Museums Tell Me They Hate Me
The first page of James Payne’s book Museums Tell Me They Hate Me features a quote from the editor of Hyperallergic.com, Hrag Vartanian.
“The art world is plagued by these unpaid positions that allow individuals from wealthier backgrounds to benefit from getting their foot in the door, while individuals who can’t afford the privilege of working for free – and it is a privilege – aren’t given the opportunity.”
Vartanian’s perspective along with the book’s subtitle, Paying Attention To The Language Of The Unpaid Internship, provide the context to this unnerving collection of screenshots from museum internship announcements. Payne’s effort reflects an important critical perspective blossoming alongside similar conversations of artists pay – or lack there of.
Recent findings by a-n discovered “70% of contemporary visual artists who took part in publicly funded exhibitions (in England) in the last three years received no fee”.* That fact takes on extra meaning to artists in the U.S. who would consider the arts in England as being particularly well funded in comparison to our own system.
Acid Rain had an email exchange with James Payne in an effort to bring exposure to Museums Tell Me They Hate Me, to the issue itself and to spark a critical conversation that could will lead to real changes in the art world.
AR: How much do museums hate you?
JP: A lot. I will talk about how the zine relates to my own experience, but I do mean for the “Me” in the title to be representative of poor people in general. However, reviewing some moments in my life as micro examples of macro trends might be useful. After I graduated from a state school in the Midwest where I majored in writing about art, worked in a museum gift-store as a Federal Work-Study student, interned at a commercial art gallery, and helped run a DIY arts venue for several years, I applied to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in D.C., which is primarily federally funded, for a summer internship with, I believe, a $1,500.00 stipend. This particular internship had a paid section for six different interns, and many unpaid internships available to perform the same duties. I had a long phone interview and a few days later received a congratulatory email informing me that I had been chosen for the summer internship program. Oddly, because I made sure to let the Hirshhorn know that I could not accept an unpaid internship due to a lack of means – I literally wouldn’t have been able to move there – the offer letter did not mention compensation. Only upon further inquiry did the program supervisor let me know I was accepted to an unpaid position. When I informed them that I could not accept an unpaid position, the supervisor let me know that often interns take an additional job in D.C. in order to cover the expenses for the opportunity to perform their unpaid internship.
Previous to my experience with the Hirshhorn, I had been passed over twice for an unpaid curatorial internship at my hometown’s version of the encyclopedic art museum. At this time, I was already curating exhibitions at different locations in town, and yet, lost the position, once to the scion of a local family of retail magnates, who now works in business. It’s typical that these types of internships, which could be parlayed into further career opportunities in the field, are offered to the children of wealthy families who are either already donors, or are being courted to be so – even when their children are uninterested in pursuing careers in the arts. Even when you are willing to work for free, just for a foot in the door, the deck is still stacked against you if you’re poor – even if you’re already participating in the artworld in the venues – mostly DIY – which will allow poor people to participate. And of course, those venues, like a gallery I later helped run for three years in Columbus, Skylab Gallery, have little to no meaning on a CV or resume evaluated by those already ensconced in cultural institutions. In fact, my hometown contemporary museum designed a special internship program for the same retail scion – I know, because I had to work with them for two weeks at the store I was a work-study student in. Later, they hired the son of the local construction company family fortune to be the entry-level curatorial assistant.
The one unpaid internship I did do that was worth it, was at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Prints and Drawings Room. I was the only intern from a state school, and would likely have not been given the opportunity if my then partner had not already done the same internship. I moved to Chicago in part for this internship, and took a room in a house in Pilsen that didn’t have a lock on the front door for $125.00 a month. Even so, because I was turned down for a series of jobs, I just made rent by buying hundreds of 0.25 cent books at the thrift store and then taking them to Myopic Books to sell for 0.50 to $1 a piece, and by submitting to clinical trials at the University of Chicago. This barely covered rent and the cost of the L to and from the museum, and I was only able to do this because I had an EBT card – so food was covered.
Later, this unpaid internship, merely because it was at an institution in a large city, allowed me to be hired for a position where I was paid $600.00 a month – $500.00 after taxes, because I was a 1099 “contract worker,” to direct a non-profit art gallery in my hometown, which would regard the most menial of positions in Chicago or New York City on a higher level than a position with real responsibility locally. If you broke down my wage hourly at this non-profit art gallery, it would have been a little less than half of minimum wage.
AR: These institutions are not poor though. The Art Institute of Chicago has an endowment of almost $1 Billion, even the Indianapolis Museum of Art has over $300,000,000. What is it about the public perception of non-profits and art museums that allows this to continue?
JP: A larger issue is wage stratification in the first place. It’s taken for granted that people performing different tasks should receive different salaries. Perhaps in some situations that’s right, but if unchecked, this logic will inevitability lead those with decision-making power in institutions to overvalue their own work, and the work others from their social class do. And if one person in an organization can be worth $610,000.00 a year because of their inherent skill or experience, as the AIC’s Douglas Druick is – who I think is great, by the way – then that logic can also be used to justify an unpaid entry-level position. After all, if we’re paying people due to their experience, and you have no experience, then you should not be paid. The AIC head – who was Cuno at the time I was there – could have been paid, say just $600,000.00 a year and that would free up $2,000.00 for each of the five summer P&D interns, but this seemingly obvious solution is verboten.
This is the contortion act “meritocracy” often performs for capital. “Merit,” as a concept, since it is defined by the power structure, aides the power structure; in this example “merit” could be used as the justification to overpay and to underpay. But the part of meritocracy that is supposed to complement this pay structure – the ability for anyone to move up in an organization if they perform well, is an illusion. If even unpaid internships filter out working-class aspirants, which they do, then we can appreciate that the entry-level position to a managerial track will be even more socially stratified. And that those who end up holding power in these organizations, are unlikely to have ever had to take experimental drugs or go hungry in order to pay for their metro ticket even if they did do an unpaid position. This pay structure rewards those who least need compensation, and then tells the poor it’s their fault that they couldn’t attain the positions those from more comfortable backgrounds are in. The mindset outside of cultural institutions regards these positions as jobs that, of course, are only for the wealthy, and doesn’t see that as an issue.
State school students should be going into practical, pragmatic vocations – STEM, or business – and shouldn’t be upset if their aspirations in the humanities are thwarted. It’s regarded as pretentious for a poor person to develop an interest in art or in poetry because it implies they think they are something they are not – that they are not poor. More than this internalized, often unconscious classism, is the virus of neo-liberalism that has infected the Baby Boomer generation, who have methodically restructured our economy to benefit themselves by underpaying, or not paying, the generations that came after them. It may seem dramatic to say, but not paying interns is a material act of generational warfare. It not only robs young people of their day-to-day needs, but tamps down future wages because their future employers a:) know the applicants are desperate to get out of the precariat set and b:) often set entry-level salaries in relation to past pay-scales. Further, the threat of intern-izing the role of any entry-level job is always present. So even when Millennials are hired into full-time positions, they are being paid far less than they are worth and it is, in large part, due to this ever-present noxious cloud of unpaid internships.