The Gift Horse – on volunteering
The casualisation of the creative workforce is like the pandemic. It is highly contagious, spreading fast and creating a sub-culture of artists, makers and artist-academics who are not only taken for granted but are being utterly exploited and expected to be grateful for that exploitation.
Having several years experience working in sometimes unpaid collaborations with the academy for instance, I have noted the gradual decline of respect for the professional creative and witnessed examples of unfair practice along with an increased use of the creative volunteer as a replacement for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. I am not knocking the enthusiast or the amateur here, I am standing up for the creative professional who does not create for a hobby but who has learned a craft over many years, just like any plumber, carpenter, basket maker or bricky.
Let’s take an academic conference (TaPRA) for example and consider how it freely draws on the artistic community.
TaPRA’s website states:
“TaPRA relies on the generosity of individuals who give their time as working group conveners and as members of the Executive Committee”
It appears TaPRA also relies on the time and generosity from poorly paid working artists and has placed these people on the bottom step in their hierarchical structures.
Conference time allows for ‘successful’ academics to advertise what they have published and talk about their studies.
TaPRA is the Theatre and Performance Research Association (Tapra.org) with some 400 members who are mostly operating at the highest level within the academic class of Theatre and Performance as well as new incoming researchers in the field training up to become professional academics. This organisation however, by its very definition also relies on contributions from the professional world of Theatre and Performance Making in order to justify its existence. At the conference you will find academics who write about the famous and infamous past and present, and some of their books will sell well and others won’t due to the minority market they may occupy. You will also find amongst this milieu professors of applied theatre whose study concerns the way theatre and performance can be applied to social need for example. Applied theatre and performance occupies one of the more oppressed parts of this niche milieu where neo-liberalism abounds and where government funding drives that oppression. Moreover, TaPRA does not exist in a vacuum and many of its members would say that they are also professional practising artists, some within the applied field. Should they know better then, since they actually profess to be experts? I would argue that there is a huge difference between the academic salaried practitioner and the independent working (often unpaid) practitioner operating within the industry making guest appearances at conferences such as TaPRA. Let’s examine why TaPRA should know better.
Here’s my personal example.
I was recently invited to guest on an online round table discussion for one of TaPRA’s working groups at their conference. No fee was on offer. I chose to offer my services as a gift since I felt I had something to share from my experience. However, I soon learned I was also expected to pay an attendance fee of £60, albeit concessionary. I asked the organisers to waive the fee and just send me the link to participate. I mistakenly thought this would be a very easy request to fulfil, especially since I was unable to participate in the full conference but had managed to make myself available to make this small contribution towards their subject interests “publishing as a working artist”. It would probably take up about a day and a half of my time. I am a freelancer with less than average earnings amounting to a fraction of what I imagined might be the income of many academics who would be attending the online conference and for whom attendance was actually part of their job as I understood, and also often paid for by their institutions. I was happy to offer to the conference free of charge but I absolutely did not intend to pay for that ‘privilege’.
As part of my argument I urged them to consider fully supporting any freelance artists attending, presenting or performing at the conference with absolutely no charge as a minimum, especially in the light of the sector suffering how it had during the pandemic. I argued I would expect this out of solidarity and recognition of the drain ‘exposure/experience events’ such as the conference may place on aspiring, new, mid-career and even well established artists, who may have agreed to appear without realising the cost. Besides the creative actions of often poorly paid freelancers often enhance the academic careers of many in the field. I thought the least the organisation could do would be to make this issue a future motion for debate, if it currently went against their constitution. Moreover, I hoped that any artist performing wouldn’t face the embarrassment of a cap-in-hand plea for their fee. Since I was only speaking and participating in a discussion, I thought a complementary zoom link would be sufficient payment for me personally.
I was amazed at the reply.
They said they appreciated my frustration as a freelancer but that I should take my place with all other freelancers and emerging academics and apply for one of the 10 bursaries available. However, the deadline had passed unfortunately. I had been asked to guest after that deadline had passed! Where is the fairness here? The sixty quid payment still stood. Have TaPRA turned into the Arts Council? Have they caught something from them? They told me I actually should have entered a competition in a race to let the best person win and that unfortunately my entry into that race couldn’t have happened anyway. My compensation was that they would discuss the issue at the executive committee but if they all disagreed with me then sixty quid it would have to be. However, they appreciated the “crappiness” of how this would feel and were so sorry to bring the wrong answer to the table this time, but in the interests of fairness I should take this on the chin – pandemic and all that, you know how it’s been for everyone.
I would however suggest that there is something prior to the pandemic that is fundamentally wrong with the organisation’s principles.
I had written to them for some consideration of the serious difficulties the conference could cause working/non-working artists, and the principles by which the organisation seemed to be operating as leading teachers/academics in the field, representing the industry in their capacity of training emerging artists and artist/academics for the sector and their subsequent employment. People sit on committees and manage conferences as part of their career progression and they are rewarded by their institutions in promotions and salary increases for this kind of work. This is not the case for independent freelance artists on whom they rely.
No artist should be expected to pay for participation in a conference where they are offering their work unpaid.
The notion that bursaries are on offer for the less privileged but are competitive is both patronising and condescending in my view – how would that work if free school meals were offered on that basis?
Having finally learned that they were not going to shift in their decision I decided to withdraw my gift.
The TaPRA committee led by its chair were in effect asking me to spend time preparing and presenting something I was offering as a gift and were now throwing it back in my face. I didn’t want to embarrass the working group who kindly invited me to participate by taking up their offer of cheating the system and being smuggled in to participate for one half day. That felt crap and utterly humiliating.
Rather I decided to contact union colleagues and write this blog post on artists and exploitation. Needless to say both Equity and UCU have agreed this situation is grossly unfair, exclusive and advised me to withdraw.
Let’s be clear here. To be on a generous salary from an academic institution as a practising creative academic is simply not the same as being a working sometimes unpaid, sometimes poorly paid, rarely well paid creative outside of the institution.
This academic institution is like the government. It clearly works against the freelance independent practitioner. We have seen this in the disgraceful suffering placed on the creative sector during the pandemic. Only the art institutions in their glorious buildings have ‘benefitted’. Only those with a relatively healthy working profit from their endeavours have received government hand-outs. There is an underclass who have received nothing, some of whom have had to change their occupations and thus their identities.
Now we are seeing the craft disappear into a sea of volunteering in which creative people’s potential livelihoods are drowning. I know artists/young students who have, out of austerity and the pandemic, chosen the route of academia as a substitute for their own practice sacrificing their passion on the altar of a PhD or an M.A., out of necessity rather than choice or out of lack of public subsidy for their work. Many young and aspiring practitioners eager to get their work witnessed will be drawn to opportunities presented to them where they are asked to work for free in the name of exposure and so on. This becomes a habit and creatives lose a sense of worth as a result. They feel they should offer their skills for nothing, creating for themselves a treadmill of insecurity.
It’s a great shame that leaders in the field seem to be comforted that they can sit on a top rung, distribute hand-outs and prizes to working artists and poverty-stricken student artists whom they expect to enter into competition with other artists and let the ‘best’ person win. It’s endemic I am sad to say. I question the growing workforce of neo-liberal administrators whose very existence relies on an unpaid/volunteer workforce. It is contagious and we need a jab for it.
Carran Waterfield August 2021.
Image: Godiva, the Naked Politician (Triangle Theatre UK 1995)