Unpaid internships are commonplace in the museum world, supported by a culture that suggests “experience” and the chance to get “a foot in the door” are worth the sacrifice of time and lost earnings. This practice necessarily limits the sector’s ability to diversify or become equitable, by ensuring that only those who can afford to work uncompensated can participate. But there is some promise of change afoot! The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) recently made a resolution calling on art museums to provide paid internships. At the same time, the Art and Museum Transparency group, a grassroots initiative to bring transparency to the arts sector through collecting anonymous salary data from the field, launched their recently-launched Unpaid Internships spreadsheet, which aims to shed light on the sector’s reliance on free labor.
In this episode, we’re joined by Alison Wade from AAMD, and Michelle Millar Fisher and “E” from the Art + Museum Transparency group to discuss these initiatives, and the implications for the sector of its practice of unpaid internships. Plus, Ed Rodley, Museopunks new co-host, makes his official debut.
Alison Wade is the Chief Administrator at the Association of Art Museum Directors, a professional association for art museum directors in North America. She oversees and implements the Associations’s annual surveys of museum salaries and statistics which serve as the industry’s standard for benchmarking data. She also oversees AAMD’s website, social media channels, and the operations of AAMD’s two office locations, among other projects. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University.
Michelle Millar Fisher is the Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her work investigates the confluence power, people, and design. Right now, she’s excited to be collaborating with historian Amber Winick on a book and exhibition, Designing Motherhood.
“E” is an art historian who has been working off and on in museums and arts organizations of various sizes for the past ten years. They are a member of the Art and Museum Transparency group. In this episode, we’re altered their voice in order to protect their identity.
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Suse Anderson: Good day, and welcome to Museopunks: The Podcast for the Progressive Museum. I’m Suse Anderson.
Ed Rodley: And I’m Ed Rodley. And together, we’ll be digging into yet another hot button issue in the field, internship salaries, or the lack thereof.
Suse: Unpaid internships have been a long-standing gateway into museum work. I did, in fact several of them while I was studying and working a couple of jobs and had the usual family and social obligations, but in regional Australia, I saw no other way to gain experience or get my foot in the door.
But lately, the groundswell of voices rising up issues of diversity, of equity and access, of inclusion around internships has been leading to some pretty startling events.
Ed: Yeah, this year, there have been some seismic shifts in the field regarding salary issues in general, and unpaid internships in particular. In June this year, the Board of Trustees of the Association of Art Museum Directors, AAMD, approved a resolution calling on art museums to provide paid internships.
And in July, the Art + Museum Transparency group, a grassroots initiative to bring transparency to the art sector through collecting anonymous salary data from the field launched their unpaid internships spreadsheet, which builds upon the success of their revolutionary salary transparency worksheet, which has already seen thousands of entries with information about salaries and benefits across the sector.
Suse: So, in this episode, we’re pleased to have guests who can offer two pretty different perspectives on the internship dilemma, one from the Association of Art Museum Directors, and two members of the Art + Museum Transparency group to shed a little light on the issue.
Ed: Today, we’re very excited to have with us Allison Wade, who is the chief administrator at the Association of Art Museum Directors, AAMD, which is a professional association for art museum directors in North America. She oversees and implements the association’s annual surveys of museum salaries and statistics, which serve as the industry’s standard for benchmarking data. She also oversees AAMD’S website, social media channels, and the operation of AAMD’s two office locations, among other projects. Sounds like a museum job.
She also holds an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University. And, in June of this year, the Board of Trustees of AAMD approved a resolution calling on art museums to provide paid internships. And we’re going to talk about that resolution in a few minutes.
But before we start, I’d like to ask Allison, if you could say hello, and tell us a little bit about AAMD, who it serves and what its remit is.
Allison Wade: Hi there, I’m so happy to be here today. Thank you so much for inviting me. AAMD is the professional organization for directors of art museums. We have currently about 227 members in North America. Most of them are concentrated in the United States, but we also have members in Canada and Mexico.
And we were founded in 1916 by 12 museum directors, most of whom are still members today, actually, who were looking to share ideas about best practices in what was then a very new field. This was around the time where there were a few large encyclopedic museums on the East Coast, but these institutions were sort of more like in the Midwest and the West.
And I start there going back all the way, because in a way, it’s still what AAMD does today. We set standards and ethics for the field, but we also serve as a place where museum directors can come together and share the issues that they’re having at their institutions and we help them try to solve them.
We have conferences for our members each year, and we also do projects and events that more broadly benefit the art museum field. We have workshops for museum professionals, we have a paid internship program. So that’s sort of just the baseline of what AAMD does.
Suse: Allison, that’s great. Now, speaking of things that more broadly impact the field, which is one of the phrases you just used, AAMD introduced a resolution recently, as we mentioned, calling on art museums to provide paid internships. Can you outline what the resolution actually says?
Allison: Yeah, so it’s an actually very straightforward, short resolution. And if you don’t mind, I can actually read it because it’s only about four sentences.
Allison: The resolution actually says, it’s very formal language, “Whereas internships provide critical opportunities for students considering careers in art museums, as well as experience necessary for entering the workforce, and whereas paid internships are essential to increasing access and equity for the museum profession, now, therefore, the Board of Trustees of the Association of Art Museum Directors recommends that art museums should pay interns, except in special circumstances, justifying such an arrangement.”
Ed: That’s pretty heavy stuff. Allison, this seems to be like one of the big topics of the year. Can you talk a little bit about why you think it is that suddenly this is coming up everywhere? It came up at the keynotes at AAM, AAMD has been pushing this resolution. There’s been a whole slew of articles in the press about salary issues in general, in internships, in particular. Why now? This has been going on for years.
Allison: Absolutely, I think that this has come up now as, our field has been increasingly over the past few years, talking about diversity, equity, access and inclusion. This is not a surprise to either of you. And this is sort of a logical extent of that conversation.
When you look at who can take an unpaid internship, it’s probably going to be, in most cases, someone that can afford to work without pay. And that’s probably somebody that has already resources at their disposal, and is probably someone that looks like everyone already working in a museum.
