This Will Be a Great Experience: On Unpaid Labor in the Culture Industry

By Mimi Cheng

I began working as a Curatorial and Research Fellow at Slought Foundation in the summer of 2011. Fresh out of art school, I was lured by the organization’s progressive ways of thinking about cultural engagement, publics and economies, and was ready to commit myself to a years worth of volunteer labor as a “fellow”. The fact that I was not offered a salary, or at least a monthly stipend, baffled my peers, mentors, and parents. Why would I want to work for free? There were moments in the year during which I felt completely overworked, under appreciated, and unsure of my own abilities. I often questioned why I had been asked to work on certain assignments. These drawbacks were tempered by the opportunity to work with some of the most interesting, engaging, and provocative cultural practitioners of our times. At its worst, my experience at Slought can be viewed as institutional exploitation. At its best, it was a unique opportunity and a tuition free education that has enabled me to think much more critically about cultural and social conditions within my own practice as well as cultural production at large.


Over the years, Slought has brought on board close to 50 fellows, interns, volunteers, and assistants. The degree of involvement of each of these individuals widely differed; some, like me, stayed for a year, while others volunteered for a week. And while I do not claim to know the details of their financial or employment situation, these former students and recent graduates were willing to perform both creative and manual labor under temporary, unpaid, and unprotected conditions. Because of Slought’s inability to fund formal, long-term staff positions, it has continually had to refresh its pool of fellows, interns, and volunteers. This has resulted in what a friend and colleague calls the unfortunate “revolving door” policy regarding personnel within small non-profits. We get burnt out, move on to accept paid work, or become dismayed by our inability to initiate projects.


To be clear, Slought is a small non-profit. It relies on this revolving door to keep the place up and running. Its annual operating budget is less than $60,000. Despite this, it is teeming in cultural capital. In the year that I was there, we worked with the likes of Peter Greenaway, Ai Wei Wei, Carolee Schneemann, Teddy Cruz and numerous other exemplary cultural practitioners. But compared with the ICA, with an annual budget of $3 million, or the Mural Arts Program, that has close to $8 million, or the Fabric Workshop and Museum, that has just over $2 million, Slought has a minor financial footprint in Philadelphia. This means that no one who works at Slought, ranging from the executive director to its curators, can be paid a living wage. Whether by teaching at Penn, as was the case for the director, or juggling three part-time jobs, as was my case, we all found ways to stay afloat. I was fortunate enough to receive a one-time, modest stipend half way through the year that was funded by a project grant from PEW, but this was the first time that a fellow has been able to receive a check of any amount for their work. Slought has survived for ten years on an immeasurable currency of relationships and the occasional generosity of project-based funders. This seems to many to be a highly unusual, and highly improbable model of cultural production, but upon further examination, its reliance on volunteers and what we at Slought called “creative administration” is not uncommon.


I share this information not to condemn Slought’s practices or expose its financial limitations, nor do I intend to merely dwell upon that of other organizations in the city. I would instead like to focus on the normalization and expectation of unpaid labor in the culture industry at large, examine its consequences, and consider the possibility of sustainable alternatives. Why have so many of us worked for free in order to produce culture, and does this simultaneously evoke and undermine cultural production’s constant need to justify its value? How can we establish fair models of compensation and exchange that contribute to the personal economies of workers while taking into consideration the practical limitations of the host organization?


If you browse the “Job Listing” section of, often it seems that there are more volunteer opportunities or unpaid internships than there are paid positions. Philly Fringe is looking for an Assistant Volunteer Coordinator. The Annenberg Center is seeking an unpaid public relations intern, with possible evening and weekend hours, as necessary. According to the Cultural Data Project, close to 58% of the arts and culture workforce in Philadelphia is comprised of volunteers or interns. The position taken by most organizations that promote unpaid labor is that they need the additional support, but there is simply not enough money in the budget to cover stipends or salaries. This is a fair statement, for the most part, as there are very real, practical limitations on the budget sheets of institutions both large and small. Their reliance upon volunteer or minimally compensated labor can then be traced in part to the limited and unequal distribution of funding to cultural organizations within the city itself. According to research done by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, there were a total of 948 arts and cultural organizations in the city in 2010. Of those, 29 (approximately 3%), spent more than $10 million dollars that year. Close to half of all organizations spend less than $25,000. They are considered by GPCA as “Very Small.” While the study does not analyze the ways in which the funds are spent, it would be safe to assume that these 446 very small organizations do not have the financial capacity to fund salaries, let alone stipends.


However, within these very small organizations, gift economies are created and maintained as artists, workers, and members go unpaid. Unlike the 3% at the top, a certain agility and creative autonomy arises when there is no accountability to board members, foundations, or private donors. As the members of Bodega wrote in their essay for the First Among Equals show at the Institute of Contemporary Art:


“In a way, being financially un-beholden works to our favor; the larger an organization gets, the slower it moves. The fact that Bodega is operated by five individuals who are only accountable to one another—not a board, clients, or annual reports—aids in our independence from external interests and enables our agility as a cultural organization. We are enabled by our structure but restricted by our lack of funding in the same way larger organizations are enabled by their funding but potentially restricted by their structure.”


As the rest of their text acknowledges, Bodega would undoubtedly be further enabled by access to financial resources. “We would love to have foundational support,” they clearly state. But in order to become eligible for the majority public or private funding, groups like Bodega must adopt the characteristics of larger, more formal institutions, including being classified as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, establishing governing bodies, and most ironically, have an annual operating budget of over $50,000. Grants are awarded to organizations in proportion to their existing size. As a result, it can take years before small organizations are able to reach any sort of financial security or programmatic stability, which is an example of why Slought, in its tenth year of operation, is exemplary in this regard.


