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Practical guides

Why volunteer in the visual arts?

A guide for artists and organisers, with comments from artists and good practice checklist.

Volunteering - sometimes also described as work experience and internships - has become the norm in the arts. Beyond the arts, around fifty per cent of the population is engaged in volunteering in some form or another. Volunteering is a way of building up your skills and experience and your professional contacts. In many industries, such as publishing and social sciences, internships are a well-trodden route to paid employment although this tends not to be the case in the arts.

Within the arts there's no shortage of unpaid work on offer. This is despite a tribunal case in February fought by BETCU that ruled that workers engaged on an expenses-only basis are entitled to payment at least in line with the national minimum wage if their duties amounted to employment.

Although it can be argued that arts organisations who use volunteers are doing this because it's a cheap solution to the delivery of essential parts of their programme - such as exhibition installation, marketing, invigilation, educational and community workshops and audience development programmes - there can be definite benefits for those who volunteer if they pick and choose carefully from what's on offer.

On the plus side, unpaid posts can bring career credentials for arts practitioners as well as for would-be arts administrators, curators and educationalists. But are volunteering opportunities ethically sound when, as artist Emily Speed has commented: "Many people can't afford to do them, particularly the full-time internships." And how do you ensure the exchange between volunteer and organisation is equitable? This is where guidelines such as those used by local authorities and Skillet come in.

A well-crafted and equitable volunteer placement or internship can offer valuable contacts and experience. Or it can be a demanding drain on your energy and resources if you are expected to be as skilled and motivated as any employee but without wage packet or support structure. As Emily Speed advises: "Do your research and choose carefully or you might end up never getting any training, just making tea, and generally not getting much back for your time."

Tate internship

In 2008, artist and Online editor of Andrew Bryant was invited to apply for an internship with the Tate online exhibitions team.

"The internship has been a challenge in itself, partly because it's a new job and the feeling that brings, and getting used to the working environment. The job is a steep learning curve. I've had to learn new skills very quickly under the pressure of deadlines. Managing the workload has been a challenge. It's been hard work."

He said: "Tate accommodated me really well. I have been treated as an equal, as part of the staff. As an artist, if you get a chance to work with a big organisation such as Tate, do it. But make the most of it while you are there - learn new skills, get involved and network as much as you can." Did it pay off? Although Andrew subsequently became a fully paid freelance editor at Tate, this did not end up as a long-term arrangement.

Skills and attributes

A review of volunteer posts suggests that the experience and skills set is broadly similar to those for paid-for positions. Announcements tend to include terms such as "we are seeking people who are reliable individuals who are good at dealing with the public", "have practical knowledge and experience of the arts", "have the ability to work independently and under pressure", "are open to working with unusual processes and situations" and are "full of new and exciting ideas".

Some seek specific skills or qualifications such as "good website skills and knowledge", "capability in website editing and production", "having an affinity with public art", "experience and skills in marketing and promotions". Some volunteers are expected to work full-time for a period whilst others specify a set number of days over a number of months. Some opportunities require applicants to "have a recent CRB check". Whilst a few are seeking "recent graduates with good website skills and knowledge" others are clearly seeking mature individuals with a length of experience.

Benefits are broadly stated rather than specifically quantified. What the volunteer gets in exchange are things like: "gallery experience", "helping with an unusual and exciting programme of workshops", "hands-on training in arts management and a comprehensive overview of gallery operations", "desk space, computer, access to the network", "down-time access to our digital suites", "opportunity to gain hands-on experience delivering arts workshops to a cross-section of the community and working within a festival setting" and "a great inclusion to your CV".

The Zoo Art Fair Internship Scheme, that traditionally has been offered annually in January, is open to "people still studying for their first degree, engaged in post-graduate studies or just out of college, who want to acquire in-depth experience in the management of a rapidly expanding, lively, international art fair - gaining an understanding of how the independent art market works, as well as about individual exhibitors, including galleries, project spaces and publications. The scheme provides an opportunity for students and/or recent graduates to find out more about the contemporary art world and what their role in it might be. It is a networking opportunity as well as a chance to acquire new skills".

London's Whitechapel Gallery offered a position for a Design & Production intern to work within the Communications department for two days a week, for a period of three months, with the possibility of extending for a further three months. "The role of the Internship will be to assist in all aspects of design & print production. This role sits within the Communications department which consists of; Head of Communications; Communications Officer, Design & Production Officer; Communications Assistant and three departmental interns."


