Gallery Girl

I graduated in July 2009 having already done a substantial amount of work experience in between university engagements. I went straight into an internship as a gallery assistant at a contemporary art gallery in East London. I was paid expenses up to £10 a day. However I worked with them for two months (July & August) and did not receive my August expenses payment until December. I have to say I learnt a great deal in this time; in my final week I was actually the manager of the gallery (the manager of the gallery was at this time still an unpaid intern herself, but with the promise of paid work when her 6 month internship was complete).

In September I began a six-month internship at a major national museum, working on exhibitions with six other interns. I am the youngest (I’m 21) and least educated (I only have a BA). I am also the only one still living with my family. As I am only required to work four days per week, I began another internship (in the absence of a job and with the need to do something else other than this first internship), at a small local authorities gallery. This second internship has been incredibly rewarding; I have been able to co-curate an exhibition which has been a fantastic opportunity to complete, and this organisation has always been very grateful and supportive of the work I have done for them.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for my primary internship at this major London museum. My job role from the outset has been Personal Assistant to the Head of Exhibitions in the department, which is different to the other interns who are each allocated to individual exhibitions. I believed that undertaking this role would give me a greater insight to the running of the museum, but my manager has mainly ‘kept me in the office’ unlike the other interns who are much more involved with communicating with various companies, collaborators, and departments of the museum, as well as attending relevant meetings. My manager sees me as quite literally her Personal Assistant. My main jobs are checking her emails, scheduling appointments and completing her vast amount of petty cash claims (for which I am required to make up the circumstances as they are almost always for personal or internal meetings). Other inane tasks she has required for me to do include buying her opera & theatre tickets, booking her car valet service and completing her daughter’s visa waiver forms for a family holiday to the US. In a similar vein, the interns were on one occasion required to work as waitresses for a department-organised event (which was particularly painful for me as this is what I do at weekends to earn money).

From the outset I have resented these tasks. I always felt that doing this internship was just about ‘getting a reference’, and that was it. I have never enjoyed it, and it is severely unlikely that I would accept a job offer in the department, let alone in the job I am doing now. I have nonetheless worked hard and have had very few absences.

On Friday morning (my only day off from them) I received a phone call from my manager that can only be described as a tirade of insults about the work I have done for her. Amongst other claims, she said I was uncommitted, came and went as I pleased and was always ‘last in first out’. I can’t express how untrue these claims are; the only ‘leave’ I have taken was an odd few days to work on my exhibition at my other internship (which I don’t believe she ever supported). I believe the trigger for this outburst may have been when I reminded her I was taking one day off to do some paid waitressing unusually in midweek (she is also completely unsympathetic to any financial woes that this internship creates). She said she regretted offering me the internship and at this stage she couldn’t write me a reference.

I am now facing my final four weeks at the internship. I feel utterly singled out, and to confirm the ‘bad feeling’ I had about my manager from the beginning, I now know she is working completely against me, not with me. I wish so much that I had walked away from the internship when I first felt this. If I walk away now I will have wasted a great deal of time and money, and will forgo any chance of getting a reference. If I stay, I fear that she will refuse to write me a reference anyway. I feel completely in a ‘catch-22′ situation - there is no-one I can complain to about this, within the museum or otherwise; any action will result in me losing my reference.

I have never received any expenses payment for this internship, and estimate my expenditure on travel during this time to be over £1000. To add insult to injury, I am frequently being asked to contribute £5-£10 to the tea kitty.

I am sure you must receive more messages like this than you can handle, but let me say it really has been a relief just to write this down and tell someone.

2 Responses to “Gallery Girl”

  1. 1 Mark Watson 02/24/2010 at 3:49 pm

    Many sympathies Gallery Girl, it sounds like you had a shocker with this “internship”. I must say however that, from what you have written , it does lokk very much like that organisation should have paid you for your work for them, as you do appear to be a perfect candidate for being due the Minimum Wage. Accusing you of “coming and going as you pleased” seems particularly galling as this is a specific right that you should have if you were not to be excepted from being paid as a “volunteer”.

    If you were interested in finding more about what your rights are in this situation, please do feel free to email me (anonymously if you like) and I would be more than happy to give you advice. You can choose to take it, or ignore it as you please, but it would be good for you to at least know what you are entitled to, expecially if you are not going to receive a reference from them! If you have done 6 months for them, for 4 days a week, you may well be entitled to a pretty hefty sum in pay, which is easy to go about claiming.

    My email address is, do feel free to make contact!

    Best wishes


  2. 2 sara 02/24/2010 at 6:28 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experiences Gallery Girl, you are clearly an articulate and intelligent person and I am sure a better opportunity will come your way soon! Your article is the sort of press that has the power to change these unfair issues in the industry one day so well said.

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