marcus westbury

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Are volunteers in the arts exploited?

June 11th, 2010 by marcus

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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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 kate Jun 11, 2010 at 11:22 am

    I agree, except with the idea that salaried artsworkers are on a good wicket. They’re not. Looking at the Victorian Public Service payscale (and guidelines about what you’d expect to do/level of experience and qualifications you’d expect to have) it’s pretty clear to me that Museum Vic and NGV staff are generally working at a pay level (or two) below where they should be compared to equivalent positions in other parts of the VPS. So an assistant collection manager, for example, is about the same as an entry level admin assistant. I think unpaid work contributes to the devaluing of paid positions. Why would they pay $50,000-$60,000 for highly qualified and experienced professionals when they can get someone only marginally less qualified for nothing? And if you’ve been working for nothing, how do you convince someone that your specialist professional skills are worth more than $35,000?

    State and local governments pay professionals to manage all their other assets. We don’t ask for volunteer engineers to manage bridges or highway construction, so I’m no longer prepared to offer my professional services to manage public assets for free either (and art collections are huge public assets).

  • 2 Gloom Sydney Jun 11, 2010 at 11:45 am

    At least if you are intern in admin or production in the arts there is some light at the end of the tunnel, there are actually sustainable jobs in management and production in the arts, you can eventually make a living and survive.
    As an artist however its another story, on the whole its completely unsustainable, most artist in Sydney can’t make a living and if they can you can’t afford to live in the city cause cost of living is too high.
    All artists in NSW are treated like “hobbyists”, there is an expectation that we in it just for the fun of it. And that we all have “real” jobs to survive or daddy or mummy sustain us while we do arty stuff and so the democraphic of artists shifts to the previledged few and arts becomes increasingly middle of the road and banal.
    The gentrification of the city is also the gentrification of the arts.
    To live as a practicing artist in Sydney is completely unsustainable.
    Soon there will be plenty of arts workers- manager, production staff etc BUT no artist in Sydney, just a bunch of amateurs or rich kids who produce comfortable, banal art, which to me isn’t art, just more wall paper, color and movement signifying nothing.

  • 3 TimT Jun 14, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I’ve read this before but rereading it now reminds me of this related debate in the US. Apparently the Obama administration is not down with the interns:

    I kind of agree with it. Volunteerism typically brings with it rewards for the volunteer as well as the organisation. It’s a beneficial arrangement. There should be more of it.

  • 4 Smander Jun 17, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I have been struggling with this issue lately so this post really caught my attention. I have a lot of business-minded friends who are driven by profit margins and I find it difficult to explain to them why I am happy to “waste” my time producing art for free or for very little return. I think you sum it up really well. I do it because I ‘believe that being involved in culture and creativity is about something more important than maximising the amount of money {I} earn.’ Cheers. Ill keep this up my sleeve!

  • 5 grannyplanet Jul 29, 2010 at 10:18 am

    I have recently entered the world of the artist (well as much as I can afford to without loosing the roof over my head), so this discussion is very interesting. I was pondering yesterday as I enrolled to do a Creative Doctotate (signing my life away for the next six years), that the support person helping me jump the hurdles and drag myself through the beurocracy, was paid a lot more than I as a casual lecturer (when you look at actual hours spent in preparation, marking, forced unpaid ‘breaks’, no sick pay etc.) I then smiled and signed a contract that paid me 50 hrs to mark 250 assignments (I remarked that this was not physically possible and was returned with a little laugh at my ‘joke’ and told that unfortunately this was all the budget allowed. So Uni politics aside, I kept wondering why am I doing this? Quite simply it is to feed my creative addictions. I have been interested in some locally funded projects produced by a govt arts body…job came up…have applied…then a friend (more in the know than I) noted that the position was almost certainly already filled – ie: done for the last few years by a volunteer who is finally being recognised and is being paid for their efforts (but the job has to be advertised). I could be wrong about this. I keep thinking how can I get involved in some of these projects (ie: give my time for free)…then I read your comment Marcus…what wisdom! I should be working for my own projects (not sure that I could cover the cost of the mistakes and disasters though). Back to the studio…:)

  • 6 Lewis Tennant Apr 18, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    I’m about to embark on a Doctoral thesis here in NZ following a very similar theme to this blog entry. Thanks for the interesting read. Please get in touch if you’d be happy to contribute by way of an interview/offering further thoughts. Lewis.