The Problem with Art Gallery Internships
Review by Farah Dianputri

My first arts internship was working at a gallery in Kuala Lumpur. I was there for a month. If you’d ask me to write an honest job description it would be:

Art Gallery Intern
RM10 a day
• Rearrange the books in the library sometimes
• Wait around at the gallery from 7am to 7pm to tell people not to step over the line.
• Zero insight into how the gallery worked and what went into putting up exhibitions.
I, being a naïve follower in the cult of kiasu-ism, constantly sought out things to do from a gallery team that was altogether indifferent to its interns.

I had it good. My fellow intern endured six months of this.

I wish they could tell you this was just an isolated incident but the truth is it’s a symptom of a more insidious pattern that points to the failure of the arts establishment to youth aspiring to work in the industry.

I’m not levelling this complaint solely at the Malaysian art scene. The next internship I had was with an art space in London. Here is how they describe their traineeship programme:

“We are committed to a future in which young people can access creative professions regardless of gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background. We are committed to inclusion and social justice: culture should be a valid career choice irrespective of experience or background and a diverse workforce pipeline is needed to keep our creative economy thriving and innovative.”

Now compare their rhetoric to my honest job description:

Art Trainee
£5 a shift (my cost of travelling onsite, via public transport)

• Water the garden exhibit
• Make a round to pick up cigarettes left onsite
• Clean the mirrors that have a poem laser cut onto them
• Tell children and drunk yuppies not to run in the tunnel installation
Under the guise of “art trainee”, we were essentially free visitor experience on a transport allowance.

I feel like I should congratulate whoever did the copywriting for their website. It’s the perfect “woke” false advertising in offering experience and training, when all we got were cigarette butts and the unsavory feeling that our aspirations were being milked for all our energy.

Maybe it’s because everyone who tries to find their break in the arts falls into this silent consensus. So what if you had to stand in the dark after-hours? So what if you’re burnt out from your bar-shifts and cross-city speeding? There are generations of other interns who came before you who did the same. That’s the price you pay instead of becoming a yuppie like the rest of your siblings or your graduating class. Make yourself useful. It’s as if everyone expects that from an artworker: pure passion alone compensates as a means of sustenance.

Altogether these encounters had convinced me that there was something demeaning in the way the art world views young people. For all the displays that supposedly champion inclusivity and socio-political issues, they seem blindsided to what’s happening within their own walls. As it turns out they are just as guilty of performative “woke-washing” as fast-fashion and mega-corporations.

The complaint is not about menial labor. Ultimately, someone has to be there to do the day-in and day-out running of the gallery space. What becomes glaringly obvious is that we were being swapped in for art workers that the gallery refuses to even bother paying properly. Which beckons another question. How does the art world treat their essential workers who take care of their spaces? What happens to those arts workers who are in a most precarious position as soon as lockdowns leave those spaces deserted?

These were also not fringe enterprises: the first is probably one of the most well-regarded galleries in KL and the second was supported by the Arts Council UK.

My experience is not unique. Anyone who had made the questionable decision to pursue the arts with intentions of working in the nebulous entity known as the art world, would have had similar encounters. And what I bore was rather mild. It has gotten to the point where I will never be surprised at the sheer level of disrespectful, and in some cases extractive, behaviour that people I care about have been subjected to.

Arts establishments should stop having the audacity to claim to be a space where culture is challenged, when they perpetuate the same values. How do you expect me to go into an exhibition that highlights social issues when you’re so blind to the social barriers that drive off young people from pursuing the arts as a career? How do you expect the institution to survive when you’re so insensitive to the needs of the next generation of arts workers?

To all aspiring curators and future gallerists who are even considering an internship in the arts, I beg you to make your own better honest job descriptions. Young creatives no longer need to pander to gallery walls when they can hold their own in the galleries of social media. The galleries don’t have the oligopoly who gets to curate art.

The movement towards alternative digital art worlds is gathering the momentum to unsettle even the most established institutions worldwide. The White Pube is two young art critics in the UK who based their practice on vivid, no-nonsense reviews on art and brutal criticism of the art world. Their platform has become a place of activism and outreach, where they host a web art residency, a library for successful art funding applications, and a working class writer’s grant.

I think the most profound thing about being a “creative” is being able to conceive a world beyond what we know and what we are told. We often forget we have so much power as young people.

Remember there is no such thing as a new cutting-edge arts experience without you.

For more on the white pube, visit www.thewhitepube.co.uk


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Farah Dianputri is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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