Art School Survival Guide #4: All Hail the Intern

To put it simply – anyone who is interested in working in a creative industry WHATSOEVER should undertake an internship. At least once.

Becoming an intern at a gallery, museum or arts organisation will be one of the single most important steps you will ever take in working towards a career in the arts. I would go so far as to say they will be even more important than a degree or qualification. Even for those who aspire solely to being practicing artists.


First of all, working for free is a surefire way to prove your passion and dedication for your field. Being able to demonstrate that you are motivated and hard-working goes a long way in an era where many expect to be handed everything in life on a silver platter. Secondly, an internship or volunteer position gives you unique insight into the mysterious inner workings of the art world. Developing an understanding of the way these places operate, and the kinds of people who operate within them is your ticket to the top. For artists, understanding the workings of the art gallery will set you in good stead for working with them for the rest of your life. Remember: knowledge is power.


If you are currently studying, you may find that your course has a formal internship or work experience component built into the curriculum. This means you are allocated time in which to undertake the placement, and it counts towards your final qualification. In this case your school/college/university will already have an established relationship with organisations, and it may just be a case of selecting which best suits your interests.

If your course does not have an internship component, you should seek to do one anyway. As you will have to take this on outside of school hours this may mean having to sacrifice your Saturday (say, to mind a gallery) or an evening or two (to help out at an opening night bar). Alternatively, you might like to find an organisation that will take you on during the holidays, for a couple of weeks straight.

Bear in mind, that you needn’t take on a ‘serious’ internship. Casual volunteering at an organisation will provide you with just as much insight and kudos. You don’t need to be studying, or even have formal qualifications at all. %99 of organisations are over the moon to find new volunteers. Without a formal arrangement, it may be most appropriate to head to a community organisation. These are most likely to need the help, most likely to appreciate it, and the most fun. They may be looking for someone to help install an exhibition, or help out at an opening, or look after an exhibition for a few hours.

And how to not stuff it up:

  • Be reliable. Just because you’re not being paid doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be where you said you’d be when.
  • Be prepared to do mundane tasks, annoying errands and dirty work. You will be filing and envelope stuffing, you will be fetching endless coffees, and you will probably have to take out the garbage. Do it all with a smile.
  • Show initiative: if you identify something useful you could be doing – do it.
  • Make use of any special skills: writing, design, the perfect phone manner and so on
  • Don’t buy into  workplace gossip and politics – there’ll be plenty of time for that once you are a bona fide employee.
  • Listen and watch constantly. Make like a sponge.

If all goes well, be sure to swap contact details with the organisation before your internship is complete. Not only will you want to be able to call upon them as referees, but you never know when they will call out of the blue, begging you to come back – this time with pay.

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