Wednesday 20: Pitfalls and potential in the visual art sector

To open this morning’s session, we welcomed Claudia and Marsha from The Precarious Workers Brigade

Marsha – “The Precarious Workers Brigade is a London-based group of people who are calling out in solidarity with others who are trying to make a living at this time of austerity and instability! …We’re concerned with issues relating to equal opportunities in education and thinking about employment that is fair. We’re also interested in the commons – how can we build resources that we can all share? And finally we are interested in Democratic institutions, so calling for greater transparency and accountability, specifically when it comes to public monies.”

We will be looking at issues of PRECARITY, as well as free, unpaid or under-paid work in the art sector.

The Carrot Workers – A Peoples Tribunal – Doing an unpaid internship or working for free? No problem, stick it out, then call The Employment Tribunal to make a violation of national minimum wage legislation claim and get your money!

Working Groups

  • Working conditions
  • Education
  • Marketisation/Corporatisation of the Arts
  • Solidarities

Working Conditions

You can download a PDF version of the guide ‘Surviving Internships – A counter guide to free labour in the arts’ from the Carrot Workers Collective.

Remember – internships are supposed to provide you with training, not simply drown you in repetitive tasks.

BUST YOUR BOSS card – find it on The Precarious Workers Brigade Website in the Toolbox.

The Bust Your Boss card reminds us that we have a right to address issues of payment and labour when meeting with potential clients or employers, even though there seems to be a taboo surrounding this. It offers prompts to what one might insist on getting an answer or even written commitment on.


Claudia – “We’re putting together an alternative curriculum, trying to address what we see as a bit of a disconnect between critical theory, experimental art practice and professional practice, professional development. We feel that often the critical thinking isn’t taken into those discussions around professional practice. It becomes very much about grounding yourself, just in terms of CVs, selling your work, etc. It relies on a very narrow model of what being a creative producer is. We think we need to have wider discussions on how people may want to set themselves up, and whether we can bring critical thinking into those discussions.”

The Culture of Cultural Work:


Marsha – “The Culture of Cultural Work – if you’re interested in a more theoretical take on this, although there is quite a bit of practical discussion on it as well, I would encourage you to seek out The Mute Precarious Reader.”

What are the characteristics of work in the arts and media ‘industries’?

  • 24/7 = long hours
  • Low pay
  • Mobility = able to move around the country
  • Self-initiated = entrepreneurial
  • Multi-talented = know how to do lots of different things to keep the work coming
  • Availability
  • Feast or famine = saying ‘YES’ to things, fear of saying ‘NO’
  • Freedom = flexibility
  • Opportunity = lots of different kinds of work, if you know where to look for it

Something to think about… “I do it because I love it!”

There is a strong sense in the areas of creative work that what we are doing is a passion. Passion Work. This may mean that we are a little more vulnerable to exploitation than we otherwise would be when it comes to employment.

What is an artist?

‘An artist is defined as one who considers ‘artistic creation’ to be an essential part of their life and who asks to be recognised as an artist whether or not they are bound by any relations of employment or association’ (UNESCO, 1980)

To be an artist – a self-nominated category. You don’t need to be asked to be an artist, however many feel they need validation from others in order to call themselves one.

When we think about the idea that art is a vocation, as in a ‘calling’, how do we feel about this? Some of us may have been encouraged when we were growing up to ‘do what you like, but like what you do’. The problem with this notion is that it assumes a somewhat level playing field, that everyone starts off with the same resources, same abilities…when we know that’s not the case. It is important to recognise the fact that these differences exist.

Art and Value

Claudia – “How art is valued in the wider community can bring up another set of contradictions. On the one hand you’ve got huge star artists artworks being sold for vast sums of money at Sotheby’s, on the other hand you’ve got places like Berlin cashing in on the ‘poor but sexy’ image of the artist.”

Marsha – “How can you justify the biggest, most prestigious art fair in the world (Frieze Art Fair) not paying their interns?”

Creative labour poses an alternative to…

  • traditional working-class labour conditions
  • middle-class consumerism

What is precarity?

  • Not just a state of (un)employment
  • The impact of intermittent, irregular work – the standard experience of work within capitalism
  • Being continually work-ready
  • A sense of being overworked and insecure
  • Related to a state of mobility/migration
  • Common features of domestic, construction, retail, agriculture, sex work…
  • Affects include stress, anxiety, mental and physical impacts

Types of employment status

  • Employee
  • Workers
  • Self-employed

Marsha – “We want to highlight the fact that employees have more rights than people who are self-employed. If you are self-employed, you should be able to demand equal pay, health and safety, anti-discrimination – basic agency worker rights. If you are an employee, you have the ability to contest unfair dismissal, you’ve got the capacity to engage with statutory redundancy payments, there’s maternity leave, paternity leave, adoption leave…there are a lot more options as a result of having more rights under this employment configuration.”

What % of people working in the creative industries are self-employed?

44% of people are self-empl0yed compared to 13% in the UK as a whole, although this does vary

What is the relationship between education, work and life in late capitalist cultural economies?

  • We are experiencing a morphing of work and life and education
  • Talent – the idea that there is this ‘star system’ in place, the belief that there are some people who are just given this ability

What is the difference between a volunteer, an intern and a worker?

  • If you’re a worker, you have a contract, which should state very clearly what is expected of you.
  • If you are a volunteer, you must not be placed under any obligation to do anything – you may walk away at any time.
  • The problem with being an intern, is that they fall in the grey area between worker and volunteer.
  • If your status is ‘worker’, it means you are legally entitled to National Minimum Wage.
  • A worker will have a set of specific things they are expected to do each day.
  • If you are an intern, it should be training, rather than being treated as a worker.


Competition and Individualization

When you’re not doing what you want to be doing, it’s easy to think that it’s your fault, but actually it’s a systemic problem. It becomes a social issue, rather than an individual issue.

Alternative perspectives

  • speaking out
  • make it it a social issue
  • reclaiming/rethinking how you want to work – not just waiting/aiming for a future you’ve been sold
  • changing practices
  • working collectively/cooperatively

How do you want to spend your time working?

Tools and tactics

These can all be found on the PWB website and in the counter guide.

  • Creating an ethical code for your work
  • Thinking about work placements and internships
  • Looking at historical or current examples of alternative practices e.g. Chto delat?, Artist Placement Group, Transmission
  • Self organisation
  • Peer support network

Possibly think of internships as a way to research the industry, learn more about what it’s about.

The Devil Pays Nada – protest against unpaid internships

WHO and WHAT are you working for?


Christian Zimmermann from DACS (Design and Artists Copyright Society) proceeded to give us an overview of Intellectual Property Copyright in the UK.

You should have all received a handout oF Christian’s slides. You can also access the audio recording of his talk, along with all of the talks from the conference, via BlackBoard.



Have a read of this interesting Artquest article: Art and Ideas – what does copyright law recognise as art?

Visit the DACS website to read What are we worth? Artists and the Economic Crisis – an article on how artists can create income in support of their practice in a period of dramatic economic, social and technological change.

Looking for work within the arts to help fund your practice? Read this article on How to be a gallery technician.


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