So, this is sort of a very basic way to get at increasing DEAI in museums, and honestly, across the nonprofit sector. I think it’s especially prevalent in museums and that’s another reason why it’s come up so much specifically for our field. There might be other parts of the non-profit sector more broadly, that don’t rely so heavily on unpaid labor. But I think you’d be hard pressed to find museum staff, especially of the younger generations, that have not had at least one unpaid internship in a museum.
Suse: Yeah, I certainly had a couple of them when I was working my way into the field. Hyperallergic just did a great article about this issue and they quoted the economist Richard Reeves, who talked about the internship industrial complex and how it perpetuates a glass floor, that limits access to the field. And I think that gets to exactly what you’re talking about.
Now, AAMD had Reeves at your membership conference. What was that event like and what were the conversations around this topic like, when you had a whole number of your members all in a room together?
Allison: We had Richard Reeves give a keynote address to our membership. It was at our annual conference, which was in Richmond, Virginia back in January. And Reeves’ work focuses on, as opposed to thinking about income inequality in the US as focused on the 1%, his work talks about the top 20% and how it’s really the upper middle class that sort of hoards opportunities available, that are supposed to be available for everyone because they’re highly connected, they have resources at their disposal. Whether it’s a connection that might get you an internship at a museum through a parent or a family friend, or just the ability to be able to work without pay, because your parents can help support you.
So, his work talks a lot about that. And of course, internships are a huge part of that, in particular for our field, like I was just saying. And these conversations actually did go back prior to his presentation at our meeting. Our professional issues committee is being led by Jill Medvedow, who’s the director of the ICA in Boston, and she read Reeves’ book a few years ago, and she really wanted to take this on after reading his book, and seeing how specifically that overlapped with how our field functions.
There had already been so many conversations at AAMD, about how we can increase diversity, equity, access and inclusion. And she saw this as somewhere where the two things mapped onto each other really nicely, and said, how can we do this? So that was really where it started.
Ed: I noticed also that you guys have started your own paid internship program back in 2018, I think. Did that pilot program have anything to do with the same conversation? And if so, how did that inform this resolution?
Allison: I would say it’s actually a parallel track. A couple of years ago, we had a partnership with UNCF for a similar program. So this was somewhere that AAMD has been active. I believe that program piloted in 2013, but we have been tinkering with it and looking at the best way to have an internship program where our members could host interns as a way to get folks sort of into the museum field.
And it just sort of so happened that they came about at the same time. And they were the results of the similar conversations happening across the board about DEAI at AAMD. I mean, I would say in the last five or six years, we haven’t had a meeting where this issue has not come up in one way or another and it manifests in so many different ways. So it was sort of a parallel track, I would say.
Suse: So, one of the things that I often find when we’re having conversations about this is that when it’s anything that’s a major change to how sort of traditional or normal business has been done, there are concerns about budgets, there are concerns about impact. What are the kinds of concerns that you’ve heard from your membership, and what is AAMD doing to help alleviate those concerns and actually help their members figure out how to bring this in as a practical approach, not just as a resolution?
Allison: So, as I mentioned before, this resolution came about through the work of our professional issues committee, which was being chaired by Jill Medvedow, as well as Mark Bessire from the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. And they introduced this at professional issues committee meetings, and it’s been an ongoing discussion there.
When it was first raised, there was definitely some pushback, particularly just because as much as it seems like museums are wealthy institutions, and they are in some ways, in other ways, they’re not. And especially in AAMD’s membership. About half of our membership has a budget under $10 million.
So even though that sounds like a lot of money, once you have that allocated, you have a large physical plant, and just the way museums have operated, they haven’t been budgeting money to pay their interns in many cases. So folks were worried about how to bring this into their budget. We’ve been relying on this labor for so long, how are we going to make this change?
So, what we’ve done is we found some AAMD members that had been working to pay some or all of their interns and had them talk to the group about what their strategies were. And one of the directors that we heard from Ed, is actually your boss now, Brian Kennedy. We heard from him when he was at the Toledo Museum of Art.
And they have, I’m not sure if they’ve completely eliminated unpaid internships, but they’ve come very close and he talked about how they did that. And it was a combination of finding outside funders, and just reallocating the funds from their budget where they could until they could get to paying everyone.
And I think that was a message that we’ve really been trying to bring to everyone as well, is that we understand that you can’t snap your fingers and take your whole internship core and pay them immediately. But we want to help you find strategies to chip away and chip away until you are paying everyone.
Ed: It does seem to be a strange thing about museums that they love to have examples of people already doing something before the field is willing to move in different directions. So it’s great that you were able to find people who could talk about, here’s how we’re doing it.
And one thing I’m particularly I guess cognizant of, is the thirst that people have for social justice, versus the need to actually try to get something done, even if the first step isn’t a 100% solution. And I don’t think you’d argue that the AAMD’s resolution isn’t a 100% solution. There are still ways in there for unpaid internships to continue.
Was that part of the deliberations? Was it more important to get something out now, even though it had ways in there for people to still do unpaid internships, rather than trying to come up with something that demanded all problems be solved immediately?
Allison: Absolutely. Especially since we did realize that even if we did come up with something that demanded everything be solved right away, as I was saying, we have members on such a wide scale of budget sizes. Our largest member is the MET, but we have members with budgets under $1 million and we can’t snap our fingers and ask that on either side of that, that they all start paying immediately.
We also, to be quite honest, don’t have the capacity or really the role to be able to enforce this. Richard Reeves called it a form of soft power. And that was really what we wanted to get at, to demonstrate our commitment to this and set an example for our members and hopefully the broader museum field, as opposed to drilling down until it was something perfect and enforceable.
Suse: Yeah, it’s one of the things that I think is quite interesting about just this overall discussion is, it’s often not about the specifics of how much an intern should be paid. Is it a stipend? Is it minimum wage? Is it a living wage? But it seems like the first hurdle we’re really getting through is just normalizing this practice, and then getting into the specifics of what that fair compensation looks like in different institutional contexts.
