Illustration by Millie Chesters showing a figure completing a series of different tasks in six panels

Juggle and Keep Receipts:
on current conditions for working artists and arts workers

Illustration by Millie Chesters

‘You have to have a measure of resilience to be in this game’, Zarah Hussain says. She is a visual artist and has exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the Barbican, V&A and the Southbank. Hussain has worked full-time as an artist for over a decade, but like many working in the industry, her formative years were spent balancing her practice with more steady employment such as teaching.

‘The only people that I know personally who have not worked in another field alongside their art practice are those that come from families that can support them financially’, she says. ‘The vast majority of people juggle’.

The balancing act that Hussain describes is reflected across the professions that broadly make up the arts. Museum workers, musicians and designers often operate on a project-by-project basis where short term funding must constantly be sought out.

From recruitment to contracts, working hours to labour laws, it’s a precarious working life that is often underpaid and misunderstood. The artist doesn’t fit comfortably into a neoliberal society’s idea of what a worker should be and therefore the arts are often among the first targets of government scorn and cuts.  

Illustration by Millie Chesters showing a figure completing a series of different tasks in two panels
Illustration by Millie Chesters

Last year, the then education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a plan to cut funding for subjects such as music, performing arts and media studies at universities by almost 50%, arguing that they were not supporting ‘the skills this country needs to build back better’.

In this way, artistic practice is often framed as a hobby or something one does for the love of it, in an artificial contrast with jobs in STEM, or finance. As journalist Sara Jaffe argues: ‘Creative work is romantic love, based in a different kind of self-sacrifice and voluntary commitment that is expected, on some level, to love you back. Yet work never, ever loves you back’.

Questions around what constitutes work and what it means to be a worker are useful in examining the current state of the arts. Looking at the visual arts and museum sector in particular, it becomes clear that the ambiguous status of the artist and societal expectations for art to be a labour of love have had disastrous consequences for working conditions.

Tom Hopkins and Ashleigh Hibbins are museum professionals, working in curating and audience development. They are also part of Fair Museums Jobs (FMJ), an online collective best known for calling out bad recruitment practice in the sector on Twitter. Their pinned tweet reads: ‘Apropos of nothing, we always keep receipts’.

‘The job adverts are public documents, so they should be open to scrutiny’, Hopkins says. He sees FMJ as a way to address the power imbalance between recruiters and job seekers by highlighting unfair practice out in the open.

On their feed, FMJ discuss issues that affect the arts more broadly such as nepotism (recruitment based on personal connections rather than merit), salary transparency and credentialism (asking for higher level qualifications than those actually needed to carry out the work). Hibbins recalls a job interview for an entry-level role in the heritage sector where she was put through an entire recruitment day with multiple rounds of interviews.

‘An entry-level job shouldn’t have the same level of intensity as if you’re recruiting for a CEO’, she says. ‘My job which I currently have is upper-management in a museum [and] I just had to do one interview’.

The impacts of poor recruitment are far reaching. The Panic Report, published in 2018, found that ‘people working within culture, making culture, are not currently representative of the nation’s demographics’. Only 2.2% of workers in the museums, galleries and libraries sector are BAME and 18.2% of those working in music, performing and visual arts are from working class social origins.

‘It ends up filtering out people who don’t have a lot of volunteering experience and don’t have the time or money to be able to prepare properly in the right interview clothes’, Hibbins says. ‘People who don’t have parents who have professional jobs who can give them advice on things like this’.

Hopkins and Hibbins point to lack of resources as being a key factor contributing to substandard recruitment, but they also believe that there is a malicious element.

‘When you’re recruiting in your own image; when you’re upholding traditional views of what qualifications are and what intelligence is and what skilled means; when you’re basically creating a workforce which only the most privileged can get in, that means the stories and perspectives that are represented are just of a very – usually white – middle-class perspective,’ Hibbins says.

The response from the industry to their activism has been mixed. ‘We have some organisations who have been fantastic, who have responded to our comments right away really constructively, made changes, and asked us for further feedback’, Hibbins says. ‘But there are others who completely ignore us’.

‘Or who have really dug their heels in’, Hopkins agrees. ‘In our early days when we emailed organisations we definitely received some hostile feedback’.

Indignant responses to Fair Museum Jobs’ criticism are often couched in the idea that because an organisation is a charity or a non-profit, they can do no wrong. ‘There’s this sense […] that you should feel privileged to be here and you should be willing to give everything for this job because there are one hundred people lined up behind you who will do that if you aren’t willing’, Hibbins says.

Illustration by Millie Chesters showing a figure completing a series of different tasks in two panels
Illustration by Millie Chesters

‘We see a lot of words like that used in job descriptions’, Hibbins explains. ‘Must show dedication, enthusiasm, passion, drive. What they’re basically asking you to do is go above and beyond what they’re willing to pay you for’.

Fair Museum Jobs and other grassroots campaigning organisations exist because the arts are largely unorganised and non-unionised. The broad church nature of the industry means that representative bodies that do exist are disparate and often take a piecemeal approach.

‘Where there is unionisation, it’s very patchy because of all the different funding bases museums have’, Hopkins says. ‘Whether it’s local authorities, independents, nationals, universities, church organisations — that’s all going to mean they’re members of different trade union bodies’.

