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What to do about unpaid internships?


Chloe Stead, an editorial intern at Spike Art Quarterly, has written a text about unpaid internships in the art world, their legality, and the many ways in which institutions and galleries throughout the world dance around labor regulations. She argues that, as an act of solidarity, we should not participate in the exploitation of workers by refusing to work for free ourselves. Read the full version on Spike Art Daily.

A big problem is that many people don’t know their rights. This is especially a problem in Berlin, where the bureaucratic regulations of workplace rights are often poorly understood even by Germans. For a non german speaking graduate the chance to be employed as a volontariat (a trainee position on a one or two year contract that often leads to full-time employment) is out of the question, which forces them into short-term internships in the hope of gaining an edge over other job applicants. In the city even badly paid internships are often highly competitive: I once saw a respected Berlin institution advertise a full-time position where they asked that the applicant speak fluent German, French and English – that’s 100€ a month per language.

One would have thought that the introduction of the minimum wage this year would have put a stop to this practice but a look on the website Portal Kunstgeschichte still reveals a number of galleries looking for unpaid interns. While one could, at a push, forgive an underfunded institution for not paying their interns, the same can’t be said to apply to a thriving commercial gallery:


That’s not to say that it’s only the galleries: I had a friend who was once in charge of ordering ice for a Kunstverein’s party that cost more than she was getting paid for her internship.

Many large institutions such as Hamburger Bahnhof also use the website to advertise for Pflichtpraktikanten (students who complete internships as part of their studies). The rational is that students (whether through their parents or the state) are funded for their studies and do not need to be paid in order to live. Although this puts these institutions morally and legally in a better position it still causes the problem that the unpaid intern effectively takes away an entry-level job such as “Curatoral Assistant” from a recent arts-related graduate like myself.

So what’s the solution? I personally found a lot of inspiration from a blog entry by writer and activist Yasmin Nair: “Scabs: Academics and Others who Write for Free”. By using the slur “Scabs” Nair explicitly compares people who write without remuneration to those workers that ignored the picket line during the miners’ strike in Thatcher’s England. And if that seems extreme it’s only because we haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that for most of us now “work” is more likely to be checking emails at 10pm than it is producing a material object.

But the real reason Nair’s post is so important to me is that rather than just complaining about not getting paid, whether it’s around a dinner table with friends or at a panel discussion, she advocates direct action. Her advice is simple. Stop working for free – if we all do it those responsible would be forced to start paying.

The only way I can see out of this situation is to employ the kind of solidarity that Yasmin Nair advocates but with one fundamental difference. I couldn’t blame anyone who is desperate enough to get a leg up for working for free – I’ve done it. Let’s reserve the naming and shaming for the people in positions of power because contrary to what most non-for-profit curators would have you believe, their institutions do not run on “love”, they run on hard cash and it’s time we started getting some of it.


I’d be curious to know about the labor laws in Germany pertaining to internships. In the US, the legal definition of an unpaid internship is actually quite specific. For a long time, many unpaid internships in fields like media, publishing, and art didn’t actually adhere to this definition and were technically illegal, but they continued anyway because the government didn’t enforce the law. But a central organizing strategy of interns in the US in recent years has been to pressure the government to actually enforce the law. As a result, many employers, worried that their internship programs might be found illegal, preemptively refashioned their programs and/or started paying interns. I wonder if a similar organizing strategy—pressuring the government to enforce labor laws already on the books—would be feasible and effective in Germany and other EU countries?