What happens if a member institution doesn’t change their practice? I mean, you just mentioned this as a form of soft power, that you don’t have a way of enforcing this. Are you really relying on a kind of self-policing within the membership?
Allison: AAMD’s role is to put out guidelines and best practices for the field. Professional practices in art museums is sort of one of our banner publications that’s been coming out for decades. And there’s lots of guidelines in there, and we are not capable of enforcing the vast majority of them.
I would say if we find out well past sort of a grace period that we have a member still offering unpaid internships and also not making… I think intent is important here. Not making strides in that direction either. I would say this is sort of my boss’s job and the board of trustees job rather my specific job, but hopefully, there’d be a conversation there about how we can help get that institution to paying. And that’s also why we like to provide our members with examples of institutions that are already doing this work.
But again, I think that’s where the soft power comes in. As more and more museums pay their interns, the ones that don’t will stick out more, whether it’s within our membership, or honestly, publicly, among the people applying for memberships. So that’s what we’re really hoping to get at here.
Ed: Thus far, it seems to be working, judging from the number of articles, at least in the news press, the art press, talking about internship and salary issues, which is something I haven’t seen in 30 years.
Assuming that things go the way you’d like them to go, and everybody starts paying their interns and then we start having conversations about what actually constitutes the appropriate wage to pay an intern, what are the kind of labor and equity issues that you guys are thinking about at AAMD now, and what’s on the horizon?
Allison: I think some of the salary transparency and just general salary issues that have been going around sort of in tandem with this internship conversation will probably be coming up next. So I’m sure you’re both aware of the salary transparency spreadsheet that’s been going around, and I’m sure that that will be coming up, especially since it’s such a topic of conversation, that is another part, along with unpaid labor, sort of underpaid labor. And the idea that, well, if you want to be in this field, you need to pay your dues, and you need to be able to accept very little pay to work in the place you love.
Now, that we’re having these DEAI conversations more and more, and they’re not going away, which is essential and absolutely for the best, that’s going to be sort of the next topic. And we’ve also talked a little bit about compensation for artists. That has come up, but the landscape there is so different and so all over the place. And also, there’s just not quite the same immediate demand for that.
That, I think the salary transparency will probably be what’s next.
Suse: Yeah, absolutely. It’s certainly a conversation we’ve been having here at Museopunks and I anticipate it will continue.
So, I want to get you, just sort of as we start to wrap up, to do a little bit of a pitch for institutions that are not part of AAMD. Obviously, non-art museums, for museums that are in very different parts of the sector. Why should they start to get rid of unpaid internships?
We know that the sector has relied on free labor, whether it’s from volunteers, from interns. Why is this such an important practice that we change? And how do we convince everyone in every institution that this matters to them?
Allison: So, of course, again, it comes back to the diversity, equity, access and inclusion issue. As we know from the studies that the Mellon Foundation and Ithaka S+R has conducted on AAMD’s membership and the American Alliance of Museum membership, our museums are very, very white places.
And going forward, we need to work on this, in terms of it being more equitable places that reflect the demographic makeup of our communities. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, that’s the number one reason to do it, in my opinion. But there’s also a business case for diversity in terms of, it will help institutions better present work for their communities, create programs for their communities.
And that starts with building a diverse workforce, and that can’t start with unpaid internships anymore. We’ve seen that unpaid internships really benefit white, wealthy people or white, upper middle-class people. And that’s where the pipeline starts for museum professions and museum leadership.
And when you’re starting from zero pay, it’s very hard to work your way up the ladder much further. So paying your interns is a relatively simple step, in terms of moving our entire field towards a more diverse workforce, that in the end, is going to much better serve museums, as well as just being the right thing to do.
Ed: Simple but not easy.
Ed: So, Allison, thanks so much for all of this. If people want to find out more information about what AAMD has been up to and the resolution in particular, where would they go to find that information?
Allison: Our website is aamd.org and you can find the resolution there, it is under… The easiest place to find it is under the “For the Media” page, we have a press release about the unpaid internship resolution and the resolution is just pasted right there in the press release. And we also have a pretty active Twitter feed where you will also be able to find more information about this. We’re @MuseumDirectors.
Suse: That is fabulous. And we will also pop links to both of those in the show notes. Allison, thank you so much. This has been incredibly useful and helpful to see an organization of this kind, taking this kind of action.
Ed: It is nice to be able to share good news.
Allison: I feel the same way. Thank you so much for having me.
Suse: Michelle Millar Fisher is the Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick curator of contemporary decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her work investigates the confluence of power, people and design. Right now, she’s excited to be collaborating with historian Amber Winick on a book and exhibition, Designing Motherhood.
We also have another member of the Art + Museum Transparency group joining us who wishes to remain anonymous. We’ve altered their voice, in order to protect their identity. We will refer to them as E., for the sake of the conversation.
Hey, Michelle, E., welcome to Museopunks.
Michelle Millar Fisher: Thank you so much.
E.: Thank you so much for having us.
Suse: It is awesome that you’re here. So in a lovely moment of synchronicity, which was pretty unplanned, in fact, was completely unplanned, Museopunks dropped its episode addressing salary transparency on, I think, the same day that you launched the museum salary transparency spreadsheet.
Now, for me, that was really interesting, because this was the hardest Museopunks episode I had ever put together. It was the only one I’d had people say no to. And I think that really speaks to how few people want to go on the record, talking about salary transparency, and talking, in fact, about a lot of labor equity issues within the museum field. Then, your spreadsheet dropped and it seems that no one has been talking about anything else.
So, can you just start by telling us what the salary transparency spreadsheet is and what you’re hoping to achieve by it? E., maybe I’ll get you to start.
E.: Great, thank you. Yes, I am so glad that you brought up the synchronicity of your episode launching at the same time that the spreadsheet dropped. And I think that, for us, it was such a completely organic process. It was something that we put together on a cellphone in a car, after conversations with friends and colleagues about issues of fair pay and salary transparency in the field.
