When Liverpool’s FACT advertised for unpaid gallery attendants earlier this year, plenty of eyebrows were raised. The voluntary positions replaced previously paid roles following the arts venue’s decision to make 11 employees redundant, and the move prompted protests in Liverpool and beyond. The London-based activist group the Precarious Workers Brigade penned an open letter criticising the move and making the often-stated point: replacing paid jobs with volunteers effectively shuts the door to those who can’t afford to give their time and expertise for free.

In a statement defending their decision, FACT cited financial pressure as a key factor: “Like many organisations of our kind, we are affected by today’s challenging financial climate, and have had to respond to public funding cuts over the past few years in order to remain sustainable.”

FACT’s response to the cuts is not an isolated one – there is evidence to suggest that the organisation’s staffing restructure is part of a growing trend across the sector. Last October, the Museums Association discovered that 47% of museums had seen an increase in volunteers, while 37% underwent staff cuts during the past year. Mark Taylor, director of the association, described the situation as “outrageous”, and though he acknowledged that volunteers have much to offer, he also warned they could “never replace skilled, experienced staff.”

Other UK galleries involved in exhibiting and commissioning contemporary art are adopting a similar approach to FACT. In Bristol, both Arnolfini and Spike Island have recently replaced paid invigilators with volunteers.

While people losing their jobs is always regrettable, what makes this trend all the more significant is its impact on both individual artists and the wider arts ecology. Many artists rely on invigilation jobs to support their practice – by withdrawing this source of income, are arts organisations stunting the growth of the very artists they are supposed to be nurturing? FACT’s executive director Iona Horsburgh thinks not.

“Whilst entry-level jobs can sometimes provide employment for artists as a way of earning money, the primary objective of an entry-level job is in its very title, i.e. an entry point into the sector. Supporting emerging artists is a key priority for all arts organisations but we believe that the most important way to do this is to develop artists as artists, to ensure we commission work at a range of career points and support them in developing their practices.”

Insight and experience

Many artists, however, have only been able to develop their careers through the opportunities gained from the paid jobs now under threat. Artists can, of course, supplement their income with any part-time job – working in call centres, stacking supermarket shelves or pulling pints can all help to pay the bills. But none of these jobs can provide that essential foot in the door to the art world. They lack the mutual support and sense of community that working alongside artist peers can generate, and they aren’t conducive to building a professional network or gaining insight and experience in the art world.

FACT has created a dedicated training and professional development programme for its volunteer team. This includes a variety of knowledge sharing and training sessions aimed at building a career in the arts. For those who can’t afford to work for free, however, it seems the only option is to take a step away from the sector and miss out on such important, career enhancing opportunities.

In Bristol, Spike Island has also developed a dedicated volunteer programme in response to financial challenges. Director Helen Legg explains: “Switching to an entirely volunteer invigilation team was a decision we thought about carefully and moved towards over time, gradually introducing volunteers to test out whether a programme could work.”

With costs rising year-on-year and Arts Council England funding amounting to less that 15% of the organisation’s annual expenditure, it’s perhaps unsurprising that difficult decisions like this are being made.

Tough decisions have also been made at Arnolfini where, at the end of May, the entire team of contracted invigilators were made redundant. Having gone through a succession of senior managers in recent years, and with its director of eight years Tom Trevor leaving abruptly last October, the organisation’s ongoing financial troubles finally came to a head this spring. With its galleries currently closed, Arnolfini plans to replace these paid positions with volunteers, though the job description remains virtually identical.

One former Arnolfini employee and artist, who wished to be quoted anonymously, says: “Arnolfini and the wider Bristol arts scene has lost a team of skilled, dedicated people who may now not be able to afford to sustain their own art practices or to stay within the sector. I’m now looking for part-time work in the arts but fear that I will have to go to another sector because there is very little paid work left below management level.”

Arnolfini’s new director Kate Brindley, who joined the gallery in April, cites the organisation’s financial situation as the reason for the move. “As with many arts organisations, Arnolfini is having to find ways of working more efficiently, keeping a high-quality free programme whilst dealing with a squeezed financial environment. Part of those decisions to find efficiencies is to have our galleries invigilated with volunteers. We believe volunteers will add huge value.”

Bristol-based artist Julie McCalden is unconvinced. “This a depressing continuation of the cultural shift that started with unpaid internships, and it will have negative implications for the arts ecology as a whole,” she says. “How will we retain our graduates if other cities have more attractive, healthy ecologies?”

Valuable support for artists

Other arts organisations approached by a-n seem to echo McCalden’s view that paid invigilation work is an important part of a city’s arts ecology. Francis Mckee, director of Glasgow’s CCA, says: “We’re committed to paying our staff and artists. This is not a sentimental position; I think any organisation, or business, that wants to create a positive environment and wants to be successful has to commit to the people in it. Our invigilators, box office and installation staff are generally young artists. To drop those jobs would deprive many of valuable support and badly damage both the arts ecology and the local arts economy.”

