VAN January/February 2013: A Structural Necessity? | Claire Power on Internships


Writing an article on the current debate about internships is daunting, especially when you wear an institutional hat, purport to represent the views of a wider group and acknowledge that most galleries / institutions play a role in the dilemma. There are a broad range of viewpoints on internships and this article is intended to serve as a starting point, to highlight key issues and stimulate further debate. I aim to highlight new initiatives and current debates at a timely point when unpaid internships are becoming more common for a new generation of young arts workers.

In reviewing the literature that has been written on the subject, mainly by UK research and policy bodies, one statement struck a chord with me, as having some truth: “… the deployment of unpaid interns is fast becoming in many cases a structural necessity for companies and organisations. There is a suspicion that interns and volunteers may be de facto masking the collapse of the European cultural sector, hiding the exodus of the public resources from such activities and thus preventing the general public from perceiving the unsustainability of the situation.”¹

It’s a polemical statement that offers a strong point of view. Are internships becoming ‘structural’ in the arts? And, if so, what does this mean in the medium term? How we will plan for the future? Interns are already an established part of the infrastructure. On one hand they prop up the sector, enabling growth and ambition and, on the other, they falsify a situation that may or not be sustainable in the face of reduced public spending. Within this landscape of free labour and economy of exchange, it is vital that both arts organisations and interns are aware of their obligations and rights.


As with every big debate, there will be the small, practical steps to achieving change. In September 2012, a small group of people working in the arts came together at Visual Artists Ireland to listen and interrogate some of the key issues and current debates on internships in the arts in Ireland. This group comprised Jim Ricks (artist), Gina O’Kelly (Irish Museums Association), Bernadette Beecher (Visual Artists Ireland) and myself (Temple Bar Gallery + Studios).

At our meeting, a number of important issues were raised, including legal ones, for both the intern and employer. To start with, there is no single definitive, legal description of what an internship means either in Ireland or England. Artquest, a resource body for artists in the UK, ask, “With no legal definition of an internship how can interns and visual arts organisations ensure quality experiences and stay within the law?”². Gina O’Kelly circulated some literature from the Arts Council of England, demonstrating that there are some clear distinctions on what constitutes an internship. This is set out in a policy document entitled Internships in the Arts: a Guide for Arts Organisations (2011). It differentiates an internship from, for example, voluntary work, a student placement, an apprenticeship, a traineeship, work experience or what is offered within a university or educational strand.³

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) also differentiates between internships and JobBridge (an Irish government initiative), the employment of close relatives and those who meet the Industrial Training Act requirements. Their guidleines state that all interns have the right to a safe working environment, and to adequate breaks and holidays.

The National Employment Rights Authority defines an employee as “a person of any age who has entered into, or works or has worked under a contract of employment”. Thus, the terms of an internship must reflect both the intern’s work experience to date and the nature of the work being carried out.

The concept of internships began with careers that were traditionally deemed desirable or had good earning potential eg law or medicine.* Ultimately, the attraction of a good internship remains the same. It should offer valuable learning experience, professional development and networking opportunities that will either lead to paid employment or help to further the intern’s career in a tangible way. From the discussion within our small group at VAI, it became clear that there was a lack of awareness among arts organisation and interns as to how these rights apply. Without definitive, industry- specific guidelines, both arts organisations and the interns occupy vulnerable positions.


Over the last decade, the debate on internships in the UK has really fired up, as the culture of unpaid internships becomes increasingly familiar. The “I’ve paid my dues, this is something that everyone has to go through” sentiment remains commonplace, but is becoming problematic as the rise of the unpaid internship coincides with a decade of reduced public spending in the arts.6 This situation proffers two questions: How realistic is a career in the arts and creative sector for new graduates in the field? And what future-focus do we need? Many of the same ideological positions played out on a large scale in UK cultural debate were mirrored within our own small focus group. These include shared concerns about job replacement, social mobility and barriers to a creative career because of a individual’s ability to pay expenses like travel costs, the erosion of junior level or trainee positions within the arts and exploitative internships. The group also recognised that a cultural shift will not happen overnight and for now we would be best placed to advocate for and to consider collectively with the wider sector, a series of policies or guidelines. It is vital that employers in the arts sector are fully aware of their legal obligations in this area and interns are aware of their rights.


The Arts Council of England Guidelines describe a successful internship, as being “mutually beneficial and well-planned… for both individuals interested in a career in the arts and arts organisations”. Underpinning their thinking is a strategic aim to “make sure that working in the arts is seen as a sustainable, long-term career for people of all backgrounds”. The emphasis on “sustainability” and “long-term” careers being of utmost relevance here, as increasing numbers of new graduates join a highly competitive field of work. There is the very valid argument that in recent years unpaid internships have replaced low paid entry-level positions across the arts. Dr Emily Mark Fitzgerald, of the University College Dublin School of Arts History and Cultural Policy, spoke passionately on this subject in a short presentation at the Visual Art Workers Forum in 2012.

