Art Internships: A Strategy Guide
Internships have not always had the best reputation. Often compared to exploitation, grunt work and “free labor”, these assumptions have resulted in a dramatic drop-off in interest over the last few years. However, the rightful rejection of the worst examples could also be preventing access to a wider array of opportunities for both students and artists alike.
In the last decade internships have evolved, offering more than just memorizing coffee orders and filing cabinets. Interned work can result in a better opportunity and give you a stronger resume in a wildly competitive job market. The ability to learn skills in a work environment while receiving professional development is something that very few alternatives offer outside of landing a job right out of college or taking up an apprenticeship.
The best way to approach an internship is with confidence and curiosity about what the potential benefits can be had from such an opportunity. Hopefully this article can serve as a primer on not just what an internship is, but how to determine if an internship is best for you!
What exactly IS an internship?
Internships in any field will vary depending on a number of characteristics: The type of work, the level of labor involved, the company hosting, and the amount of benefits provided vary greatly across the internship spectrum. However, there are a specific set of legal parameters that determine what an internship is and SHOULD be.
Internship in the eyes of the law:
The Six Criteria according to the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division:
1.) The Internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given to an educational environment;
2.) The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3.) The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4.) The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5.) The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6.) The employer and the intern understand the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
This description was originally the direct criteria for apprenticeships, but was expanded to include Internships thanks to the result of a class-action lawsuit filed in 2010 (This case was overturned in 2015, but that does not discredit or delegitimize the above descriptions).
What constitutes a “good” internship?
This is an important question, mainly because the benefits of an internship will vary from opportunity to opportunity. Internships are unique to each other and the best way to assure a mutually beneficial arrangement is to do research and ask questions!
Ideally, an internship should be a trade-off in real world experience, training and knowledge for work and assistance in a place of employment. Sometimes an internship will have rigid structures to work in, sometimes they will be pliable. The only way to find out what will work for you is to ask!
“Good” Work versus “Bad” Work:
An ideal internship should provide work that teaches or develops skills that would apply to a future position. (Writing content, conducting interviews, on-site training, related employment-based skill building, etc.). Generally, “Bad” work is viewed as “busy” or stereotypically mind-numbing labor (filing, copy/pasting, spreadsheets, getting coffee, etc.). There can be a combination of both, but the ideal setting should lean towards “Good” work in order for your experience to be beneficial and retain value.
Some great telling characteristics of a strong internship are the ones you would find in any place of professional employment. Be sure to look for qualities that can yield positive benefits to you that fall under the following: Respect, professionalism, impactful contribution and an environment where networking can take place.
Here is a great example of a “good work vs. bad work” internship:
“I run a website that deals with interviewing people and typing up content surrounding those interactions. As part of the internship I run with students, I will meet with them and arrange interviews, give them writing assignments and have feedback/review sessions on what they create before posting it. Some of the work is clerical (scheduling meetings, handling contacts and e-mails, etc.). An often occurrence are professional artists who seek student interns who learn how to stretch canvas, frame artwork, hang and promote shows, among other important skills necessary for any creative individual can benefit from.”
Todd Trebour - Program Coordinator and Lecturer
Arts Extension Service, University of Massachesetts-Amherst
The value of an internship:
Internships for artists can be incredibly useful, especially if you are just beginning your journey in the professional world. Internships, at their best, can provide work experience or training that you may not already have access to, which can lead to more successful employment opportunities. While being paid in work experience may not always be as fiscally sound, if the skills you are learning are lifelong applicable abilities (such as program training, core work skill development or otherwise), the long term payoff can be tremendous.
“In today’s current workforce and economy, if you are planning on only getting a Bachelor’s degree in the arts without an internship (or some sort of experience showing you are interested in moving into a more professional business world) you run the risk of going back to the job you left to get your degree in the first place.”
– Caroline, Arts Education Services, UMASS Amherst
In the employment world, getting an edge can be helpful in not only showing you have learned at school, but have actively sought employment experience that can be applied in the real world. Internships can sometimes offer unexpected opportunities, such as future employment or positive references for a future job in a similar industry. These things are simply not generated through study alone.
Consider that the opportunities rendered by an internship can extend past their worst examples, and through consideration and communication, this revitalized facet of work education can become another important tool in today’s increasingly competitive landscape.
U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division
Career Services Umass Amherst