Perspectives: Paid versus Unpaid Museum Internships

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education & Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Should art museums pay their interns? This question has bounced around museum forums, conferences, seminars, and Facebook groups on and off for the past decade. In the last year, the Board of Trustees of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) answered the burning question with the following resolution:

Whereas, internships provide critical opportunities for students considering careers in art museums, as well as experience necessary for entering the workforce; and

Whereas, paid internships are essential to increasing access and equity for the museum professions;

Now, therefore, the Board of Trustees of the AAMD:

Recommends, that art museums should pay interns, except in special circumstances* justifying such an argument.

*Special circumstances referring to students who receive academic credit in lieu of monetary compensation, as often college students are not permitted a stipend or payment when also receiving college credit.

Many smaller institutions and those with limited revenues issued rebuttals about how to fund these internships and if it is the proper use of grants and donations, which often come with strings attached. Other institutions, however, have openly embraced moving to paid internships and readily worked it into fiscal year budgets. To understand the arguments for and against providing paid internships, Alyssa Dumire, FWMoA Director of Children’s Education and Katy Thompson, FWMoA Children’s Education Associate have each taken a side (whether or not it represents their personal views or those of our institution) to help unpack the arguments at present.


For Paying Interns: Katy Thompson

As gateways into an extremely competitive field, providing paid internships ensures an equitable and inclusive museum community, promotes and sustains the diversification and accessibility of museums and their public programming, and sets a precedent for fair wages.

Not to be confused with volunteers who freely offer to take part in a specific task, like FWMoA Docents who guide school tours, and donate their time expecting no compensation; interns are trainees gaining work experience in a specific field to build their network and career. They are often responsible for various projects within the institution and, for smaller institutions in particular, may even replace entry-level jobs. If they are replacing entry-level jobs their base, or starting pay, of $0.00 sets a precedent for lower wages for full-time staff. Last year, Arts & Museum Salary was started in an effort to promote transparency and help employers and employees offer and accept salaries commensurate to experience and living wages. The $0 entries of unpaid interns on the document helped bring the issue-at -hand back to the forefront of discussion.

Separated from the medieval concept of apprenticeships, where the apprentice lived with and paid the master to learn a trade and eventually join a guild, the word intern is traced back to the medical field as a person with a degree but not a license to practice. Apprentices were training and learning specialized skills, while an intern already meets certain criteria before entering their “field experience”. A volunteer does not need to have special skills to fulfill their role, as they receive training on-site. As it is generally agreed that specialized skills necessitate compensation, it holds that interns receive compensation.

Connected to this is the catch-22 of the 21st century: You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. Unpaid internships exclude those from a lower socioeconomic status who cannot afford to not be paid and perpetuates the cycle of restricting access to the museum field. This, in turn, maintains the lack of diversification in museum staff. When stuck within the loop of that experience catch-22, your way out may be found in the people you know. This also maintains exclusionary practices, however, as it naturally narrows the circle of opportunity. The inherent privilege involved in “knowing the right people”, and the utilization of them, contributes to an economy that favors people who already have favor. Those who need the internship the most, to curry those connections, are those who are not even able to apply. If this practice continues, the economics of unpaid internships will preserve the lack of diversification in museums.

A paid internship, therefore, allows museums to select the most skilled interns and ensures they are compensated for their skills and time. This can have another effect, as the intern is felt valued and respected, and, in turn, is more likely to perform well. Often, however, internships that are done for college credit cannot receive monetary compensation. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by both colleges and their museum partner. Depending on how one defines compensation, receiving credit may fulfill that criteria. Students, however, have pointed out that they are already paying to take the class, so receiving payment could cover the expense of that class.

There is an argument that one does not have to complete an internship to find a job. The 21st century catch-22 described earlier negates that, as does a NACE Center study from 2017 which found that the more internships students complete the higher their likelihood of securing full-time employment. Furthermore, internships provide students with insights into their future careers as they can help isolate what departments they want to pursue and curate a network that supplies referrals, recommendations, and mentorships. An internship on a resume is a signal to a potential employer that the applicant has acquired work skills and demonstrates that they are worth hiring. Multiple internships can show dedication to the field, as burnout and turnover in museums is currently high; perhaps due to low wages set by the precedent of unpaid internships? As the field continues to become saturated with college-educated candidates, the internship will rise in importance in its role providing a “foot-in-the-door”.  

