The future for arts in the UK looks bleak – but there is power in a union

Image Credit: Tate United

It’s one thing to say ‘join a union!’, but it’s quite another to work out which one to join when you work in the arts, where salaries are low, contracts are temporary and careers are portfolio. In a data gathering exercise from 2017 we at Corridor8 discovered that the majority of our readers at the time were artists and arts workers based in the North of England, and it’s this audience that I’m speaking to now. Our current state of affairs is no accident; casualisation across the arts and beyond is combined with comparatively low wages, often for roles requiring multiple academic and professional qualifications, to coerce workers into self-exploitation and exclude those who can’t or won’t play along. Furthermore, with the mass redundancies that are being visited on front of house staff across the UK; the invigilators, the stewards, the shop and cafe workers – the people who keep our galleries and museums in working order and actually interact with those all-important audiences – another route is being shortsightedly cut off. 

The irony of this coming close on the heels of institutional statements on racial equality and commitments to listen and learn is not lost on us. There have been a number of recent reports into the failures of entrepreneurial income diversification and corporate leadership in the sector; here in the New Statesman Caitlin Doherty comprehensively discusses the implications of Amazon UK’s Doug Gurr being appointed as Director of the Natural History Museum, London. Also relevant on the background and ramifications of these policies is Oliver Basciano in The Spectator on ‘The death of the Southbank Centre’. Of course, both of these examples refer to London-based institutions, and the discrepancies in cultural provision between London and the rest of the country, particularly areas in the North of England that we cover, are well documented. 

I have elsewhere written on how our isolated civic institutions and artist-led organisations are being leant on to provide preventative social care, as the services and spaces that shield our most vulnerable have been gutted by austerity. Many readers will be aware of these circumstances, but they bear reiterating in order to emphasise that now is not the time to capitulate. We would not be rewarded for doing so, and those in power have made it clear that they will not hesitate to preserve and enjoy their own bloodthirsty and environmentally destructive cultural activities, in a display of monumental hypocrisy.

Despite this urgency, it is understandably difficult to work out what steps one can take as an individual, but as a starting point The World Transformed have commissioned this helpful map of unionisation in the arts and cultural industries, illustrated by Siddhi Gupta and edited by Sam Swann. Explaining what the different unions, from Artist’s Union England and United Workers of the World to PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union) and Equity, offer to members gives a route towards solidarity and support for freelance technicians, salaried curatorial staff and precariously employed visual artists alike. It is also vital to note that with the PCS Tate United strike, picket and protest actions, a precedent has been set whereby institutions can no longer claim that cruel and unreasonable bureaucratic procedures are obligatory. 

For too long pursuing a career in the arts has involved a kind of hazing, whereby workers are made to feel weak and foolish for requesting basic rights and considerations. Knowing your worth and valuing your colleagues and comrades is anything but weak. Speaking to a member of Tate Enterprises staff and PCS union representative who has been involved with organising the picket and protest actions for the now month-long strike, I heard how the Tate Enterprises Limited profit-making company has a turnover of several million pounds [According to the 2019 filing, turnover was £41.5m. In 2018 it was £40.9m. Profits after costs and taxation were £4.9m in 2019 and £5.4m in 2018]. Then, at the end of the fiscal year 100% of this profit is transferred to the non-profit Tate Galleries. In this way the Tate Enterprises jobs in retail, for example, are not straightforwardly comparable to those in High Street shops, not to mention the expertise in Tate’s programme, art, culture in general, and the surrounding city that is required of these workers. As follows, during this time of unprecedented crisis, it is not unreasonable to expect recognition of the value that the hundreds of public-facing staff facing redundancy have brought, and would continue to bring to Tate as a whole. Or, that these relatively low-paid, often part-time and casual roles are funding the practices of those artists, curators and creative practitioners of all kinds who prop up the entire edifice of arts and culture.

In order to continue with this industrial action, that simply demands creative solutions from an organisation that is ostensibly dedicated to creativity, PCS Tate United need solidarity and support from across the sector and beyond. This can be provided in a number of ways, from showing up in person for protest actions (less of an option for those of us in the partially locked-down North of England) to joining in digitally to signal-boost across social media, and donating to the Tate Commerce Strike Fund. As a dues-paying union, PCS have agreed to pay statutory strike pay that works out at around half of what workers would usually make in a day, but as these roles were often low paid to begin with it’s important to protect striking workers from financial hardship.

At Corridor8 we are a team made up of arts workers, some of whom are employed in curatorial roles and have been working in overdrive to fundraise for their institutions, and some of whom have lost their main employment as a result of the current crisis. As such, we urge our readers to support the ongoing PCS Tate United strike however they are able, and to join a union that’s right for them, as we face down an even more adverse environment than we have been dealing with since the last global recession. The only way we will survive is by supporting each other; in this environment success without solidarity is worthless.

PCS Tate United can be followed here on twitter and instagram.

The World Transformed continues throughout September.

Lauren Velvick is a Contributing Editor for Corridor8 amongst other things.

This editorial is supported by the Arts Council England Emergency Fund.

Published 21.09.2020 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

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