There was once a time when college graduates got paid for work in their field. I have not experienced this, but apparently, most people over thirty have. For the final interview with real gallery girls (in honor of Bravo’s reality TV “Gallery Girls”), I decided to investigate: what was the internship like before it replaced the full-time, entry-level job? Today, we hear from Sharon Butler, now-successful arts writer and creator of the blog Two Coats of Paint, about interning for the Boston Athenæum as an art history student in 1980:
Very few students did internships and so there wasn’t a wide range of options, but when the art history secretary got notices, she posted them, often handwritten, on a small bulletin board near her desk. My internship was at the Boston Athenæum, which seemed sort of prestigious, and did, in fact, flesh out my fledgeling resume, which also included a year running copiers at Stones, a high-end xerox shop that catered to Harvard Square architectural firms. Making color copies for architects was hellish—they were very picky—but I loved the camaraderie of the staff, and a couple of those coworkers are among my best friends today.
I received 3 art history credits at Tufts University [for my internship] but no cash. Essentially, I borrowed money (student loan) in order to spend six hours per week filing black and white photographs so that I wouldn’t have to study for exams or write papers. 3 easy credits that counted toward my major— seemed like a no-brainer.
I worked from 11-2 pm twice a week. When I arrived, the two other workers, a middle-aged art historian and a librarian, would say hello and then go out to lunch, leaving me completely alone to file the stacks of photos that had collected on my desk.
Tick, tick tick. If you’ve seen Marclay’s THE CLOCK you’ll have some idea how time can inexplicably expand against all the laws of physics and the universe. When the ladies returned from lunch at around 1 PM, I would continue to work in silence for another hour and then go home.
Sometimes I saw interesting pictures— like archival shots of a big explosion at a molasses factory— but mostly the photos documented architecturally significant buildings. The internship was so crushingly dull that I had to force myself to go, and several times, when I just couldn’t face the silent, screaming boredom of it, I called in sick.
I was surprised when, at the end of the semester, they told me I was the best intern they had ever had. I never saw either one of them again.
She later added that, aside from a similar job in grad school, this was the end of her unpaid filing days.
So what’s new? On one hand, an optional six-hour-per-week college course replacement filing pictures seems pretty tame by today’s standards, when most people can expect to hold internships for a year or more before getting hired in their discipline. On the other, employers now have to appear to meet a certain standard of professional education, and their applicants can afford to be selective. Sharon’s own “Two Coats of Paint” internship program, for example, promises hands-on blogging training and a personal, working relationship. So there’s that— if you can’t make ‘em pay you, at least they’ve gotta teach you.