Echoing CCA’s position, Lynn Hanna, head of communications and development at Nottingham Contemporary, says: “Our gallery assistants are paid and we have no plans to replace them with unpaid volunteers. A great many are artists and their skills, knowledge and enthusiasm are vital in engaging our audiences. It would undoubtedly be a loss to galleries, and in the longer run to the arts and the creative economy, if those paid jobs were to disappear.”

At Gateshead’s Baltic, director Godfrey Worsdale says: “We cherish the professionalisation of our front of house team and invest as much as we can in its continual development. We do have volunteers working in other areas at Baltic, though we try to ensure that this delivers benefits for both parties and adds value to what we can deliver for the public benefit.”

Arts Council England, in their guidance notes to organisations applying for National Portfolio funding, strongly recommends that organisations pay their workers fairly: ‘We recognise that there is a great value in people having access to work experience where it is offered and arranged properly and is a mutually beneficial arrangement, but this should not be used as a means of attempting to circumvent the minimum wage regulations. We require organisations receiving funding from Arts Council England to ensure that salaries, fees and subsistence arrangements are as good as or better than those agreed by any relevant trade unions and employers’ associations.”

Speaking recently to Arts Professional, an Arts Council spokesperson commented that an organisation’s over-reliance on volunteers “would suggest a lack of financial resilience and would put at risk their chances of retaining NPO status in future investment rounds.”

Political and economic issues

While sympathetic to the plight of cash-strapped arts organisations, McCalden believes moves to use volunteers instead of paid staff is about “self-preservation” rather than making the right decisions to support artists. “What I do see is a lot of hot air about the ‘opportunity’ of unpaid work,” she says. “Few people, least of all artists, can afford to spend time invigilating if they are not earning money. Sadly, there are many people who will be prepared to take the ‘opportunity’ on, until they realise that it will do little for their careers.”

Like FACT, Spike Island’s volunteer programme has been designed precisely with career development in mind. Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer Harries runs an impressive programme of events intended to develop skills and experience within the arts. “During our current exhibition we are focussing on arts career development and providing training opportunities and workshops,” she explains. “These include tour guide training, a careers evening, one-to-one sessions with Spike Island staff, a CV surgery and job application and funding workshops.”

Student Rachel May currently volunteers at Spike Island. “Through volunteering I’ve been able to have classes in British Sign Language, as well as assist at family and baby art workshops. I think volunteering is an exciting way to get involved in an art community alongside my studies and can provide practical skills useful for the workplace.” Arnolfini is also developing a package for volunteers, though further details (other than vague incentives such as ‘playing an active part in Arnolfini’ and ‘having access to training’) were not available at the time of writing.

Despite its move to use volunteers as invigilators, Legg says that Spike Island is still committed to supporting artists, employing them as installation technicians, exhibition photographers, café workers, and in more ad hoc ways such as leading tours and workshops.

“I’m obviously concerned about the reduction of entry-level jobs in the arts, as a reflection of growing inequality across society,” says Legg. “Organisations need to be aware of these issues and strategic in the ways they employ limited resources to most effectively sustain the ecology. Our budget is built on the basis of supporting the arts and artists; however, our funding is modest for the scale of the organisation and with the best will in the world we can only stretch our resources so far. I think we need to see much more energy directed at the overarching political and economic issues of which this discussion is a symptom.”

The use of volunteers by visual arts organisations and the impact this has on artists is clearly an issue that is not going to go away. And while it is sticking by its decision, FACT recognises that there are issues to be discussed when it comes to volunteering and the arts. To this end, it is hosting a discussion event on the subject of volunteers in the arts (Tuesday 5 August, The Box, 9.30-11am).

“Although our changes at FACT took place almost five months ago, it has been interesting to see some of the conversations that have arisen about volunteering in Liverpool during this time,” says Horsburgh. “The Liverpool Biennial, International Festival of Business and The Giant Spectacular are all looking for a significant number of volunteers in the city and many other organisations are also thinking of establishing volunteer schemes. We felt that it would be helpful to host an event which provides the opportunity to share and understand best practice for volunteering schemes.”

The full impact of these volunteer schemes is yet to be seen. But, in cities where paid entry-level jobs are becoming increasingly scarce, there are important questions to be asked about the sustainability of local arts ecologies. Not least of these is whether they can survive at all, if the only people getting paid are those who have already established themselves.

More on a-n.co.uk:

Gallery withdraws unpaid ‘opportunity’ in response to protests
Museum services suffer as unpaid volunteers and interns replace staff

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