When considering the themes of the art world in 2019, money seems to dominate the narrative, perhaps slightly more than usual, and from a few different angles. Jeff Koons reclaimed the title of most expensive sale of an artwork by a living artist at $90.2 million. Protests addressed the controversial philanthropy of Kanders and the Sacklers, among others. Museum staff unionized at the New Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. And museum staff around the world engaged in a radical act of transparency by revealing their salaries in an open spreadsheet, which garnered thousands of entries. The low wages for most cultural workers have captured much attention, but it is less clear how progress will be made in this area. Perhaps one starting place in bringing fair wages into the sector is to first eliminate the practice of failing to compensate interns for their labor.  

It’s a suggestion promoted by the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Getty Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation. From the perspective of diversifying the voices that shape cultural narratives it is an essential first step. Withholding compensation from the entry point to museum professions increases the likelihood that these positions will be reserved for the children of wealthy families, for whom a wage of $15 per hour is a marginal and irrelevant degree of compensation relative to the status provided by an affiliation with an elite cultural institution. 

Today Ithaka S+R has published a case study of a paid summer internship program at the Brooklyn Museum that first ran in 2018 and continued in 2019, funded by Citi Foundation. The program participants were highly diverse both racially and socioeconomically. They were afforded a rich set of opportunities–both in terms of experience and professional development–to draw from as they begin planning their careers. This case study offers important insights into the value of compensation at this stage of one’s career, as well as tangible evidence of the impact carefully crafted internship programs can have on those considering a career in the cultural sector. 

While many institutions claim to care about diversifying the field and improving equity among those already in it, unpaid internships are still commonplace in the cultural sector. Ensuring that everyone is paid for their labor equalizes access from the beginning, an essential first step. Without it, diversifying the field will continue to be a sisyphean task, confounding future generations just as it has prior generations.