On the other side of the spectrum is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which does not face this precarity. It is the city’s most stable and visible arts institution and according to the Museum’s 2011 Annual report, employs over 300 individuals. The Education Department alone “supported a total of 714 volunteers and interns, who contributed a total of 78,038 hours in fiscal year 2011.” Some of these interns are part of the prestigious Museum Studies Internship Program. Each of the 40 or so interns are expected to work and learn within various museum departments for nine weeks from 9 AM to 4 PM in the afternoon. According to the program’s site, “The Museum Studies Internship is unpaid. Some colleges and universities offer assistance to students taking unpaid internships. Students should contact their college or university directly to determine if such funds are available. In addition, for Summer 2012, a donor has made available two stipends for interns of diverse backgrounds.”


The appeal of this program, as with most other unpaid or volunteer positions, is the expectation that your involvement will enable future opportunities. The lack of monetary compensation is made up for in cultural capital. However, these opportunities are often offered to those who are privileged enough to accept them. As in the case of the PMA, an applicant must forego nine weeks worth of potential wages, and unless one already lives within commuting distance, one must also spend an additional two and a half month’s worth of rent in order to participate. The irony in this is that while the PMA and other similar organizations place emphasis on outreach programs and exhibitions that increase accessibility to arts and culture in the city, these aspirations are not echoed in their ability to successfully attract a group of interns that accurately represent the demographics of the city. In these situations, privilege is awarded with more privilege, and unless specific programs designed to subsidize these positions become more regular, the new generation of curators and arts administrators risks becoming a rather homogenous group.


The problem with the normalization of unpaid cultural labor goes beyond the fact that recent grads are barely able to repay their student loans with their humanities degree in hand, or that artists are working three jobs in order to sustain their artist-run organizations. On a societal level, how we compensate cultural labor is symptomatic of the value we assign its products or outcomes. Philadelphia has historically been home to a number of exemplary cultural institutions, both traditional and alternative. In recent years, however, in Philadelphia as well other cities around the country, there has been an increased demand for cultural products, however ill defined. The Barnes Collection has finally joined the PMA and Rodin Museum on the Parkway. The Department of Commerce has funded the refurbishing of Frankford Ave into an “Arts Corridor.” The Porch at 30th Street Station has received extravagant grants from the NEA and Knights Arts Challenge to “build community” through a mixture of mini golf, farmers markets, and beer gardens. Cities have come to view the products of arts and culture as a means to increase tourist revenue, “revitalize” disinvested communities or otherwise lackluster urban spaces. But who are the direct, sustained beneficiaries of these strategic investments?


Another troubling issue that arises from this practice is not only the degree to which arts and culture is used as a means for economic development, but also the means through which its value is measured. The traditional measure of value as defined by the average amount of labor that goes into a given product does not apply here. Instead, the value of a particular project, exhibition, or organization is now determined by its ability to generate measurable, material revenue. In other words, this prevalence of this practice points to the underlying, flawed position that culture does not hold inherent value, but potential value.


So how do we begin to tackle these issues?


Perhaps the first, and most fundamental step is to acknowledge that the normalization of unpaid labor in the cultural industry is unsustainable for both individuals and organizations. Aspiring cultural practitioners are investing heavily in cultural capital without the promise of any return on their investment of time and labor, while organizations are foregoing diversity and administrative continuity for temporary assistance. Because there is no singular reason why this situation is so pervasive, there is no singular solution. We can, however, begin to imagine a few possibilities for transformation on both larger systematic levels but more importantly, on smaller more personal scales.


For those of us who have worked, or are currently working under unsustainable conditions, we must first recognize the value of our labor and question its current status as a protocol within the institutions for whom we are working. Host organizations, especially those with significant funding, resources, and networks, must devise solutions that ease the financial burdens on their volunteers and interns and smaller organizations can promote and further this discussion by applying pressure where pressure is due.


Here are two simple, modest and practical suggestions: Could all interns who work in city-funded organizations such as Mural Arts and the PMA receive SEPTA student passes? What if connections were forged with university campuses to offer reduced-rate housing during the summer months when a portion of its dorms are vacant?


On broader, more theoretical terms, Theodor Adorno explains in Aesthetic Theory that even though art can be materially produced through a set of capitalist relations, its products do not necessarily foster this hegemonic system. Art can generate social relations that are immaterial and are thus deemed worthless in a market. Perhaps this is where we can begin to think about sustained solutions to the issue at hand. Large institutions like the PMA, smaller organizations like Slought, and even smaller initiatives like Bodega each have their own set of resources and limitations, networks and processes. It is time we begin to think outside of our own institutional silos and consider sharing knowledge and resources in ways that can increase each of our operating capacities without siphoning material or financial assets.


A conversation must begin around these issues, and Philadelphia is a near-ideal city in which to have it. Philadelphia is an affordable city compared to New York, and while it is inevitably subject to the trends of a neoliberal economy, it can at least side-step the vertiginous forces of the art market. Because of these factors, the opportunity exists to produce new means and forms of cultural production that resist the status quo by considering the conditions in which art and cultural labor can be justly compensated, exchanged and valued, even if not fully formalized.



Mimi Cheng is currently based in Philadelphia, where she is pursuing freelance work. She received her BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011.


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