Work in Culture?

Spotlight

I have been invited to talk about what I do for a living at a primary school’s Careers Day by a friend who volunteers there as a reader. He works in catastrophe insurance, so he is planning to bring wooden blocks to demonstrate earthquakes. I am wondering, of course, how I will manage to present what I do to a bunch of 7-year-old kids when I can barely explain it to anyone beyond my immediate circle of colleagues; but also whether there is any point in trying to convince anyone to follow in my footsteps when work in the cultural sector is only getting more precarious and discriminatory by the day.

Should I talk about the cost and length of training? A degree in any discipline is now £9,000 a year, and I’m not sure what you get to do these days without a Masters (I have two and am not especially overwhelmed with job offers). Then there’s the cost of Continuing Professional Development, to finally get to learn what they don’t teach you at school, keep up-to-date with the latest trends and do some crucial networking – all the conferences, courses and seminars that employers don’t necessarily put you forward to attend and are difficult to afford as a freelancer. And then there’s the ever-increasing sector precarity – zero-hour contracts becoming the norms in museums and venues, artist fees not quite a given, short-term and freelance contracts replacing secure jobs in organisations of all sizes. Not to mention the bullying, socio-economic and ethnic discrimination, unpaid internships

Maybe I should just stick to the brief: what I do, how I got there, what I like about it and what kind of skills I need to do my job, a few simple points to be covered in 5-10 minutes.

Maybe I should also remember that it’s not just about convincing kids that my job is the best. There’s a huge opportunity to make them realise that if working in arts & culture is a serious occupation, alongside all the other professions represented that day – people working in health, sport, law, IT and insurance – it’s because it’s important in everyone’s everyday life. Art is for life, not just for school, as this Guardian Teacher Network blogger eloquently puts it: even in the few schools that still offer arts subjects, young people are stigmatised for choosing them, even though the transferable skills and increased self-confidence alone should be reasons enough to encourage them.

As early as primary school, dance, art and drama were offered in clubs because they aren’t the “real subjects” that we need for “big school”… There’s this stigma with the arts that only “unintelligent” students take those subjects. I still struggle to be taken seriously for taking arts subjects… But more than a year later, I’m reminded daily that taking GCSE dance was the best decision I ever made. While everyone complains about the subjects their parents forced them into, I am in the dance studio every lunchtime. Dance gets me into school. Dance gives me something to pour my head and heart into. It gives me a feeling of belonging, creativity, security and freedom… The skills that I get from the arts also help me hugely with work across the curriculum, from improving my analytical skills to making me more self-confident.

 

So, to answer the questions:

What does a Festival & Arts Coordinator do?

I organise festivals with music, art, theatre, food… and also smaller events, like writing workshops, one-off concerts and guided walks across the city.

I work with artists, venues and schools to create these events, then with designers and journalists to make sure that the event looks good and that people know about it.

Some festivals last 10 days and can take 1 or 2 years and a huge team to prepare. On the day of the event, I make sure that everything goes according to plan – there’s always something that goes wrong, from the weather to the main artist being stuck in a traffic jam, but it’s part of the job to fix all these problems, and usually no one even knows about what happens backstage!

How do you become a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

There are many ways – but you really need to love art and music, enjoy working with lots of people, be very organised and also happy to do things that are quite unusual or unexpected – it’s never the same every day!

I studied Humanities – English, French, German, Philosophy, History, Art… and Business Management, then I started working on a tourism conference. My first festival job was with the Manchester Jazz Festival, which was perfect for me because I love music – I played the piano, violin and guitar when I was younger, now I’m learning the cello.

There are a lot of different festivals – it could be about sport, food, theatre, film – it can also be a bit of everything at once. The best way to get experience and see if you like it is to volunteer for a festival: it’s fun, you’ll meet lots of people and you’ll get to see how it works from the inside.

What are the best things about being a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

  • It’s fun – I meet lots of people, I listen to a lot of live music, sometimes I also get travel to other festivals.
  • It’s very varied – one day I could be choosing the image for the brochure cover, another day visiting a venue with an artist to check that their band will fit on the stage, or training a team of volunteers.
  • It makes people happy – that’s really the best part of the job and it’s worth all the hard work.

What did you like at primary school that led to you becoming a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

Every year my primary school would put on a School Fair, a whole day of games, food, music to celebrate the end of the year. The children worked all year on a performance for the Fair – it could be theatre, dance or singing… I really loved the whole day – all the parents and children would be there, and older children who used to be at my school would come back just for that day because it was so much fun. I loved that we prepared for it all year – the children doing a show, the parents preparing food to sell at the stalls or making up games, like sack race, egg in spoon race, coconut shy … and then on the day everything and everyone would come together.

 

(image: Josef Franz, from an exhibition I saw recently at MAK Vienna)

Creative Employment

Tools of the Trade

Last spring’s call for (part-time, unpaid) interns from the Marina Abramovic Institute elicited some creative responses – and some more cautious comments.

Advice

Internships are commonly understood to be short-term practical work experiences, and should ideally be a win-win situation: the intern gains experience, skills, contacts and a general sense of their chosen industry; the employer gets an enthusiastic and committed assistant, perhaps even a future collaborator.

The problem when they’re not paid is that they create an unfair playing field, as Intern Aware – a UK-based campaign against unpaid internships – explains in this video:

On the Huffington Post UK, unpaid internships are blamed for widening the ‘elitist gap’ and likened to a form of modern day slavery; the BBC is reporting that HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is targeting 200 employers who recently advertised internships to ensure they are paying the minimum wage; and the Guardian is regularly reporting on sectorial practices around unpaid internships and the culture of privilege they reproduce.