It would be remiss not to note that art museums are often non-profits, relying on endowments and grants to function. Grants can, however, cover the expenses of hiring interns. Here in Fort Wayne, Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne awards grants for paid internships, thanks to a grant from the Lincoln Financial Foundation, through its Nonprofit Arts Internship Initiative (NAII). Work-study, through college partnerships, could take on the expenses of interns as well. Donors could offer to give money to an internship fund or internship program with their name on it. Currently, most museums do not work intern funding into their yearly budget, and this could solve the problem all together if an allocation of funds was set aside for a specific number of interns each fiscal year.

Ultimately, the shift from unpaid to paid internships will come slowly, as museums are institutions bound by budgetary requirements. The payoff of paid internships, however, will be in the diversified talent pool that ensures both equitable and inclusive museum communities and programming, helping museums to better meet their missions.

For Unpaid Internships: Alyssa Dumire

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” When did you know the answer to that question? For me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, the response changed quite frequently and still does (I’m 30 and I’ve circled back to “astronaut”). More importantly, how did you know what career to choose and whether that path was the best fit for you? Internships, whether paid or unpaid, are often the answer; and, in the highly competitive museum world, it can be easier to nab an unpaid position to gain that all-important foot in the door.

Inclusivity and transparency are major issues in today’s museum world; as such, one cannot argue that interns should never be paid but that, on the scale of resume-building experiences for those interested in museum work, unpaid internships do have a place. As of January 2018, the Department of Labor implemented a “primary beneficiary” test to determine whether interns at for-profit institutions need to be paid. According to the test, employers should consider a number of factors: whether their training resembles that of an educational environment, the extent to which the intern’s work complements rather than displaces that of paid employees, providing educational benefits to the intern, and whether the intern is receiving academic credit (which often precludes monetary compensation). Although this guideline applies by law only to for-profits, it can provide a parameter for our discussions in the nonprofit arena. The primary beneficiary test is intentionally flexible and a bit fuzzy, but think of it as a continuum in increasing order of time commitment, required experience, flexibility, responsibility, and pay: volunteer > unpaid intern > paid intern > full-time employee.

There is the argument that interns bring some specialized skills to their roles, but for many, while they may have some background knowledge from college courses, an internship is a first practical foray into their chosen field. A paycheck signifies a level of pressure and responsibility that not all interns are ready for. What if you find that the field in which you’re interning is not for you? Unpaid internships are often more flexible and exploratory, rather than structured around necessary work. Many large museums offer both kinds of positions: paid interns are typically required to meet tougher qualifications, work more hours, and be responsible for the completion of a set project; while unpaid interns, who may or may not be assigned to a certain department, don’t have to commit as much time and are often students who are earlier in their studies and considering a future in museums. That distinction is key—an unpaid intern cannot do the same work as someone receiving monetary compensation.

The longstanding argument for unpaid internships is that compensation comes in many forms beyond monetary. Some universities only allow their students to receive compensation for internships in the form of academic credit. Paid or unpaid, internships are great resume-builders, garnering important connections, references, and letters of recommendation on top of a few months of experience. Paid internships are highly competitive and, in a world where even entry-level full-time positions require experience, unpaid work can provide that.

From an employer’s perspective, there are a number of arguments beyond interns being free labor (which, to be clear, should not be the case in any circumstance). Unpaid experiences can help weed out the “riff raff”—if someone is willing to work for free, they prove they want to be there and show their commitment to the field by taking their role seriously. One could also argue that, by offering internships, a company has already devoted ample resources to their cause. The management of interns, done right, requires a significant time commitment from their supervisors. Ensuring an educational experience by preparing readings and training opportunities is not terribly unlike teaching a course and displaces already full workloads.

Admittedly, the argument for unpaid internships has a glaring hole: do all employers actually follow these guidelines for distinguishing paid and unpaid roles? Would this conversation be necessary if they did? The answer, unfortunately, is no. Prospective unpaid interns and their potential worksites must be honest and open about their intentions and expectations, discussing questions around the amount of hours expected, what training will be provided, and the general workload and responsibilities. Unpaid internships are not for someone who already knows what they want to do and have experience in that area, but they are for those who are truly just testing the waters, and those distinctions must be clear on all fronts.

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