New Artist-Led Project Surveys Plight of Canadian Arts Interns

by Rea McNamara on January 27, 2016 Newswire

From CultureCulture Facebook Page: "In the survey so far, most #artsinterns do comms, PR & other low-visibility pink jobs."

From CultureCulture Facebook Page: “In the survey so far, most #artsinterns do comms, PR & other low-visibility pink jobs.”

If an emerging arts worker wants a leg up in the art world, it’s generally acknowledged that a necessary entry point is working an internship. While some of those internships are paid, the lived reality in the Canadian culture sector is that most are unpaid. A new artist-led project is addressing this, with the aim to create a set of best practices for the future treatment of arts interns.

CultureCulture, co-led by Montreal artists JA Pedersen and Benjamin Bruneau, is taking the first step in circulating online a survey that will collect data on the subject. It asks who works unpaid arts internships, what their responsibilities are, what career gains they’ve taken away from those positions, and whether or not interns are replacing paid workers. The Canadian Arts Internship Survey was assembled with the help of ArtBridges, C Magazine, Thinking Rock Community Arts, Artist-Run Centers and Collectives Conference (ARCA) and the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU). It launched last October in both English and French.

In an email interview with AFC, Pedersen — who also works as an arts administrator— acknowledges the initiative stemmed from her own experience. After interning at two Toronto and Montreal-based organizations, she and her fellow interns came away “feeling under-appreciated, burn-out, and helpless.” They were unaware of the organization’s culture, and ultimately felt they weren’t further ahead than they were to begin with. “Without prior connections, an intern has no way of knowing what they’ll get in exchange for their time, and people within organizations are understandably tight-lipped about their peers [working in other organizations in the culture sector] since the arts are so insular.”

Originally, the project was suppose to be an “intern-happiness index”, a Glassdoor-like database providing workers with inside intel from their peers on Canadian cultural organizations. However, the scope shifted when the AGYU became a partner. Pedersen credits Michael Maranda, the force behind its Waging Culture survey project, for steering CultureCulture away from “the ‘name-and-shame’ method” and focus on gathering quantifiable data: “if we know who’s working these internships, what sort of work is being done, what career gains are coming from them, and if they’re replacing paid workers, that lets us advocate more productively than knowing if they were happy or not.”

Screen shot from CultureCulture's Canadian Arts Internship Survey. (Credit: CultureCulture)

Screen shot from CultureCulture’s Canadian Arts Internship Survey. (Credit: CultureCulture)

According to the Canadian Intern Association, there are few laws in Canada that define internships directly. In Ontario, unpaid internships are illegal unless they are part of a college or university program, provide training for certain professions or meet six “trainee exceptions”. (A recent development was the Ontario Labour Ministry forcing the publications Toronto Life and The Walrus to end their unpaid internship programmes because they were in “contravention” of the Employment Standards Act.) But each province varies in the nature of their employment standards legislation. Similar to New York, Quebec allows unpaid internships to happen at non-profits with “social and community purposes”; one of the exceptions in British Columbia is providing “hands on” training.

Since its October launch, CultureCulture’s survey has had just over 150 respondents, mostly from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. “We need a lot more data before we can start drawing conclusions, but I’m seeing some troubling trends emerging already: most respondents identify as women, most are white, [and] only ¼ reported finding work as a result of their internship,” says Pedersen, who has been sharing some of those results via CultureCulture’s Facebook page. Further, it appears as if emerging female arts workers are being saddled with “pink” jobs: “low-visibility work with emotional labour attached to it, like communications, social media, coordination.”

The survey will be open for the next few months, and Pedersen wants to gather a sample size that gathers at least 100 responses from all the provinces. If you’re are interested, you can take the survey here. The project does not yet have funding, but Pedersen says the AGYU partnership will enable CultureCulture to apply for funding under its umbrella.

“Currently, it’s a labour of love — a way I can help make the sector more accessible for young people,” says Pedersen. “I see a lot of passionate people burn out or go into debt before they get their first paid job in the arts, and I feel it’s necessary to build more support for these young workers so that their energies can be better spent making waves, instead of struggling to stay afloat.”

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