In financial terms, some volunteers find themselves out-of-pocket. Rather than reimbursing actual costs, some internships offer: "a small amount for expenses (travel and food)" or "a lunch voucher to help towards expenses". A few of the opportunities say "we cover standard travelling expenses [within the region]" and "reasonable travel expenses will be reimbursed and refreshments will be available". Tate paid Andrew Bryant's travel and expenses, although this isn't the case for all their internships. As anyone living in London will tell you, you need at least £25 a day if you're not subsidising the internship yourself, so asking for your actual expenses when volunteering is not unreasonable.

Volunteer agreements

Clarifying the nature of exchange between volunteer and organisation would address the concerns raised around exploitation. The following checklist is as an example of what good practice might look like from the volunteer's point of view:

  • Volunteers should be recruited to enhance a service, not to replace paid staff.
  • Volunteers should be given clear task descriptions and working agreements.
  • Volunteer opportunities should provide meaningful skills acquisition and personal development with recognised outcomes for the recipient.
  • Equal opportunities, disability, diversity and health and safety policies should apply to volunteers.
  • There should be complaints and grievance, disciplinary and confidentiality policies for volunteers.
  • Volunteers should have induction and supervision policies, including training for a volunteer's personal development.
  • Volunteers should have their expenses reimbursed.
  • Volunteers should have access to the benefits provided for paid staff eg appraisal, line management, time off for personal matters and emergencies, etc.

When assessing any unpaid work offered it is also worth reviewing the Skillset Guidelines for Graduate Internships, published in consultation with Arts Council England and Creative and Cultural skills. As with most things in the arts, it is advisable for artists and arts professionals to negotiate the terms and conditions of any work, whether paid or unpaid. This is in part because - surprisingly perhaps - many organisations remain unaware of the freelance nature and specific overhead costs attached to visual arts practice.

How to choose

Deciding about taking an unpaid work opportunity should be treated like any other you consider. Your decision involves checking whether it fits into your own development plan and analysing the cost to you (in time and other expenses) and what you expect to achieve from it. Emily Speed suggests: "View an internship more like a decision to study. Perhaps an internship is a better investment for self-sufficiency in the long term."

A simple way to assess the value of a volunteer role would be to take a sheet of paper (or electronic version of this!), draw a line down the middle and put all the pros (pluses) in one column and all the cons (downsides) in the other. Do the points in one column outweigh those in the other? Are there unanswered questions you need to check before deciding? If it's a regular volunteer offer, you might try to find out who's done it before, what they gained from it, what they're doing now as part of helping you make your own decision.

Useful links

Thanks to Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's Compact Volunteering Code of Practice 2005.

Guidelines for Graduate Internships

Ruling obtained by BECTU - profile of Andrew Bryant - use The artist's development toolkit to assess your own skills and experience and options and set out our own development plan.

Emily Speed's blog is on

Practical guide on achieving Quality on a budget

The writer

Susan Jones is Director of Programmes at a-n The Artists Information Company. Her specialist research areas include artists' professional development and employment, public art and the impact of practice-led initiatives on arts development.

First published: March 2009. Updated August 2010

Comments on this article

It is of course the duty of all artists - and others - to make personal choices about their approaches to their practice. For some recent news issues around working for free of the legal status of internships as regards payment, go to Emily Speed's article at

posted on 2010-02-01 by Susan Jones

As a graduate artist and also a lone parent, financially and also time wise I could not justify applying for an unpaid or voluntary internship outside my local city, and none are offered here. I fully expect internships for graduates to be paid opportunities, as I feel I am excluded from even considering applying for such positions due to having financial responsibilities such as rent to pay and bills etc. I know my worth.

posted on 2010-02-01 by Helen Dearnley

Having recently graduated from my BA in Fine art I had intended to go straight on to an MFA. Unfortunately, due to it being a brand new course and with my specific access needs, the course wasn’t ready. I was very lucky to secure a curatorial internship at a gallery in the east of England. I am now a month into the job and finding it invaluable. Being paraplegic and using a wheelchair I was really worried about my future carer, mainly due to access but I am thoroughly enjoying it and being included in all the gallery activities; although my main role is research, I am meeting international artists, getting involved in children’s art activities and meeting other art professionals. I am very realistic and understand that I wont be able to support myself well enough as a full time self employed artist so I hope this internship will put me in good sted for a paid gallery job which will enable me to continue my practice.

posted on 2009-11-05 by Amy Nettleton

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