Why free labour is costing too much
Sonya Dyer sets out why the culture of working for free means many talented people miss out.
"Within the visual arts sector – as with many other sectors of the economy – free labour is rife. Those at the beginning of their careers are particularly vulnerable.
"Of course, many in the sector (dominated by middle class people whose parents can help them support themselves) do not experience this as a barrier. However, what it does create is an artificial filter, with the people who cannot rely on family or other support left to fall by the wayside."
Financial barriers to opportunity
The Arts Council's mission is great art for everyone."How can a sector open itself up to people from 'non-traditional backgrounds' (the euphemism used to describe non-white and/or non-middle class people) when they are expected to work for free in order to get their foot in the door?
"I would argue that it is no longer acceptable for organisations and funding bodies that claim to value 'equality of opportunity' and 'diversity' to not back – in principle and in practice – paid internships as a right and as an expectation.
"In order to support the principle of equality, we need to remove the financial barriers to opportunity and the perpetuation of privilege for the few. It is encouraging that a number of practitioners and organisations are actively involved in challenging this injustice.
"I recently took part in a roundtable discussion on internships at the Mayor of London's office, with people from leading galleries, museums and educational institutions. I left encouraged by the quality of the conversation, the way in which the principle of paid internships was generally accepted as a good and necessary thing and the desire to get to grips with the practicalities of such a proposal."
Ways into the creative sector
Young people need pathways into the creative sector.I find it useful to consider what information I would have access to if I were starting out again now. I grew up in a notorious housing estate in Hackney and went to a comprehensive school. At art school, I knew nothing about and no one in this sector. I was also one of a handful of teenagers – everyone else was older and more experienced.
"I recently worked with a group of arts organisations in the borough who were keen to develop a paid internship scheme. I called the Jobcentre and asked who I should speak to about internships. The person on the end of the line did not know what an internship was, even when I explained it to him.
"I've also spoken to numerous people working with innercity youth and I often hear the same complaint. These young people are not being told a positive 'story' about the sector. They don't know it could be for them, as teachers aren't telling them. They aren't aware of pathways into the sector and the possibilities for the future.
"I sincerely hope that through Creative Partnerships and other projects in schools (and outside schools), the Creative Apprenticeship scheme and University Widening Participation programmes, an increasing number of young people from 'non-traditional' backgrounds are being made more aware of the possibilities open to them.
"But imagine if I were someone else, vaguely aware that there may be possibilities for myself, or my teenaged child. I call the Jobcentre and the person in the position to interface with me doesn't even know what an internship is."
Ideas to open up the creative industries
Mystery Train education project engages with young people.It strikes me that any effort to open up the sector must also extend outside the sector. It's why I'm encouraged by projects like the British Museum's Young Graduates in Museums and Galleries programme going out there and engaging with young people.
"I would like to see more of this, more interaction with parents, schools, and colleges. We know that young people from minority backgrounds are more likely to go into further education than those from the white majority – they are just less likely to go into the arts.
"Of course the arts are a hard sell – the pay is lousy. But if a person loves it, if it excites them, then surely the sector should actively remove barriers to participation? How could it work? I'd like to propose a few broad-brush ideas (this is not definitive by any means, just a place to start):
I would like to see Arts Council England encouraging all their Regularly Funded Organisations (RFOs) to pay at least some of their interns for their labour. Of course, organisations worry about funding – who will pay for this?
I would propose a fund – financially supported by Arts Council England, as part of their diversity/equality agenda – that RFO's and non-RFO's could apply to in order to support the costs of the paid internships. Other funders – from the public or private sector – could get involved as well. If we think about how much money has been pumped into diversity schemes over the years, surely there should be a way to fund this? What's to stop it from becoming a grant condition for RFO's?
Places on paid internships should be open to application, and awarded through a competitive process. There is a legal requirement to obtain information on ethnicity, so this could be used to assess any such scheme and to see if there needs to be a particular focus at any given time.
As a matter of principle, the interns should be paid at least the minimum wage.
We need to protect interns. Organisations should be obliged to create a plan for their internships, demonstrating what interns will learn through the programme.
Private organisations would need to be considered as well – should they be eligible to apply for any such grant?
"How would the Arts Council ensure accountability? These are issues that could be resolved. Paid internships could single-handedly positively affect more people than any other equality/diversity measure employed thus far.
"At the very least, it would mark a move away from privileging the well-off and penalising the disadvantaged. It would be a sign that this sector is truly serious about providing equality of opportunity for all."
 'Participation of Black and minority ethnic students in Higher Education Art and Design (Literature Review ),' Rohini Malik Okon, Arts Council England, http://www.artscouncil.org.uk
Sonya Dyer is a London based artist, writer and arts consultant. She is the author of 'Boxed In: How Cultural Diversity Policies Constrict Black Artists.'
Sonya also curated 'Temporary Agency' at Chelsea Space Temporary Agency used artists projects as a means of exploring issues of value, free labour and social networks in the arts.
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