On Internships: Reading the Potential of an Art Neophyte

I wish I did it when I was young—apprentice myself to a professional, providing literary assistance in exchange for exposure to sophisticated intelligence; such an experience would have saved me steps in becoming first a writer and then an artist and a composer. The idea of an art internship was unknown when I began my career forty years ago; or if it was, it never entered my head. I now realize I was taking interns before I ever heard the word in the late seventies.

When I wanted to produce animated film in the mid-1970s, I approached a local professor who allowed me to sit in his graduate animation class. The students were told that they could work with me in making a film, whose expenses I would pay. Two of them agreed--Barton Weiss, who later taught in Dallas and organized film festivals there, and Peter Longauer, who built his career upon our collaboration on the film Constructivist Fictions (1976). What happened is that the latter arranged for us to make my (our) film at a New York animation studio favored by artists. Liking his proficiency, the studio's owner hired Longauer to work on other films. A few years later Longauer founded his own animation business. "The Big Apple Minute," long familiar on New York City television screens, was his; so are many logos seen nationally on USA cable.

The term intern originated in medicine to define the initial hospital experience of someone who had graduated from medical school. As I tell my interns, "You've been to medical school, where you worked on cadavers; now here's a live body. Can you cut?" These are internships rather than jobs because the young person has learned a competence, but not had the opportunity to display it. I'm giving an aspiring professional the chance to practice what he or she has learned, so that when he or she applies for a real job, they can distinguish themselves from the applicants who have only college transcrips and earnest references. One incidental benefit is the transmission of professional intelligence.

Most intern-sponsors tell me they give young people only elementary office jobs requiring the intern's appearance for a certain number of hours per week. One has interns file papers; another has her help screen telephone calls. Sometimes these dull office jobs are sweetened with the possibility of meeting someone famous or powerful. My intuition is that anyone accepting that sort of lowly institutional internship--indeed, anyone preferring office work--is NOT someone for me. Young people taking a menial job, even with an arts organization, prove only that they can do menial work; internships with me require those with ambition to do proto-professional work. Because my art is different (often called "avant-garde") enough to move slowly through the marketplace, I have lots of unfinished projects--books to design, manuscripts to put into more publishable shape, videotapes to edit, a bibliography to compile, etc.--for a squad of committed neophytes. What I do not have, though I hear that others do, are square holes for which I want to generate a lot of square applicants so that the competitive individual who is chosen can think he or she is exceptionally fortunate to be doing nothing important. (I remember from college that whenever a class had a limited enrollment you knew that the teacher might otherwise have trouble filling it.)

Two basic rules for me are 1) interns work on projects that have no immediate customers, and 2) they do as much as possible on their own. I do not run an office, in part because I live in my studio and have enough work of my own to do; I do not need young people as receptionists or decoration. Those sometimes working here are using machines, such as an audio-editing deck, that cannot be transported elsewhere. What I do in interviewing an applicant is try to figure out what he or she can do, given his or her interests and training. I don't want to assign something they cannot do, or won't wish to do; their goal during the interview should be persuading me that they can possibly do something. I then customarily meet interns once or twice a week, so they can show me what they've done. At times they challenge one another with practical problems or theoretical inquiries; other times they exchange intelligence and/or computer programs.

It is important that the contributions of interns be publicly acknowledged. Should interns proofread a book of mine, I'll put their names in the preface; should another design a book, his or her name will appear on the copyright page. Interns' names appear on audiotapes and videotapes. Should someone assist me every step of the way, as the CUNY musicology graduate student Joseph Darby did for the book Nicolas Slonimsky: The First 100 Years (1994), his name belongs on the book's title page. Should someone be essential to the completion of the piece, as Hebrew-speaker Ophir Finkelthal was for my audio composition Kaddish, I'll append his name to mine. (You can imagine how a production credit from Westdeutscher Rundfunk affected his career as a graduate student at the U.S.C. film school.) Many remain friends; a few have become partners in other projects.

Since I dislike "rejecting" people, I accept anyone who seems sufficiently trained and enthusiastic. I've learned after twenty years that I cannot tell in an interview who can do work and who can't. I generally assign a modest task--editing a manuscript, designing a few pages of text, making an inventory the imagery on an videotape--simply to see whether they proceed to the next step. If they cannot do something small, there is no reason to assign something bigger. One truth is that I never hear from or about any of the dropouts again. Whatever happened to them, none ever became literary-art professionals.

