Axeing unpaid working isn't enough to make the arts truly diverse

An edited version of this blog appeared in The Stage on 30 April 2015.

It’s heartening to see Labour’s Chris Bryant acknowledging what most in the arts community have know for years; that the biggest subsidy to our arts ecology comes from the unpaid work of the artists themselves. Bryant’s right that the expectation that emerging artists will work for free skews the demography of our industry towards those who can make regular withdrawals from the bank of mum and dad. But I’m not convinced that simply banning unpaid internships will solve the problem. Even salaried posts in much of the theatre sector are woefully uncompetitive with equivalent roles in other industries, and as arts budgets are cut and cut again, it’s wages for freelance and short term contract staff that are most heavily eroded to make speedy savings. As a result, even a relatively successful career in the arts is unlikely to guarantee enough income to achieve a reasonable standard of living in the long term.

The genteel poverty that is the day-to-day reality of many theatre makers is not an attractive prospect for anyone without some kind of financial safety net. It is understandable that so few young people from working class backgrounds choose to embark upon a career in an industry where even the most successful (paid) professionals cannot be sure of a living wage.

Labour’s commitment to rule out unpaid work is clearly rooted in good intentions, but unless it’s paired with action to improve access to arts education from an early stage and a commitment to a funding settlement that empowers employers to pay competitive wages across the sector, it will do little to incentivise a career in the arts for those without the safety net of a wealthy background.

Bryant and his team seem to believe that the only reason workers go unpaid is the unscrupulous penny pinching of arts employers and that once outlawed, unpaid internships would miraculously become paid jobs. But there is no suggestion of where the money for those wages might come from. Without a fuller programme of changes to support strategic investment in the arts ecology and a corresponding increase in funding for fees and salaries to pay all workers fairly, the move to end unpaid working would lead to a speedy reduction in capacity across the sector as organisations downsized their output to reflect their true financial limitations.

While this latest pronouncement implies an attempt to understand and nurture the arts ecology, it is entirely counterintuitive to Labour’s plans not to reverse swingeing Tory cuts to the arts budget. Politicians are fond of identifying what is wrong with the arts landscape. But the cure for the ills they identify is a simple one: the best way to improve access and diversity in the arts sector is to fund it properly and make wages genuinely competitive across the board. So, come on Mr Milliband, Mr Bryant; give us what we need to do as you ask. Until that happens, we’ll just be tinkering round the edges of a deeply wounded ecology.

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