The Quandary of Funding Internships

A response to Mimi Cheng’s “This Will Be a Great Experience: On Unpaid Labor in the Culture Industry” published in Title on August 30, 2012


By Jeffrey Bussmann



For some the path to a career in arts organizations may include a first step as an unpaid intern. In her recent article in this publication, Mimi Cheng raised important points from the perspective of someone who had recently completed an internship. As a development professional at a museum, I felt moved to respond and clarify the steep challenge we face to secure funding for personnel costs.


The decision to work at a not-for-profit cultural institution is to answer a higher calling. No one goes down the path unwittingly or as a last resort. No one goes into it expecting to become wealthy. We serve knowing that our skills will be vastly undercompensated in comparison to working at a commercial enterprise. But it is for a noble purpose: the furtherance of the institutional mission. Then again, no one goes to work in the cultural sector wanting to endure personal economic hardship.


Resources are chronically scarce at a not-for-profit, and they are overwhelmingly dedicated to programs, not the people who enact them. Take a moment to log into Charity Navigator and browse; the best rated charities are those that run the leanest administratively and put the most of their budget into programs. Donors want their precious dollars to be used towards fulfilling core-mission priorities, not to be funneled into outsized overhead costs or to be used towards additional fundraising.


Any experienced fundraiser will tell you that aside from infrastructure upkeep and improvement, getting money for staff salaries is incredibly difficult. There are some tested strategies to deal with this challenge. First, it is possible to offer a named endowment opportunity to a potential donor, whereby the annual interest on that gift is used to pay for a particular position—example: The Mr. & Mrs. So-and-So Curator of Contemporary Art. The viability of endowing a position is limited to executive-level or other high-visibility staff positions. The principal of these endowment gifts must be quite large and, thus, the pool of prospective donors is generally small. Attaching one’s name to a staff position is also not as attractive as having it associated with a gallery, theater, or public space in a building. Nevertheless, restricted endowment support offers stability for that position (in that it will always exist and cannot be cut due to budgetary fluctuations.)


There is little hope of endowing stipends for interns. There are simply too many other priorities ahead in line. So where else might funds be sought? Corporate sponsorship offers a second possibility, but only under the right circumstances. At ICA we have only one recurring paid internship, which has self-limiting parameters. The stipend is sponsored by one of the two major art auction houses, and in order to qualify an applicant must come from the higher education program run by said auction house. It is not hard to grasp the company’s motivation for this sponsorship; it is really more of an investment that will pay dividends back to them. It must also be noted that this particular gift took years of cultivation to be put into place, which amounts to a substantial amount of paid staff hours for a disproportionately small return. Moreover, this support is only provided on an annual basis and it could be eliminated at any time.


A third strategy for raising money to pay an intern is to write a temporary position into a grant application. Let’s say that a museum will submit a proposal for a large exhibition project that requires archival research that cannot be done by regular staff. In the submitted budget you write in a line item for paying an intern to complete this work. This only succeeds if the proposal is accepted by the funder, but it strictly circumscribes the nature of what the intern will do with his or her time. Don’t forget that once the grant period is over, the internship will be too. However, there is always the looming possibility that the project may be funded at a lower dollar number than was requested, or may not be funded at all. In the case of the former, budget line items will need to be eliminated and a proposed intern will be cut.


None of my words are meant to discourage someone from seeking an internship at a cultural organization. My intention is to illustrate that there are valid reasons, which go beyond what I have outlined here, why it is difficult to cobble together funds for compensating interns. We are not in the business of exploiting young and eager individuals for free labor. Most of us love our interns and put a great deal of effort into mentoring them.


The fact remains that acceptance of an unpaid internship is a personal decision—one that should not be undertaken if it will cause undue fiscal distress upon the person choosing to do it. The question of privilege regarding individuals who can afford to embark on an unpaid internship is a valid concern, but one that is not limited to arts organizations.



Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is currently researching Brazilian cultural organizations for his master’s thesis in Arts Administration at Drexel University.  He also writes for his blog Post-Nonprofalyptic.