On the militant front, Internship Anonymous features some rather revolting personal stories, and the Internship Manifesto for the creative industries (by Toronto-based Sam Johnstone) is making some powerful points with its Intern Charter of Rights + Freedom, of which I’ll quote the last two ones (click to read the full manifesto):

Manifesto

Practices and regulations differ for each industry and country, but rules on compensation are not always enforced and are too easily circumvented by playing on the blurry frontier between volunteer and intern. Intern Aware addresses this issue:

If you’ve got set hours, tasks and responsibilities then you almost certainly count as a ‘worker’ and have a right to be paid. There are a few exemptions, for charities and people who are interning as part of their study.

In the cultural sector, there are now other ways to get one’s foot on the career ladder. The three initiatives featured below are helping out young people and emerging art workers to explore and gain experience in their dream career; they also support arts organisations by enabling them to expand their capacity; and they benefit the ecology of the sector at large, by nurturing the next generation and ensuring that skills and knowledge are continuously shared and improved.

Creative Employment Programme

The Creative Employment Programme is a £15m fund to support the creation of traineeships, formal apprenticeship and paid internship opportunities in England for young unemployed people aged 16-24 wishing to pursue a career in the arts and cultural sector.

It provides part-wage grants to employers who apply through a formal competitive process, with a rolling deadline every 5 weeks. The grants are provided up to the following amounts:

  1. Up to £2500 per paid internship based on a minimum of 26 weeks of employment at 30 hours per week. Wages must be paid at National Minimum Wage or above.

  2. Up to £1500 per Apprenticeship based on a minimum of 12 months at 30 hours per week. This is if the employer chooses to pay National Minimum Wage for Apprenticeships (£2.68 an hour).

  3. Up to £2000 per Apprenticeship based on a minimum of 12 months at 30 hours per week. This is if the employer chooses to pay National Minimum Wage or above for the age of the apprentice.

The scheme is funded by Arts Council England until March 2015 and run by Creative and Cultural Skills. The two organisations have co-published a “Guide to Internships in the Arts” clearly stating that “interns” that fall under the ‘worker’ status must be paid at least the minimum wage. And if interns “have a clear set of objectives, a specific role and formal duties, and (are) expected to help the arts organisation to achieve its aims”, then they are quite likely into this category.

The scheme also promotes a chart of Fair Access Principle, developed in collaboration with The Creative Society (see below), that articulates the difference between Volunteers, Work Experience, Internships and Apprenticeships, and encourages employers to commit to the following general Recruitment Practices:

We commit to advertising all opportunities fairly, openly and transparently. We will publicise details openly and in a range of relevant places including the National Apprenticeships Service Vacancy Service and Jobcentre Plus, where appropriate.

We also commit not to request that applicants possess qualifications that are not relevant.

The Creative Society

Formerly known as New Deal of the Mind, the Creative Society is “an arts employment charity that helps young people into jobs in the creative and cultural industries”. It all started with an article in The New Statesman by founder and CEO Martin Bright, considering the effects of the cultural programmes of the American New Deal, such as:

The Federal Art Project conducted classes attended by 60,000 people a week and produced 234,000 works of art; the Federal Music Project gave 4,400 musical performances a month, with an average monthly attendance of three million people, and the Federal Theatre put on 1,813 plays. The Federal Writers’ Project produced guidebooks to the American states and nearly 200 books and pamphlets.

According to Britain’s leading expert on the New Deal, Professor Anthony Badger of Cambridge University:

The WPA was based on the principle that there was no point in putting unemployed writers to work digging roads. They were ridiculed at the time, and there were some ludicrous projects, but there were also some remarkable achievements.

The Creative Society conducts research and publishes guides and reports, campaigns for Fair Access to establish standards of recruitment,and runs event, projects and programmes, such as Right Futures, advising 16-19 interested in a career in music, film or design; Haringey Job Fund, subsidising jobs in the arts for 16-24 Haringey residents currently unemployed (and open to arts organisations based in any London borough); and This Is It!, a series of events across England for all paid interns and apprentices on the Creative Employment Programme.

The BBC Performing Arts Fund

The BBC Performing Arts Fund aims to seek out and support aspiring individuals and community groups who, for reasons of lack of existing support, personal background or circumstance, would not have been able to achieve their greatest potential without the Fund’s support or intervention.

Since its inception in 2003, the Fund has already awarded over £4m worth of grants, as well as offering mentoring and advice to help winners achieve their most ambitious goals. Previous winners have gone on to produce a Mercury Prize winning album, perform at the Glastonbury Festival, appear on Later with Jools Holland and land starring roles in the West End.

Each year the Fund’s work focuses on a different art form – music, dance or theatre – and grants are distributed via two schemes, one for individuals and one for community groups.

The charity is funded through revenue from the voting lines of BBC entertainment programmes such as Fame Academy, Over the Rainbow and The Voice.

The focus for 2013 is Community Theatre, and 19 Fellows and 58 community groups have just been selected to receive grants (£10,000 for individuals, £500 to 5,000 for groups). The Fellows are emerging artists, playwrights, producers and director from across the UK, placed for several months with a host organisation on a bespoke work experience programme. The community groups’ projects are equally varied, from Team Oasis in Liverpool who plans to “promote community togetherness, inclusion, integration; and above all, acceptance within the local Liverpool community” to the Duns Players who “want to improve their vocal and movement skills. These skills would be used with school children and older people in two new projects next year”. An ongoing blog provides information about working in the performing arts, updates on funding schemes and themes, and follow-up interviews and features on past winners.