And I think we all thought that it would maybe get a couple hundred entries, and that would be that, and it would be sort of useful for our immediate circle of colleagues in museums. And the fact that it took off so rapidly and so quickly, with so many amazing people being brave enough to share information about their positions, their pay and other details, both anonymous and not, really speaks to this larger momentum that I think we’re really happy to see in the field, where there’s so many different people coming at this from different angles and different perspectives.
And that’s been really great to see, so that we are able to accomplish certain things with, as non-data specialists, as not especially technologically savvy art historians and museum professionals, with this very simple spreadsheet. But there are also people doing interviews, like you are. There are people coming at this from various levels, both internally, institutionally and externally. And so that’s all been incredibly exciting to see.
Michelle, I don’t know if you want to add in anything there.
Michelle: I think what we wanted to come from it, was a sense that anyone with very basic tools or even no tools at all, could join in and raise their voice up. We’ve been really inspired by a range of people, as E. was saying, and I think we’ve listed them before, but it bears repeating. Because so many others have had this conversation before us and have promoted it in other ways.
But we were really inspired by the POWarts Salary Survey, which dropped just a couple of weeks ago and we’d known about for a while. Kimberly Drew, we weren’t at AAM but we knew of Kimberly’s conversation there and the bravery it took for her to be open about her own salary.
Many of us have been adjunct faculty for a long time, some over a decade in various universities. And so some of us had seen the adjunct project, which came out about five years ago and was spearheaded by Joshua Bold. And then, of course, all of the different conversations around unionization.
And so, we wanted to add our voices to that. And some of us have been speaking about this for a long, long time as well. Whenever we do career talks, we’re open about our salaries. We’ve written about it many, many years before this. But I think this is a very particular moment for this conversation. So we were glad to join a really wonderful group of people and really an entire field who’s having this conversation right now.
Ed: Yeah, that’s marvelous. Michelle, I’d like to follow up on that a little bit. Because it’s an interesting issue in that there’s pretty broad agreement. Like I’ve asked a lot of people since this started, and I can’t find anybody who really wants to deeply engage with defending, particularly, unpaid internships.
Yet, even though it’s pretty much universally seen as a pernicious practice, it’s so deeply rooted and so difficult to broach the topic, since it is so personal. People’s careers hinge on this. I was actually at AAM and when Kim Drew put her salary up in three foot high numbers on the screen at the keynote, that was quite a moment. And she was talking about the particular moment for her that made her really want to tackle this issue.
Was there a similar moment for you guys, or some kind of catalyzing event that like, why now? What about this made you decide now is the time to launch this spreadsheet?
Michelle: I mean, I think in many ways, we’d been having this conversation for a really long time. I can point back to articles that I wrote and others in the group have contributed to or written, as early 2011 and 2013. So this was just another kind of shot along those lines. And as I said, in addition to the chorus that’s already been out there long before any of us were ever around.
And so, I don’t think as E. said, we thought that there would be a massive uptake of this, because of the inherent sensitivities. But I think that we had gotten to a stage where all of us felt we had to put our money where our mouths were, in various ways. And that if we couldn’t act in ways that we felt had a moral compass in our field then maybe we didn’t want to be in this field after all. I’m really lucky to be surrounded by colleagues who I think are really decent and wonderful people. I think many of us are in museums especially, because of the kinds of people that it attracts.
And I think for this generation, we have gone through the 2008 Lehman crash, for better or for worse. And we many of us are either teaching or actively working with people who are even worse off, because they are the generation of 10 internships, most of them if not all of them, unpaid. So, yeah, I think it came down to having a certain set of values and really figuring if we can’t live by those, now we’re really committing to a career in this field, then maybe this field isn’t for us. So we have to go for broke or nothing.
Suse: Yet, it’s really interesting to sort of hear about the ways these issues have been coming up and being revisited over time. I want to dig in a little bit to the data and the learning that’s come from, in particular, the salary spreadsheet, and then we’ll look to the unpaid internship spreadsheet.
But E., I might get you to start this. What have you learned about the museum sector from the salary transparency spreadsheet and the discussions it’s prompted? Is there anything that has surprised you, that’s leapt out at you? Or, does it really confirm the things that you had understood yourself from the work that you’ve been doing in field anyway?
E.: That’s a great question. I will preface this by reiterating that we are very much not data specialists or numbers crunchers, particularly. So we’re still in the early stages of figuring out how we’re going to responsibly do the work of starting to pull all that data together and come up with some findings along, on the larger scale.
But I will say just from our work of general maintenance and reading the spreadsheet and having a pretty good idea of the data that’s in there, I think that, as you said, it unfortunately confirms a lot of things that I think a lot of us in the field felt to be true. We felt that only certain people were getting a leg up through underpaid or unpaid internships and fellowships. We felt that wage suppression was a general problem pretty much across museums broadly, and especially in certain areas.
I will say that, and we’ll get to this later, that the really heartbreaking numbers for us were the zeros next to interns, and yeah. And so that was really the impetus for the internship survey and moving ahead.
And I’ll also just say that what’s been really meaningful for me is reading through the comments in the salary transparency spreadsheet too and hearing from people who have either remained in the field against incredible odds by using the labor of their partners or other sorts of kind of hidden support, support that’s not generally acknowledged in the professional world of museums. That very much supports people being able to do things like working for free, or not a lot of money for long periods of time.
And my work over the years and teaching in museums has put me in contact with a lot of emerging professionals, from high school to postdoc level, and seeing in particular how contingent and limited term labor impacts those people in the first, basically in the first decade of their career, from college through, sometimes through your entire 20s. And the ways that contingent labor can hold up museums in a way that’s not really discussed. That was particularly striking for me.
Suse: Michelle, what about you? What have you learned from doing this, from doing the spreadsheet and from the kinds of conversations that it has really sparked? I mean, as you have mentioned to us, you are often the public face of these discussions, you’ve been fielding a lot of these conversations certainly with the media. What have these discussions sort of changed or sparked for you that have come from the salary transparency spreadsheet?
