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My gripes with arts internships

22nd February 2012

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I’m making a sandwich, happily contemplating this fact; when my housemate, a nuclear physics student, comes hurtling into the kitchen and announces he’s just been offered a year’s physics placement in America, with a wage, plus most of his expenses and living costs paid for too.

Unpaid internsAmidst the mandatory jumping and hugging that friends do to support each other, I’m left feeling somewhat deflated (as you would guess my internship was of the unpaid variety).

That was almost three years ago. Now, my friend is doing a PHD and I’m slowly but thoroughly rinsing all of the available contacts that I built up throughout that year. That precious year, that life-changing year, that without it I’d have left Uni not having a clue what to do and nowhere to beg for casual shifts.

It is undeniable that an internship is pretty much essential within the world of arts employment. It’s the old catch 22 – no experience, no chance, but then no chance, no experience. You have the lucky few who can apply for a Jerwood creative bursary from the DCMS, but that’s just about as competitive as a single acorn in a cage of squirrels.

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed my placement, and it gave me the best possible chance to get my foot on the crazy-fun-house inspired sliding staircase, I would have felt so much more appreciated if I had been paid like a proper member of staff. And maybe I would have worked harder, maybe I would have taken my job role more seriously. I managed to support myself financially by taking extra shifts on reception, but this then resulted in me sometimes working a full 12-hour day, and mostly six or seven day weeks. This and my (thanks but no thanks) massively reduced student loan. 

I guess maybe I’m one of the lucky ones, managing to get an internship as part of my degree. At least then I had access to a dribble of student loan. But perhaps it’s the actual degree programmes we should be questioning here. If they provided us with a little more knowledge and experience that’s actually relevant to the outside world then perhaps there would be no need for internships.

The sad reality is however, that these poor arts organisations have been cut down to their very stumps of financial stability. What were entry level jobs have now become unpaid internships. But what is the world coming to when companies have had to resort to free labour to keep themselves going? But - they do keep themselves going, because these internships are like gold dust.

It’s very well the politicians demanding arts organisations pay interns minimum wage, but then maybe the politicians should stop obliterating the necessary arts funding. It seems strange to me that the government hasn’t considered WHY arts organisations have had to cut their budgets so drastically. This is of course only my personal opinion, but in my experience unpaid internships are like UGG boots within the graduate arts employment scene; horribly popular but undeniably useful.

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