THERE’S no lack of people lining up to take on unpaid or poorly paid roles volunteering their time for arts organisations. With the possible exception of charities, and community groups, very few areas of life are more reliant on voluntary labour than the arts. But what responsibility does the arts have to the unpaid? Put simply: are interns exploited?
Fact: people will work free in the arts. They do it to develop skills and contacts, because they like the idea of the glitz and excitement, or simply because they believe that being involved in culture and creativity is about something more important than maximising the amount of money they earn. Throw in the proliferation of arts courses — some of questionable quality — that require their students to do real-life internships and placements and there are plenty of potential volunteers out there, even if they don’t really want to lick envelopes for no pay.
Put it down to lack of funding, but I’m not sure. Some of the best-funded organisations have the most volunteers, and there’s very little guarantee that more money wouldn’t simply pay some people more rather than paying those who are content enough to work without. It’s a strange reversal of the law of supply and demand where more people want to do jobs than there is stuff to do, and more passionate ideas than the there is money to pay for them.
Like most, I can speak from experience about working for nothing. Many of the best things I’ve done haven’t paid me or have barely paid me. I wouldn’t change it for the world. To this day, my paid gigs cross-subsidise all manner of things that cost me money to do. I’ve worked as and with unpaid volunteers and been responsible for co-ordinating and working with many interns, exchanges and placements. It’s hard to define a comfortable rule of thumb about where passion ends and exploitation begins.
Once you get away from away from the kind of “we’re all in this together” low-budget projects I cut my teeth on, the reality is that the arts are full of huge inequities. So many large arts organisations have huge disparities in payment between staff and interns and even between salaried administrators and unpaid or barely paid artists that it has become almost unremarkable.
So are you exploited if you volunteer to get a start in the arts industry? Asking around this week, virtually everyone I know had started out as an intern or a volunteer. Many of their now paid colleagues were people who had come to the organisation via a volunteer route. I was also reminded, quite rightly, that it is not a one-way street. A lot of interns actually take up a lot of effort and produce very little — you can waste a lot of time getting people to work for you free.
So where exactly is the right balance? I do believe that arts organisations have a responsibility to ensure that people are rewarded for their effort.
That’s not necessarily about money or a job for life, but it’s about respect, a genuine opportunity to learn something, meet interesting people and growing from the experience. It’s about ensuring there are opportunities to progress either within or on from the project. It’s not just about free tickets and T-shirts.
Equally, internships can’t be all fun either. The administrative side can feel little more than a series of crappy tasks that — if executed competently and in the right order — add up somehow to something really interesting. Crap tasks are inevitable, but there’s no excuse for treating internships as punishment and designing them to remind the poor sods that they are at the bottom of the food chain, that they need to serve their time, and that they need to suffer for their art(s administration).
I do think there’s a better option. Exploit yourself. Those of you with time on your hands, desperate for experience and keen to volunteer should consider doing it for yourselves. If you’re going to be unpaid, why not work on your own projects? Creating your own shows, gigs, festivals, and events is as reliable a career path into the arts, if not more, as hanging around waiting for a lowly paid admin gig. You get to learn the full spectrum of skills by making the full spectrum of mistakes. You get to see up close the consequences of your decisions both right and wrong. There is no better grounding for a career in the arts or anywhere else.
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