Clearly, there is much more to question and to try and resolve. There has been an increase in the number of arts courses offered in Ireland and universities and educational institutes also face a dilemma. One solution was put forward by the young people of Ireland in the ‘Being Young and Irish’ report, an on going consultation with President Michael D Higgins. It calls for “the creation of a graduate employment scheme based on relevant skills (not JobBridge)”.7 Currently, what we have in Ireland, operating alongside JobBridge, is the Employer Job Incentive Scheme (PRSI). This employment initiative programme from the Irish Government exempts employers from liability to pay their share of PRSI and is open to companies who create new and additional jobs. It would be good to see this initiative taken a few steps further or progression of JobBridge to incentivise longer-term job creation in the creative and cultural sector for recent graduates or the newly unemployed.

Perhaps an initiative like the recently announced Arts Council of England Creative Employment Programme would be worth considering by government and policy stakeholders here.8 This scheme is designed to support up to 6,500 paid internships, pre- apprenticeships and apprenticeships for young people aged 16 – 24 and is expected to begin in 2013. Its precise purpose is to help combat unpaid internships within arts organisations and to help young people find entry-level positions in the arts and cultural sector. The Arts Council of England guidelines set out the responsibilities employers have when offering an internship. In the ‘Guidelines to Arts Organisations’, the intern is accorded “worker” status.9 The result is that, by this definition, the majority of interns will most likely be classified as a worker for the purposes of the National Minimum Wage Act. Any individual with worker status is also protected by all other legislation relating to employees, including working time regulations, health and safety laws and rules around statutory sick pay. A six-point checklist for creative and cultural employers taking on interns includes a numbered list of employer responsibilities to

interns ranging from a recruitment practice that is fair, open and transparent, a written contract and the presence of a line manager to ensure there is adequate insurance cover employers for public liability.10 Arts organisations and cultural leaders can also offer valuable support to interns through regular appraisal and mentoring in the longer term to help guide them through the early stages of their career.


In May 2012, Artquest published Intern Culture, a literature review of 23 reports, guidelines and policy documents published since 2008. It offers six principles to follow in order to build high-quality internships.11 For the launch of the report, Artquest chaired a debate at the Showroom, London during the exhibition, ‘The Grand Domestic Revolution GOES ON’, on 17 October, encouraging artists, arts professionals and representatives of art organisations to share their experience and their opinions on Intern Culture. The debate makes worthwhile reading and highlights can be found on Twitter with #internculture. The discussion raised the pertinent question, “How can we define, as sector, what we want internships to be?” As representatives of the arts and cultural sector in Ireland, we need to consider this question too.12

The Carrot Workers Collective is another interesting point of reference in the current debate and occupies an activist position. They are an open group based in London, concerned with the issue of free labour in the cultural and creative sectors. On their blog (www. they provoke discussion on free labour and unpaid internships through organised action and platforms such as the Cuts Cafe London, stating that the “ability to live in the absence of the wage in the internship sets up a series of expectations around non-wage labour that infiltrate the entirety of productive relations”.

There is a risk now that internships are becoming structural, so that interns are in fact propping up the gap between the ambitions of the sector and reduced public spending. The opening provocation – that internships may mask the collapse of the European cultural sector and prevent the general public perceiving the unsustainability of the situation – is extreme. There is a strong and resilient arts sector in Ireland and the show will go on; or at least it has done so far. There are new realities and pressures facing all arts organisations in the face of reduced public spending. Within this new situation, internships and the promise of philanthropy fill a widening gap.

What unites the arts sector and makes it strong are the dedicated people involved, and interns are a key part of our current and future workforce. In our small focus group, we concluded that it is time to think about agreeing on shared values in order to define internships and come up with a set of policy guidelines. In the medium term, the guidelines will ensure that arts organisations are all fully aware of their legal obligations in offering internships and will also inform potential interns about how to seek out high-quality experiences. For the longer term, it would be advisable to have more joined-up thinking between government departments for public expenditure, social protection, jobs and innovation along with cultural policy makers to nurture new talent among the future workforce for a vibrant creative and cultural sector. Let’s start the ball rolling.

Claire Power is the Development Manager at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios.


1. Carrot workers’ Collective, ‘One Free Labour, enforced education and Precarity: an initial reflection’, 2009,
2. Artquest / Current Projects / Intern Culture
3. Arts Council of england, Creative and Culture Skills: Internships in the Arts: A Guide for Arts Organisations
*. Artquest / Current Projects / Intern Culture
6. Carrot workers’ Collective blog, ‘counter guide to free labour’
7. The Irish Times
8., past funding programmes
9. Arts Council of england, Creative and Culture Skills: Internships in the Arts: A Guide for Arts Organisations, 7
10. Ibid, 12 – 13
12. From Intern Culture live debate twitter feed live, wednesday 17 October 2012

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