Michelle: Those are great questions. I think, first of all, teamwork makes the dream work. A collaborative project is always something that I love to do. And so even though it might seem like I am the public face and fielding a lot of the questions, we will discuss them and we will make sure that it’s really reflected on as a group. And that I think has made it a much richer and stronger project, whether that’s coming out of an op ed or whether we’re talking like this, or whether it’s a quote for a newspaper, anything along those lines. The group really reflects together and that makes what we say in public much stronger and more thoughtful, I think, than it just being me.
A couple of things that I learned from this project, Google Spreadsheets are everything, it’s great. I have always been a fan of that suite. And just the simplest thing was really the most effective here.
I think the other thing that I’ve been really interested in, and maybe it’s just the way I work more often, I am, I can be detail oriented. I’ve done a lot of those types of jobs. But for me, the most interesting thing about this project was its ability to act, the spreadsheet’s ability to act as a symbol. It was a symbol of being able to band together, a literal solidarity, but also a symbol of workers rights. It’s okay to talk about your salary.
And it astounds me that I feel that deeply intelligent people, so many people in our field who have graduate degrees, and yet did not know their rights clearly enough, were too afraid to exercise them. Whether that was fear of getting some kind of retribution themselves or fear of not being able to advance.
And that actually brings me to the thing that I think is at the crux of my revelations, watching the spreadsheet move forward, is that gap between stated intentions and actual actions. And so that’s either the gap between the stated external mission of an institution, which is about those very under interrogated buzzwords of diversity, inclusion, access, et cetera. And then what happens internally, or even and I think it’s difficult to take that long, hard look, but even on an individual level, where we say that we stand for certain things, but then how many of us find it easy to?
And it’s difficult, really difficult. And one has to be thoughtful, in terms of the position from which you say this. I’m lucky, I don’t have to support a family, I have a cat and a husband, both of whom are very self-sufficient. So, when I put myself out on a bit of a limb, I’m not endangering my pay for anybody else in an extended sense. And I have now reached a position where I’m not on a contingent salary anymore. That happened for the first time about a year and a half ago.
But I do think that if we are all within a field where we say we hold certain values dear, about being equipped with a moral compass, that has to happen. Not just in the artists that we’re trying to support and show, or the types of public programs that we make, but in the solidarity we express within the walls and behind the scenes and within human resources. So that has been the most interesting thing for me, that gap.
Suse: We’ve just been talking about the things you’ve been learning from doing the spreadsheet. But it also inspired further action, or maybe you already had this action planned. Can you tell us about the new campaign to end the practice of unpaid internships, where it’s come from? You mentioned before the heartbreak of seeing all of the zeros on the salary transparency spreadsheet? Was that spreadsheet what inspired the unpaid internships one? Did you really have in mind a series of actions at the very beginning?
Michelle: Sure, we have a very clear sense of the actions that we’re going to take over a long period of time. I was saying earlier that we’ve written about this before, so about six years ago, we’ve written about it, we’ve talked about it in various places. And again, certainly, we’re not the first, probably not the last, although I hope we’re close to the last to be having this conversation.
So, for us, it was very clear that we wanted to make a next spreadsheet, and that it would be to deal with the zeros on the first spreadsheet. As we’ve said before, and again, many, many years before, if the lowest wage in a field is zero, then the next entry level wage doesn’t have to be that much higher to be something.
And so, if you have a field that is undergirded as ours is, so much with zeros, we should also talk about colleagues that we work alongside, for whom the internship isn’t the entry level, and they are paid a wage, but it’s not a living wage. And so zero as an internship is an issue for certain job progressions within the museum or within an arts and cultural organization.
It’s not the only evil though, but we wanted to start there, because overall, I think it does depress everybody’s wages, whether the professional role is one in which you start by interning or not. And so we wanted to address that as kind of a root cause for the conversation as a whole.
Suse: Yeah, so what might change then, in our sector, if we do end unpaid internships? If this is really the most important in some ways to tackle, to lift up everything else, what else might change in the sector as a flow on effect, if we are able to end unpaid internships? E., can you speak to that?
E.: Sure. I think that something that I’m often up against when I’m talking to students or to interns, to other people that are trying to, quote-unquote, break in, get a foot in the door, it’s when I get to the point of explaining that many opportunities are unpaid or paid very, very low. It’s an immediate conversation ender with certain students.
I’ve had very, very bright students and had the privilege of working alongside extremely brilliant young interns, and just sort of seeing the immediate recognition in their eyes in the middle of these conversations, about getting into the field, getting further, and seeing them go through the mental process of understanding, oh, I would have to do this without pay. Oh, that’s not possible for me. I could never do that, because I am supporting family members, because I need a place to live and a way to pay my rent.
And the list goes on and on. And it was getting really depressing, to be honest, to interact with all of these incredibly talented, young voices, who I think have tons to contribute to the field and to museum spaces, and seeing that I was losing them. Or, not so much… That the field was losing them and would be losing out on their voices and their contributions.
So, I think that were unpaid internships to end, it’s a small step. But in many ways, symbolically then, museum internships become a thing that is more possible, it is more feasible for people who are already interested in the field, but who could only commit to it if they were making a living wage.
Michelle: That’s so true, E. I wanted to add to that, that I do think that there might be a knock-on effect. If you were to wave a magic wand and tomorrow there were no unpaid internships, I think there would be fewer openings for internships, because our field doesn’t have limitless pockets of cash. Although might think that, given a look at boards and certain 990s, but it’s limited. And none of us in Art + Museum Transparency is a director or a senior member of staff or management.
And so, we are very respectful in most cases of that knowledge that we don’t have, we haven’t run big operating budgets before. And we know, yeah, it’s always a choice and one we haven’t had to make, but I also wonder if there were fewer internships, whether it might be more realistic in terms of the opportunities that are out there in the field.
