Internships vs. DIY – What’s the right choice for Art Graduates?

Four You Gallery
February 20, 2021
 | Sonja Teszler

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Being an Art graduate isn’t easy. Whether you did a Fine Art degree or curatorial, theoretical studies, the industry only has so many career paths and resources to offer in the non-profit and commercial fields. We went to art school because to varying degrees, we all want to be a part of the art world. Some aspects of it might appeal to us while some others we are strongly critical of – after all the art world is known for being filled with people, who consistently disapprove of it.

In today’s precarious economy where dozens of creative graduates are pouring onto the job market with high hopes and similar if not identical resumés, what’s the best way to move forward with a career in the Arts? The traditional way is scraping for internships with established commercial galleries and potentially investing 1-2 years of free labour into a career that can grow out of it eventually. But is this system still a valid reflection of contemporary conditions of the labour force? Are the actual skills offered by a gallery internship useful for building one’s career or is it just a thing people do because that’s what everybody does? And what’s the alternative?

London Art Fair, 2019, Courtesy of Mark Cocksedge

After having finished my MA in Contemporary Art 2 years ago, I was facing these very same questions. By that point I already had some unpaid gallery internships under my belt, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford going back to on the long run. But I felt motivated to pursue the dream career I’ve invested into and envisioned for myself in the art world even though I wasn’t quite clear on my reasons. After applying to gallery jobs for a few months and having received various rejections – some even explicitly telling me they had to prioritize someone for nepotistic reasons – I felt defeated and exhausted. You quickly realize after the naive bubble of university that on the real job market, you’re competing with people from the same graduate pool two or three years your senior, even for entry-level and traineeship positions. Such negative awakenings to the dire reality of the sector can lead to quick desperation and a gradual degradation of one’s self-value, sense of reason and direction.

Tate internships, Courtesy of Dan Weill and Tate.

It seemed like there was obviously no place for me in the world I so craved to impress as someone with no existing network or support system in a foreign country This led to something of an identity crisis. After some self-reflection I decided I needed to focus inward to ask myself some important questions. What was I really interested in, trying to achieve and how do I want to make an impact? How can I pursue a career mindfully and not blindly go down the normative trajectory without really knowing why? Do I want to force myself to fit into a system that feels alienating, or do I want to pursue my own path?

I knew I loved writing and talking to artists and so I started there. I went to all the openings, organised studio visits, pitched endlessly to different publications to build my portfolio. Along with my partner we started organising exhibitions and events from our own house in South London, which eventually received Arts Council and started growing a wide following. I also undertook an unpaid internship with a non-profit art space, but purely because I genuinely believed in their cause and their program – they are like family to me now and we still work together to this day. By choosing to only make choices that were aligned with what I believe in, I have made more invaluable skills, relationships and friendships that I could have imagined. Even though I might try to get back into the commercial or established art world at some point, these coupe years after my graduation were crucial in finding my identity and purpose within the art world as well as building my confidence in my self-worth.

Goldsmith’s College Open Day, Courtesy of Goldsmith’s University of London

Unpaid art internships would make sense in an economy where opportunities correspond more to the size of the labour force, instead of increasingly abstract circulation of labour and capital and a massive surplus in workers. They would be a worthy (though still exclusive) investment in teaching candidates important and specific skills in the field after which they would be assured to get a position either at that very place or could bring these skills to fruition at another similar workplace. However, in its current state, the art world job market is oversaturated with individuals who are more than qualified (possibly 3 or 4 times over), but they still have to go for junior or internship-level positions because there is such a low number of openings in other jobs. This means that the system gets incredibly misaligned.

The gap between internships and even entry-level positions such as Gallery Assistant is filled with a surplus pool of graduates that have the exact same CVs and experience. Neither the individual candidates nor their employers or supervisors at these galleries will be incentivized to actually put energy into learning or teaching transferable skills because very often the job is simply construed as a steppingstone towards the next opportunity or simply survival. From the gallery’s point of view, it’s a way to get free labour and have someone around to do all of the menial tasks such as coffees, buying snacks or going to the post office. Who is learning or benefitting from a situation like this and what kind of labour force is it producing?

Mayfair neighbourhood in Central London, home to many blue-chip commercial galleries. Courtesy of London X London.

The art world is often criticized for exclusivity and being inaccessible, and it’s indeed telling that the normative route towards any career within this world demands that one puts a couple years aside from their life to undertake unpaid internships (after finishing incredibly expensive courses) that don’t even lead to secure employment. Instead of going down this road however, there is also the riskier opportunity of simply doing it yourself.

If you have an idea for an exhibition, for a publication or a business, just do it! Be proactive, do your research, investigate government resources such as the Arts Council England grants available in the UK that fund non-profit projects and individual artists, keep networking, go to studio visits, have in-depth conversations with artists about their practices, look around for artist-run spaces or empty buildings in your area or simply do an exhibition in your house with people that you know. If you have the drive and a good concept, you’ll be learning skills while on the job that no blue-chip gallery can teach you. Especially for the initial year or two after graduating, these self-starter experiences can be crucially important.

Mellissa Muncaster and Rachel Laird performing Amber Kim, 2019, Collaborative exhibition DETRITUS with Alex Lewis and Amber Kim at artist-led space Wells Projects, Courtesy of Adam Pietraszewski.

Most importantly – know your worth and dig deep about what you want to achieve in your career and why. Don’t go down the normative path just because that’s what everyone else does because you can very easily lose sight of why you wanted to be a part of the art world in the first place. The art world needs people with a vision and with confidence in their worth and their labour, who can refresh the current system which is growing more and more out of touch with its actual labour force. Learning new skills and developing your network in a direct and immediate way is the best way to progress both personally and professionally. The option to move over into the commercial or institutional world is always going to be there, but you might’ve already made some connections with artists, curators and gallerists that will make it easier for you to get in there. It might be a tougher route but definitely a rewarding one.

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