Fine arts students deserve compensation for real work

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Photo Credit: Nikole Pena | Daily Texan Staff

Rachel Jarvis* will be working full-time over the summer — but she won’t be paid for all those hours. After the semester ends, she plans on cashiering at an outdoor retail center (and possibly waitressing) 30 hours or more a week. During the other 10 hours, she’ll working at the Blanton Museum of Art. 

At the Blanton, Jarvis will assist with the execution of important events for donors, visitors and other vital audiences as an intern, but she won’t be paid.  That shouldn’t be the case. Interns in fine arts fields such as Jarvis should be paid because they heavily contribute to many institution’s bottom line — and because students from all economic backgrounds should be able to access experience  in fields that haven’t always been accessible to all. Professional experience in college helps students get their first jobs and internships. But only wages can pay the rent. 

When asked why the museum offered unpaid internships, Blanton spokesperson Penny Snyder said that students get experience and course credit. Out of the five internships the Blanton offers this summer, only one internship is paid, according to the website.

“As an institution, we’re a teaching museum,” Snyder said. “We view internships as an extension of that, so we also view the work they do as a learning experience.” 

That’s true. But students can learn from their experience while directly contributing  to the bottom line. This summer, Jarvis will be planning logistics for vital events like the Director’s Circle, which rewards donors for contributions of hundreds or thousands of dollars to the museum. Other unpaid interns at the museum promote events and help raise the profile of the museum in marketing and public relations roles. She’s going to not only be learning on the job but also doing her part to keep the museum running. 

Moreover, unpaid internships perpetuate class inequality on a broader scale, because not everyone can afford to work for free for sustained amounts of time. Studies show that 22-, 23- and 24-year-old people aspiring to careers in art and design are the most likely to receive help from their parents. For people who don’t have affluent parents, getting that help to do an internship is much more difficult and sometimes impossible. Some manage to find paid work that fits around unpaid internships, but balancing paid with unpaid work doesn’t work out for everyone. Paying interns equalizes the playing field so more students can contribute their talents without wondering how to pay the bills. 

Despite rising awareness of the cost of unpaid internships, many organizations are still taking advantage of students willing to work for free. Karen Munnelly, the director of professional programs in the College of Fine Arts, said the majority of internships fine arts students complete are unpaid. 

“What we have seen with some of the for-profit arts and entertainment companies in Austin is that they are able to get competitive candidates without paying, so they don’t find it necessary to pay,” Munnelly wrote in an email. “There are likely many students who are unable to take an unpaid internship, and as a result, don’t do an internship.”

Jarvis said she is glad to have the internship because she loves the work, but pointed out the financial reality of working without wages. 

“Since my internship, I have to find money to pay rent and other expenses this summer,” she said. “Getting the experience as an intern is important, but even more so, we have to support ourselves.” 

Wong is a Plan II and government senior from McKinney. 

*Editor's note: To protect the privacy of our student interview, we have changed the student's name to the pseudonym Rachel Jarvis.