Because if we’re looking at it just now, there aren’t the number of mid-level and then senior level jobs that correspond to the number of interns that I anecdotally see populating in museums, or at least the percentage of free labor that I see running or underpinning the museum. And so I wonder if it would help us have these kind of knock-on domino conversation about creating opportunities right up a pipeline, and to be realistic about those opportunities.
Rather than to have this massive knot in the pipeline, right after someone gets just enough experience to apply for an entry level position, and then realizes the competition is so fierce that they’ve spent a couple years doing tons of internships and they’re not sure what for.
Ed: Yeah, one of the things that I always find interesting as someone who in the past has consumed a large number of interns, they would cycle through every school year, just being in museum studies classes and seeing the numbers of people who are hoping to get into the field and knowing what awaits them in entry level positions. And that mismatch, that seems to persist year in and year out, has been something really hard to come to grips with.
So, I think any step towards realigning the field to be a little bit more realistic, seems like it should be, in the long run, a good thing. But certainly not painful.
I was interested, particularly, E., to talk a little bit about the desire or the feeling that you need to be stealth. I imagine it’s probably a largely protective measure. But I’m interested to hear why it is you think these issues are so difficult to speak about and write about openly.
I know that’s a personal decision and Michelle talked a little bit about why she feels comfortable talking about it. But I’d love to get your perspective on someone who doesn’t feel comfortable, because I think that is a huge part of, certainly, the lower entry level people in the field who feel powerless and disenfranchised and not able to speak publicly about things that are important and need to be fixed.
E.: Those are great questions. Thank you. And I’ll also thank you both Ed and Suse, for being willing to have me on, on the podcast, anonymously. Because by and large, our interactions with the press have really necessitated having someone on the record, publicly. And so that is where Michelle has been so inspiring, and so willing to just put herself out there.
But we also, as she spoke to you, we work really collaboratively in this small group. And by extension, with lots of different contributors to the project, thought partners, people who’ve been willing to have these tough conversations and brainstorm with us.
And, yeah, I’ll be very honest, in art history, I finished a PhD a couple of years ago, and had been bouncing around between teaching and museum work, or other kinds of art organization work. But I’m in my early 30s, and have yet to attain a position that is in any way permanent, or not related to quote-unquote soft funding, as is popular to say in museum spaces. It’s not related to particular grants, project funds, things like that.
And I really wish that I felt more comfortable to be more open with my advocacy interests in the field. But I’ve also been in rooms where I have heard people talked about, in terms of making waves, causing problems and how that’s perceived, especially among higher and senior management across the board. So I don’t know exactly what my future holds for me.
Michelle spoke to, the spreadsheet also came in a moment when many people in my immediate peer group are having conversations about what it would take for us to stay in museums, versus leaving the field altogether. So as all of that is playing out over the next couple of years, I didn’t and others in our group just didn’t feel, felt that that would be putting us in a very vulnerable position, to the point that it might directly have some kind of, perhaps not intentional, but implicit effect on our job searches, when it comes right down to it.
I would love to see that change, and maybe some or all of us will make different decisions in the next couple of years as we are in slightly more stable, financial positions. But I think it also really speaks to the problem. And as you said, Ed, we have a certain amount of, I’ve reached a certain amount of stability that I certainly did not have 10 or 15 years ago when I was trying to break into entry level positions.
And so, I think that the whole idea of being an anonymous collective has also political power. And I’m thinking back to learning about the Guerrilla Girls in my early art history classes, and the power in that kind of group identity that we’ve been able to foster.
Ed: Well, and this is certainly something that appeals to the punk in Suse and I, let’s just throw something together and figure out a way to solve it, or at least work on it. That kind of self-organizing bottom up thing is so much easier to do nowadays, thanks to the internet. It has created any number of problems, but it does actually still have its uses.
Michelle: For sure. And it’s also, I’m a design curator, and it’s the notion of prototyping something or doing something in beta. I think so often in art history, we’re told that perfection is a 20 minute paper that you have spoken out 10 times over in front of your professor and one other person, and then bring to a conference for five other people to hear. It’s having a territory which you don’t share with anyone else. And in fact, actively make sure that no one else can trespass upon.
And it’s working on your own a lot of the time. I think in most of our graduate programs, especially as art historians or historians of any stripe, it’s fairly solo work. And then you hit working life and many people are working throughout their entire academic career, many people find a job after their academic career. Most of the time, they have to learn how to work with other people.
And sometimes it’s really useful. A lot of the times, I think only the good projects that I’ve done have always been whether academic or otherwise, collaborations with people. So I think that’s what we found here.
Ed: Yeah, that’s such a fascinating anti-pattern, like so much of modern practice is deeply collaborative based. And yet, the academic training so many of us have is so focused on the singular scholar squirreled away doing their thing.
Michelle: Which is another privilege. I mean, who gets to do that anymore? Everybody who I know from undergraduate right the way through has had a job, sometimes five. Especially going to a state school, I don’t know someone who was able just to say, you know what, I’m going to check out for five years and just read by myself. So, yeah, it is anti-pattern, for sure.
Suse: Yeah, something E. was saying a few minutes ago that really resonated for me, was also this idea of what it means to work in public and to have certain ideas, certain practices, especially when we’re talking about activist work or social justice work attached to your name. I think that Ed and I have both, as people who’ve sort of done, whether it was writing or now podcasting, we’ve both done a lot of working in public throughout our careers, thinking a lot about the implications, in terms of who would hire you, who wouldn’t hire you? And what that might mean for being public with your thoughts.
But Michelle, you have been publicly writing about these issues related to labor equity and museums for, I think, the first thing that I found written from you was about eight years ago on this topic. There may be some earlier ones, but E. was talking about her reticence to be open about her identity for very significant reasons. How do you think the fact that you have been doing this public work and this public writing and have, in this case, been the public face of the AMT group, how do you think that’s shaped your professional practice and the way that you approach the sector and in fact, the way the sector approaches you?
Michelle: That’s a very good question. I think it comes from both a deeply personal and also a very practical place. I’m the first in my family to go to college, and my mum left high school when she was 16 years old. I know that I’ve had real privilege, because I went to university in Scotland, where it’s free and anyone can go to any university, some really great ones. I went to Glasgow for my first two degrees.
