Biennale of Sydney is offering an unpaid ‘digitization’ internship with Google Arts & Culture

That same year, it mobilized 188 volunteers, about half of whom were under 35 years old. The 2020 exhibition catalog boasts that volunteers worked a total of 5,546 hours with an (unpaid) value of $149,475.

It’s not unusual. Most Australian art festivals are run largely by volunteers, and many also use the services of interns. But this particular posting caught people’s attention both because of the nature of the tasks and the fact that the position appeared to be backed by one of the biggest tech companies in the world.

Penelope Benton, executive director of the National Visual Arts Association (NAVA), said that while she understands the “strict constraints” that many arts organizations are under, “NAVA believes internships should be paid… and a named partner [like Google] should contribute to the payment of a trainee.

The Biennale confirmed that Google was not a sponsor of the festival, but the two organizations did not provide Sydney morning Herald and age with more details on the partnership agreement before going to print.

When the artwork from the 22nd Biennale went digital in 2020, CEO Barbara Moore thanked Google Arts & Culture for their “tremendous support”. But it’s unclear what that support entailed beyond providing the festival with the platform to upload works.

Speaking of the value of the internship itself, the Biennale is more explicit:

The Biennale of Sydney 2020 exhibition report says the festival had 188 volunteers who worked a total of 5,546 hours.Credit:The Biennale of Sydney/Supplied

“The Biennale of Sydney is a not-for-profit organization that provides short-term work placements to help students meet the requirements of their Australian-based education or training courses.

“These work experience opportunities are offered on a limited basis as part of the Biennale’s commitment to developing the next generation of Australian artists and arts professionals.”

“The internship will be supported by paid staff, providing experiential learning in a professional setting.”


This description is in line with guidelines produced by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) which state that unpaid internships are generally acceptable when offered to work placement students. However, the festival’s five-page advertisement for the position makes no mention of applicants having to be enrolled in a related course.

The validity of these provisions also depends on the type of work to be performed. While unpaid interns can certainly do productive work, the FWO says they shouldn’t be relied on for work usually done by an employee.

“The person performing the work should derive the primary benefit from the arrangement,” the guidelines state.

Asked by the Herald and age who was responsible for digitizing when the festival first uploaded exhibitions to Google Arts & Culture in 2020, the Biennale has confirmed that this work was carried out by paid staff.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has previously campaigned against unpaid internships in the media industry and in 2016 developed its own guidelines for students and employers.

The Biennale has confirmed that Google is not a sponsor of the festival.

The Biennale has confirmed that Google is not a sponsor of the festival.Credit:PA

“Internships play an important role in helping students and graduates … gain meaningful practical experience and training in their chosen field, but they should not be used as a source of cheap labor or free,” a spokesperson said, speaking generally on the matter. particular role probably does not fall within the remit of the MEAA.

“Only in very rare circumstances is an unpaid internship acceptable.”

Carroll Harris would like to see more attention to the issue in the arts, and in particular “the invisible people behind the scenes” who are often poorly paid and overlooked.


“The problem with unpaid internships is that only financially sound and secure people can afford to take them,” she says.

“For the art sector to recover from the pandemic, we need secure jobs for everyone – not just the financially privileged people who can afford to work. [for free].”

Benton agrees: “While internships can be really valuable learning experiences… [unpaid internships] perpetuate a persistent inequity that has been a problem in our industry for far too long.

“It’s worth having a serious conversation about reducing the scope of work to meet the resources we have, rather than relying on or increasing the amount of unpaid work.

“The longer it lasts [the arts, as a whole] contributes to unhealthy work practices, the less reason the government has to support us.

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