Yesterday I had an unfortunate moment on Twitter where I laid into Ort Cafe’s gallery for advertising two unpaid intern posts. (jpg)
On calm reflection I was being a dick and an idiot. I should have asked before assuming, and I apologise to all involved, but I think the reasons why this triggered a rant are worth exploring.
The controversy over unpaid interns is nothing new and it boils down to one simple fact. By not providing a living wage for this valuable experience you are only helping those in society who are able to work without a wage. Most people, particularly young people who don’t live at home, are not in this situation. When I was in my 20s I worked full time to pay the rent and the week before payday was always a struggle. Taking time off paid work to get experience in another field, however valuable, was not an option.
It’s the same argument as for making education free to all. Putting a price on learning means only those who can afford it will get that education. Of course, by indulging private schools we weaken that, allowing the wealthy to purchase better education than the poor, and loans replacing grants didn’t help, even if those who never earn much don’t have to pay them back, but the argument is fairly well accepted. Basic education is a reasonably level playing field.
Internships are a form of eduction. They’re a chance for someone who wants to get into an industry to get valuable experience so they can successfully apply for a real job.
There’s nothing wrong with working for free. I often do work without getting paid. The Birmingham Obscura project is a good example. I’ve spent £300 on building it and have taken it out three times without a fee. And we see it as a means to an end, something that will eventually pay for itself and pay us, through invites to events with a budget and through workshops and other add-ons.
You could say that an internship is similar to this. You work for free for a while and then get a paid job. But I’d say there’s a big difference.
With Birmingham Obscura we have all the power. The camera obscura industry doesn’t exist in Birmingham so we’re able to control every aspect of our journey through it. And the end goal – the metric of success – is ours too. We can decide how much time and resources to put in to it and when the investment might not be working out.
An intern is a more established industry has less power. There are expectations and norms established by those with the power which those at the bottom have to abide by. If the industry demands work experience then you have to get that work experience. If the industry demands that you get this experience without compensation then you have to work for free.
Everything comes down to power. Who has it, who doesn’t have it, and how the former treat the latter.
The Ort Cafe, it must be said, doesn’t have much power, and what is has they tend to distribute fairly evenly. It’s a classic “community” venue in that it’s accessible, affordable and very very ethical. The gallery manager replied to me.
There’s a number of things to unpack here.
1) Arts Council England (ACE) funding demands that you put this logo on your materials.
What it doesn’t demand is that you say how much funding you got and what it was for. I think this is a problem as it leads to all sorts of assumptions. People who don’t know how arts funding works might assume recipients are swimming in money, usually at the expense of terminally ill babies. And people who do know how arts funding work might assume the recipients got what they got the last time they applied for some.
My understanding of Arts Council funding is that you always put in your fee. In fact the guidelines make this pretty explicit, suggesting you use the Artists Network sample day rates as your guide which works out at £200/day minimum.
So my assumption, and it was an assumption based purely on seeing that logo, was that the funding Ort had received would naturally include the salaries of people working there. Which is why I think the logo is a great example of “a little information is a dangerous thing”.
2) Small grassroots organisations are different to large corporate organisations.
This is pretty indisputable. Where it gets tricky is when a small organisation uses the language and systems of the large ones. I see this a lot with groups of people who want to do something “properly” and christ knows I’ve fallen for it in my time. Usually it manifests itself in an obsession with branding and logos, which is harmless if a timesink. Sometimes it’s a little more serious, like registering the company and assigning directors before the actual needs of the organisation have emerged.
I feel like I’m about to unpack a decade’s worth of experiences, good and bad, which will drag me completely off topic, so let’s say the Ort Gallery job descriptions uses language that might not be commensurable with the actuality of the job in question.
Or to put in another way, why is a volunteer-run, salary-free grassroots gallery using the Human Resources language and legalese of a large organisation?
I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But I do wonder why we who find ourselves trying to do things “properly” always fall into this trap.
3) The whole volunteer thing is weird.
It’s a lovely idea, that a project is run by volunteers. But doing so sustainably is bloody hard because, unfortunately, we live in a world people have to pay the rent and the minimum wage is below the living wage. Going with volunteers limits your pool to those who can afford to give their time for nothing, and while you can and will find some wonderful people in that pool it’s still a small pool, and there’s no guarantee they’ll stay in it.
I’ve had experience managing people on a salary and people volunteering and I think, on balance, I prefer the employees. There’s an honesty to the exchange. I give you some money and you turn up on time and do the agreed job. Volunteers always have ulterior motives for being there. Usually they’re good motives, but they’re often hard to pin down and can change with the wind.
There’s a reason volunteer co-ordination is a profession and it’s also why I only managed a few months of being one. It’s bloody hard work. Give me employee management any time.
But more to the point, I really don’t see how a significantly sized venture, especially one that’s receiving funding, can be sustainable without someone getting paid to look after it. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying I can’t see how. Whoever is in charge has to be paying the rent and that will always take priority.
In conclusion, then (thank god).
I am not saying the Ort Gallery is evil or wrong. I am not saying their plan is flawed and they’re doomed to fail. I am not making any judgements at all and I feel bad for using them exclusively as my subject. I could have used any of the small arts organisations, to be honest, especially some of those I’ve been involved with personally.
I was very wrong in my assumptions based on the evidence I saw and my personal experiences. Hopefully I’ve outlined how I came to those assumptions and maybe that might be useful for people, should they be trying to make themselves clear to the 40+ grumpy male demographic.
But I do think smaller, grass-roots organisations have a responsibility to their communities to be better at explaining themselves and showing their workings. People will always assume the worst until they see otherwise. Show them otherwise.
And these organisations, which are often trying to shift people’s ideas about how society can function, have a responsibility to take this to all aspects of their business, not just where they source the coffee from. Unpaid Internships are a massive problem in the culture industries. If Josie “needs a bit of help” then why adopt that model?
But again, I apologise to Josie and everyone at Ort for the outburst and wish them well.
(I’m starting to think I could write a bloody book on this. Watch for more on this subject over the months…)