And then I came to the US when I was 22. And if I have not had a very small windfall to be able to do that, and then combined it with the several summer jobs that I had, and then the jobs through university school years, I wouldn’t have been able to do the one badly paid internship I did at the Guggenheim, which then turned into my entire career, which was based on luck. Sheer, very dumb luck and timing and privilege. I came here having had two degrees for free.
And so, I also then have gone into design, where my mentor, Paola Antonelli, who I respect deeply, has always talked about it being a profession where you take a Hippocratic Oath, a bit like a doctor where you say, first you do no harm. And you don’t really end up having a leg to stand on, if you are putting yourself in a profession like that. And I think it’s the same in any museum profession. As I said, we claim a moral compass in this field. If we find ourselves, I’m now probably halfway through my career, not actually living that, then I cannot open my mouth and espouse those values.
So, I feel very strongly, I’ve always chosen to go to a state school, to teach in a state school. Now, when I teach and I’m not teaching in those places, I donate the fee. And so I give back to a needs based internship, so I can, again, put my money where my mouth is.
And so, yeah, I think it comes from a fairly personal but very long-lived ethical standpoint on this and most matters like it. But I also realized that I don’t think anyone’s going to hire me at this point in time to direct their institution. I think I can function perfectly well, brilliantly, maybe even, maybe not brilliantly. I can function well as a curator, talking to donors, because often what I’m going to be talking about is collecting objects and things like that.
And so I can’t imagine, in the field as it is today, if I were to at a high level have conversations about paying for internships, rather than paying for a museum expansion, or one of the next steps I’d like to talk about is paid family leave, both for people who have young children, but as I did about a year and a half ago, a dying parent. I mean, it’s in a conversation I’m always willing to have, but I don’t actually know whether there’s appetite for it in the end in our field, in very meaningful ways.
And so, I think that definitely has truncated the job possibilities I have. But I think I’m okay with that.
Ed: Amen to that. One of the interesting things I have found, particularly around this issue, we were just talking with someone from the Association of Art Museum Directors about their recent resolution about unpaid internships. And this whole scene has the same feeling to me as watching the Berlin Wall fall down, where three months beforehand, you would feel things are never ever, ever, ever going to change.
And then three months later, everything has changed. And you’re left standing there saying, wow, how did that happen? And this is starting to have that same kind of feel. So I remain cautiously optimistic that there is going to be enough pressure, I think, particularly from folks like you, who have made it impossible for the status quo to sort of go along quietly, as it has, that things will have to change.
I don’t know, Suze, what do you think?
Suse: I really like that optimistic perspective. I do think there is something really important in the critical mass of this, that it’s many people having conversations all at once. On that note, what are some of the practices, what are some of the things that people can do who are listening to this, to help change their own practices? Whether it’s salary transparency, whether it’s the unpaid internships question and in fact, particularly with unpaid internships, what could some of the people who are listening to this do today in their own institutions to change this?
Michelle: In terms of what people can do in a very specific way, and actually, we get asked this a lot, can we join the group? Can we help in any way? Our answer is, I think this might be actually our next op ed, a toolkit for it, is to be collegial and act in solidarity with your colleagues, to find a way to pinpoint something that really matters to you and other people and to take action on it, no matter what you think the response might be.
In terms of general public interest, we could never have understood that this would go quite as viral as it did. But also, know your rights and act within them. Don’t be as afraid to, if you possibly can. And I know again, I say that from a huge place of security and privilege, but when I first thought about participating in this, I really panicked. I had my heart in my throat. I know I said I only have a husband and a cat, but I do have a rent to pay every month. And I’ve spent quite a lot of time getting enough degrees, that I thought, gosh, am I really about to let this go?
But at the same point in time, as E. was saying, you can put your money where your mouth is with no money at all, just by really saying I’m going to be collegial. I’m going to think about what would make this better. It doesn’t have to be confrontational. I’m not anti the institutions that I’ve worked for, I feel very proud to be a part of them, particularly because I get to work with such amazing colleagues.
If you do have the money though, and I do think it’s worth pointing this out, I have donated the equivalent of about a month’s rent. And again, I don’t have kids to put through college, I don’t have a lot of things that other people have to pay their bills with. And so it’s a privilege, not a thing that everyone should do. But I have committed to do that over the next three years and I will do that again, until we cannot have unpaid internships in our field.
I’ve also committed to not work directly with an unpaid intern. And so that’s going to entail some difficult conversations. As I work with new people or a new department, I will have to explain myself again and that can be uncomfortable. And I’m not saying these conversations are easy, in fact they rarely are. But I do think it’s possible to act collegially and with intent and to feel good about doing it afterwards.
Ed: Yeah, I’ve done the same thing. I stopped taking unpaid interns a few years ago and having to have the conversation with our HR department about… but we’ve got all these interns that want to find a place, I’m like, yeah, but we’re not paying them. I don’t feel good working with somebody who I know is not getting paid for their labor is never a fun conversation. But it’s something, pretty much everybody has something that they can contribute to the effort, even if it’s just saying no.
But if they want to say yes, what are other things that you guys could recommend that are actions that people could take?
E.: Yeah, I think that as Michelle and as all of us in the group have said, this is that action doesn’t have to wait for someone to tell you it’s okay. Or, what specific type to take. I think if you’re a person who really cares about paying people fair wages in museums and recognizing that museums run on people, then you’re a person who probably already has some ideas for how you’d like to make your voice heard and what positive contributions you’d like to make.
So, I would say first, listen to yourself, and what you know to be your ethical stance on these issues. And if you’re not as far along in your career, if you’re a person who’s still working as an intern, or an entry level staff member that isn’t supervising interns directly, you can also ask tough questions. You can ask if there are committees or working groups at your institution to address the issue of paid internships or internships more broadly, and get into those rooms, get into those conversations that have to do with internship programs, selection processes.
