside this support, bursary recipients are assigned a mentor and encouraged to take part in structured networking opportunities throughout their placement. The scheme also offers financial support to host organisations taking on a placement.

This sounds excellent, until one realises that these 40 people are going to be in the most privileged position of all. Students whose parents earn too much for them to qualify for Jerwood’s scheme, but who might have a real problem finding another 15 grand seconds after having financed all the rest of their loved one’s education, are clearly at a disadvantage. Few self-financing youngsters are going to be able to afford to be an intern for a whole year, and, if the logic is that experience means employability, then those who have done it longest will get the jobs.

I have yet to discover where this word ‘intern’ came from. I suppose it has only a nominal connection with ‘internment’ — or the incarceration of enemy aliens? But however businesses react to having students tripping them up all day in their offices, there is no escaping the fact that they are getting something for nothing. It would be a lot fairer all round if they had to pay something towards this process. The minimum wage could be quoted.

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