I've had interns from Columbia, New York University, Yale, Brown, College of St. Elizabeth, Kutztown State, Ithaca, Fredonia State, Northwestern, Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt, Skidmore, Stanford, Trinity, Bennington, Antioch, Wesleyan, Barnard, Rutgers-Newark, Borough of Manhattan Community College, and City University's graduate school, among other institutions; and you can't tell me that those from one school are necessarily better prepared to accomplish work than others. The only measure is work itself--not only the initial test but the quality of the final project. The best interns have been young people who for one reason or another have wanted to work with me; they already knew my work or had heard about my program from a previous intern.

Internships are not remunerative because most of us with spare money would surely hire someone with demonstrated experience over someone with none. Should any prospective intern ask to be paid, my policy is to excuse them immediately. Expecting to get money from noncommercial artists, such as literary writers or vanguard artists, is similar to hustling change from street beggars--it marks someone as a fool. I'm not a professor with a budget for employing graduate assistants. (Anyone expecting to earn money should go where the money is.) There are exceptions. If the intern's work generates income for me, they are entitled to a share; when flush, I've hired a former intern to do more of the kind of work they'd previously done competently. Conversely, one implicit rule is that you can only ask an intern to complete the same sort of task once; once competence had been established with finished work, he or she should be paid to do more of that kind of work.

Besides, a successful intern will ultimately earn more from his work with me than I could ever make from them. Just as Peter Longauer built his animation career upon gratis collaboration with me, so others have gotten fellowships and jobs. Two recent RISD graduates who designed and partially typeset my Wordworks: Poems Selected & New (BOA, 1993) later worked as staff designers at Scholastic magazine. Another who brilliantly edited a million-word manuscript of mine was recently offered a graduate fellowship of eleven thousand dollars a year for five years. I saw the unique name of an intern on the masthead of short-lived Video magazine. I'd like to think that work they did gratis for me contributed to their worldly success.

Neither are internships substitutes for educational deficiencies. Since film production was among my fields, I would get for years queries from students attending schools where film and/or video production was not (or barely) taught. If someone wants a cheap education in film or video, my advice is to take not a menial job with a film company but a production course at a convenient community college.

I once thought it desirable to have students get course credit or satisfy some other institutional requirement, but now believe these mechanisms are counter-productive. If a person successfully completes tasks, nothing need be written; if he or she fails, I've found myself signing, out of obligation to the internship contract, a document reporting that an intern working mostly on his own says he spent eighty hours completing work that should have taken him or her no more than twenty (indicating that he or she is either disingenuous or dim). Recently, one of these barely competent students received from his university an A an internship in which only the first in a succession of three possible typographic designs was completed, raising the question of whether her university did either her or the school a favor by rewarding insufficient work.

I get ripped off when I devote a certain amount of attention and sometimes material to someone who produces nothing. All you have in life is time, and if neither of us is rewarded for the time allocated, then someone has been gyped. Perhaps because application to me is more open than elsewhere, I've been ripped off more than once; and especially in the wake of a run of incompetents, I wonder if this is worth continuing. (All those unfinished projects persuade me otherwise.) Some interns cheat themselves when they fail to complete a project on which they start, for any dormant project can be offered to another intern.

What I want ultimately is to have an intern finish something to which he can affix his name, no matter how long it takes. One intern who a few summers ago put her name on a videotape, a film, and the index of a book was long employed at the New York Center for Visual History. What I don't want to do is have to write a platitudinous letter, saying that so-and-so showed up on time five days a week for six weeks or, worse, that he or she tried hard, had plenty of excuses, but accomplished little or nothing. When attached to applications for real jobs, such letters are less persuasive than work bearing the applicant's name.

I think of myself as a facilitator who can lead horses to water but cannot make them drink. Though my internships are challenging, in ways that professional life is tough, generosity and flexibility are key tokens--for me as well as them--in a successful internship. How young people handle the opportunities granted them to complete work on their own can become a sure measure of subsequent professional success--indeed a better measure than a college transcript. I'd like to think as well that I'm giving my interns the kind of pre-professional experience I wish I had at their age.