And those are all moments where you can make your voice heard. Either about specific applicants or about your programs more generally. And I also think that in a small way, just internal conversations, talking with your colleagues about, hey, what do you think about unpaid internships? Let’s talk about this, and trying to get more people into these conversations. And I think that that already is having ripple effects, I think we’re seeing.
Michelle: I was going to say also that it’s a great idea to talk outside of your silo. So we’ve had so many conversations with colleagues and friends across institutions and cities even, who work in very different parts of cultural organizations. And I see, I really want to plus one what you said, that you don’t have to wait for somebody.
So often, again, with that sort of solo art historian training comes hierarchy. And sort of figuring that you’d better wait for the person above you to say that it’s okay, or the stepping out of line might in some way, jeopardize your standing with them. And I think we have to sort of let go of a lot of that, and feel empowered to have conversations across departmental lines, across institutional lines.
And that can sometimes start as simply, by saying hello to absolutely everybody you meet, as you walk into an institution on a daily basis, absolutely every single day. So you can start connecting through everyday friendship with the colleagues around you, and being very, very aware of who you work next to, and with.
And I think that’s a very powerful thing, because so often, we silo together for so many reasons, and hearing about the lives of other people and the people that you work with in disparate places is really important to enacting solidarity in very real ways.
Suse: Yeah, that’s very beautiful. So as we finish, people are going to want to contribute to this, they’re going to want to sign up, they’re going to want to find out more, what’s the best way for them to do so?
E.: You can follow us on Twitter. We have a very healthy social media presence that everyone in the group contributes to. We have some real ace Twitterers among us.
Suse: You do, they’re so good.
E.: I highly encourage that. And Michelle, do you want to talk about any other ways that people can follow along or get in touch?
Michelle: Sure, I think Twitter is a great place. You can look at the spreadsheets, we have them pinned on our Twitter profile, which is just Art Museum Transparency on Twitter. And we really encourage people who are thinking about collective action to reach out and do so under the mantle of Art + Museum Transparency, if that’s useful, or to reach out if we can connect them with other people who have expertise in, whether it’s recent union activities or other activities within cultural organizations.
I think, yeah, the Twitter is a good hub for that. And we’ve had so many people reach out that we might have someone who is a useful connection for you to take your idea or conversation further.
Suse: Fabulous. Michelle, E., thank you so much for joining us here on Museopunks.
Ed: Yeah, we really appreciate it.
Michelle: Thank you for having us.
E.: Thank you so much for having us and for having these conversations.
Michelle: Yeah, thank you for being here.
Suse: Thank you, Allison, Michelle and E. for your insights and for the hard work you’re all doing to improve the sector.
So, I had planned to start the episode by introducing my new co-host, Ed Rodley. But we kind of dived right in and got into it. And I think this is going to be our new rhythm moving forward, just getting into the glorious meat of the issues. Right, Ed?
Ed: I think that pretty much characterizes our whole professional relationship with each other. Hi, let’s talk. And then later on, following up with, by the way, my name is Ed, what’s your name? Do you remember the first time we actually corresponded online, Suze?
Suse: Do I remember it? No. Is there a record of it on the internet? There is.
Ed: There is. I actually went back and tried to look, when I was trying to figure out how long have we known each other? And what does known mean in this digital age? I think it goes back to around 2011 at least, when I saw a blog post from this woman in Australia, that was wicked smart. And I was like, oh, interesting. And I think I might have name checked you in a couple of blog posts, and then we started corresponding on Twitter.
And it must have been at least a year before we finally met each other in the flesh.
Suse: Yeah, I think we met almost exactly a year after we started talking. And that was, our first conversations were within a month or two of me really joining the sector. So our correspondence and our conversations within the sector have really been with me throughout my entire museum profession, or at least my entire publicly thinking museum profession. It’s been incredibly formative to think with you and work with you.
And we’ve had a couple of actual projects that we’ve done together as well.
Ed: I know, that’s amazing to think that this is, what? Our third major collaboration, I think, Code Words, Humanizing the Digital and now this, or two versions of Code Words and Humanizing the Digital and this?
Suse: Oh, yeah, but were co-chairs of MCN in 2015, I think.
Ed: Oh my God. I forgot that. Okay, yeah, I guess we have a history.
Suse: There’s a little bit of history here. So when I put a call out looking for a co-host and co-collaborator, I really didn’t know who was going to respond. And when you were one of the people who did, I was quite excited. I spoke to a number of people about the possibility. But after our conversation, I kept returning to the fact that every time I’d worked with you, it really helped push my thinking in new ways and that was a pretty compelling argument.
Ed: Well, that was certainly the same way I felt when you said you were looking for a co-host, I was like, oh, I’d like to work with Suze again, because you always force me to do more and deeper thinking than I already think I’m doing, even though I tend to think of myself as doing a lot of thinking. Your ability to frame issues and really get at the meat of things is something I’ve always been really impressed by and eager to get more of. So what a great opportunity to do that all the time now.
Suse: I agree completely. It’s a little mutual admiration society, but also a mutual pushing each other forward society. And I think that is the part that I’m most excited about.
Ed: Me too. Me too. I can’t wait to see what we get up to.
Suse: Yeah, me too. So on that note, we should wrap up today’s episode. I got so much out of this discussion and I’m so thrilled that the sector is having this discussion. As someone who works with emerging professionals as part of my day job, it means so much to have a big, broad and deep conversation about unpaid internships and what they mean for the sector.
Ed: And as someone who gave up actually working with unpaid interns, because I couldn’t stand the exploitation of it, I am so excited that maybe that will change, and I can actually work with them again. Because you get so much out of working with emerging professionals, they bring new viewpoints, they bring new energy. And I definitely feel their lack in the current way of things. So fingers crossed.
Suse: All right, well, here’s to a little bit of sector change.
Suse: We’ve popped links to much of what we spoke about today in the show notes, which you can find at museopunks.org, along with transcripts of the episode.
Ed: Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with us on Twitter, @Museopunks, and of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes or Stitcher. See you next time.