Julie Lomax is the CEO of a-n, the UK’s largest artists’ membership organisation which provides advice and campaigns on issues such as pay transparency. She believes that a key factor contributing to poor working conditions in the arts is an unclear legal definition of what an artist actually is.

‘The majority of artists are in some kind of self-employed business model, they’re often not given the same thoughts and care as an employee’, Lomax says. Even on long term projects, artists often work without a proper contract or basic employment rights.

Illustration by Millie Chesters showing a figure hanging a picture
Illustration by Millie Chesters

The 2021 Artist As Workers report argues that self-employed modern workers are at heightened risk of exploitation. ‘Artistic labour – to many people – is almost by definition work undertaken for the love of it, rather than remuneration’, the report states. ‘Money, it is presumed, should not be their motivation: artists should feel grateful to be working at all, even if they’re unpaid or on very low rates’.

Lomax believes that lack of fair payment is the biggest issue that has pervaded the arts since a-n was founded forty-two years ago. ‘The whole industry is based on artworks and not people, but people create those artworks and put them in exhibitions. There’s no recognition of that labour’.

Zarah Hussain explains that she has started saying no to unpaid add-ons that galleries ask for when artists exhibit their work. ‘Sometimes you would be asked to come in and do workshops with kids or they’ll ask you to do a session with older people, I hope that doesn’t happen as much any more’, she says. ‘I think it’s dangerous. You shouldn’t be asking artists to work with kids unless they’re DBS checked and even if you’ve got a DBS check, you should have some training’.

The idea of unpaid work being a necessary evil or even an expression of drive and dedication pervades every level of seniority. Amie Kirby, a museum worker who recently graduated from an undergrad in Archeology and a masters in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, explains that this was instilled right from the beginning.

‘One of the main things I really took and ran with was that any opportunity to do a work placement or voluntary experience is really key’, Kirby says. ‘Showing that you have the dedication to do work that is not paid in order to get to where you want to be is quite valuable to employers… I think the idea of volunteers being committed because they’re willing to give up their free time is definitely exploited’.

These issues; of piecemeal payment, lack of legal standing and unfair employer expectations, also affect physical working conditions in the arts. David Gledhill is co-director of Rogue Studios, a not-for-profit artist-run studios in Manchester. The studios are housed in a former school and host over 85 artists ranging from recent graduates to established practitioners. Their current site is the studios’ third building, having moved in 2000 and 2017.

Gledhill lists what artists typically look for in a workplace: lots of space, a sense of community and good communication between the studio provider and artists. ‘Art isn’t a highly remunerative profession’, he says. ‘It can be for some, but for the vast majority of artists – or what Gregory Sholette refers to as ‘dark matter’ – it’s a case of finding an affordable space’.

‘They may have a part-time job which itself may not be that well paid, so they can’t afford to spend a fortune on a monthly basis on a perfect studio space. So, artists move into elderly buildings, disused buildings, offices, factories, warehouses’.

East Street Arts, a charity working to improve the livelihoods and working conditions of artists, have been collaborating with artist-led groups to help them create more resilient and sustainable artist spaces. Senior producer Kate West describes the issues that artist-led spaces often encounter:

‘Accessibility is always a big hurdle with these spaces. It’s really hard to get funding to produce feasibility studies around how to make your building more accessible. They don’t tend to be the most energy efficient spaces, so we are asking a lot of the cohort to start thinking about environmental sustainability policies’.

West explains that negotiation skills and knowing how to navigate landlords are not things usually taught to artists: ‘Often these spaces have been unused for a while [or] there hasn’t been a whole lot of investment in their upkeep… because artists are really keen to have a space and don’t have a such a big budget or a lot of choice, they do tend to put up with spaces that, if you had a healthier budget, you probably wouldn’t’.

The way the arts are organised, managed and function glorifies an unhealthy ideal worker. One who is highly academically educated, willing to work for free and constantly demonstrate their unconditional love for the industry.

Illustration by Millie Chesters showing a figure pointing out of a window
Illustration by Millie Chesters

As academic Dr Susan Jones states: ‘There is this notion that artists are all the same, that they’re desperately keen for exciting opportunities and that they have nothing else to do except be around when these exciting opportunities need to be done’.

 ‘They certainly aren’t disabled, either visibly or invisibly. They certainly don’t have childcare costs or elder care commitment and it’s not taken into account how much speculative work artists have to do to be that person who can suddenly come in and do that exciting thing’.

The arts is an industry warped by the political and economic system it operates in, valuing immediacy and efficiency above all else. From recruitment to pay, legal status to workplaces, it’s vital to cultivate an awareness of the shared issues workers and practitioners face in order to encourage collective action. It is through worker solidarity that change will come.

Tom Taylor is a writer based in Manchester and founder of Salt Magazine.

This exploration is supported by Arts Council England as part Corridor8’s 2022-23 commissioning programme.

With thanks to: Zarah Hussain, Tom Hopkins, Ashleigh Hibbins, Julie Lomax, Amie Kirby, David Gledhill, Kate West and Susan Jones.

Published 03.11.2022 by Lauren Velvick in Explorations

2,079 words