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As financial pressures on the arts sector continue, arts organisations are working to build new revenue streams and cut costs. What impact is this having on employment practices? Liz Hill highlights some of the findings from ArtsProfessional’s latest Pulse survey. 524 respondents took part in the research from 6 –16 October 2014.

Graphic of a crowd of people

Whilst the impact of ‘austerity’ and cuts to the arts sector as a whole have been the focus of many political speeches, much political lobbying and generated plenty of column inches in the national press, the impact on individuals working in the sector has been a less high profile but nonetheless growing concern. For example, in 2011 actors’ union Equity established a ‘Low Pay/No Pay’ campaign which included a working party to address issues raised by volunteering, especially the lack of clarity in law over the definition of a ‘worker’ and the implications of this. Whilst it is illegal for a worker to be offered employment at less than the National Minimum Wage, what the law regards as a worker is open to interpretation. Consulting its members, Equity discovered a divergence of opinion: whilst many believed it was a scandal that some companies expect professionals to work for free, others thought it was important for people to have the right to choose to donate their time if they wish.

Later that year, Arts Council England (ACE), in collaboration with Creative & Cultural Skills (CCS), published a set of guidelines pointing out the legal obligations of arts organisations offering internships. CCS, which promotes job opportunities, apprenticeships and internships, requires the positions it features to meet the requirements for the National Minimum Wage. Whilst stopping short of making paying interns a condition of funding, ACE has since issued a thinly veiled warning that it would take a dim view of any application for regular funding that “was relying too heavily on an unpaid workforce”. This view has since been echoed by the Labour party, with Ed Miliband pledging that unpaid internships lasting longer than four weeks will be banned if Labour wins power in the May general election.

The Scottish Artists Union has been lobbying on recommended rates of pay for artists for nearly 10 years, and more recently, a-n’s Paying Artists campaign, has taken up the case of visual artists who “are regularly expected to develop and exhibit their work without a fee”. The campaign, which is endorsed by a range of bodies including ACE and the visual artists’ rights management organisation DACS, and artists including Jeremy Deller and Richard Layzell, aims to secure payment for all artists who exhibit in publicly-funded galleries.

The issues being tackled by the Paying Artists campaign also resonate with musicians. The Musicians’ Union, concerned at a growing trend of professional musicians not being paid for their work, is running the ‘Work Not Play campaign’ in an attempt to engage the support of music fans to encourage proper pay for musicians and “ensure that music continues to be a viable profession”.

It is against this backdrop that AP’s latest Pulse survey, which has gathered and quantified opinion from more than 500 people across the UK and beyond, reveals the views of the wider arts sector on three key issues: the payment of interns and apprentices, the use of volunteers and the role of freelances.

Read the full survey responses here, including over 900 comments related to the changing patterns of employment in the arts sector.




  • Are interns / apprentices now doing work that would have previously been done by permanent staff?
  • Should paying at least a minimum wage to interns and apprentices be a condition of arts council funding?
  • Are internships and apprenticeships exploitative ways of minimising wages?

The loss of permanent positions

Unsurprisingly, this survey confirms that internships and apprenticeships are being used to replace some permanent positions in the arts sector. 48% of respondents noted that interns or apprentices were probably or definitely doing work that previously would have been done by permanent staff in their organisations, while only 26% said this was probably or definitely not the case.

Minimum wage: a condition of funding

Of all the opinions expressed in this survey, consensus was highest on the question of paying at least a minimum wage to interns and apprentices. 86% of respondents were in favour of this being a condition of arts council funding, and only 7% against. The arguments in support of such a move were many and varied. It is a duty of publicly funded arts organisations to “set an example by paying at least minimum wage”, one suggested. A 2009 graduate commented that “there was no such thing as an unpaid traineeship or internship” when they left university, but now there is an expectation for young creative people to work for free, and those in creative careers are made to “feel ‘lucky’ to have a job”. About apprenticeships, one commented: “The official minimum wage for apprentices is £2.30… which is an insult and is not appropriate for a company in receipt of public funding.”

A diverse workforce

One person commented on the implications of this: “I see the types of jobs that were MY first step on the careers ladder now being offered as unpaid or ‘lunch and travel allowance’ internships. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to take on this kind of role because I didn’t have parental financing I could rely on.” This comment is typical of the commonly expressed view that unpaid internships or apprenticeships lead to unequal access to work, with unpaid opportunities favouring those who can rely on “the bank of mum and dad”. “Paying interns and apprentices will make the industry more accessible and open to people who couldn’t afford to do unpaid work, therefore leading to a more diverse workforce”, said one. Another commented: “It is not only exploitative not to pay interns and apprentices, but it ensures those who can afford to work for free/less than the living wage are the ones who gain the essential ‘foot-up’ and make those connections in a highly competitive arena.” Another remarked on how much the sector has changed: “The reality is that many people in senior roles in the arts industry today would simply not have got to where they are if they’d been expected to pay thousands of pounds in tuition fees and become indebted to the tune of several thousand more pounds for living expenses, and then do several years unpaid work experience, before finally, hopefully, managing to bag a proper paid role. But now they are pulling the bottom rungs of the ladder up behind them. And that’s not on.”

A learning contract

Loose definitions of the terms ‘interns’ and ‘apprentices’ was felt by some to be muddying the waters in relation to pay. One suggested “It should be made clear - legislation? - what these terms mean… and how and when they can legitimately be used.” Another said: “Apprentices and interns are (or should be) ‘there to learn’ so are being paid to train. Having said that, I deplore the prevalence of using interns and apprentices as a way to bypass employment. I’ve seen several ACE NPOs who do this ... e.g. senior management jobs advertised with the words apprentice or intern or trainee in front of them.... a clear nonsense!” Another pointed out: “I think there is (or should be) a clearer distinction between volunteers and interns / apprentices. The former freely and knowingly GIVE of their time and skills, while the latter are seeking valuable work experience as trainees and as such they should be paid accordingly… During a recent period of unpaid work, I insisted on being called a volunteer, since I don’t believe in unpaid internships.” One suggested that the issue of paying interns needs to be treated as “almost a case by case scenario” where the “value exchange – learning versus their work commitment” is assessed.

Finding a sustainable balance

Among those who felt it would be inappropriate to link funding eligibility to the payment of interns, the arguments tended to relate to the harsh financial realities facing many arts organisations. One pointed out: “Small companies will simply not have the resources to spend on this.” Another drew attention to the fact that many permanent junior roles are remunerated on minimum wage, so being required to pay this would be a disincentive for organisations to take on apprentices: “…why would they take somebody they have to develop a lot when sadly you can get somebody with an MA on minimum wage? Interns and apprentices should be paid something by their employer, but as long as they are being trained, not necessarily minimum wage.” Another suggested that paying minimum wage may not be the top priority: “… this can be incredibly difficult to manage… financially. When a budget is tight it might be considered a higher priority to make sure artists are properly paid, which they often aren’t.”

But others dismissed arguments about costs. One said: “For many organisations with particularly large overheads for staff costs, the cost of someone to be employed at minimum wage is not that much more. Also, in a lot of cases interns provide an essential level of support and many have a lot of responsibility during their time with an organisation.” And one respondent wondered if an arts organisation is actually viable if it doesn’t even have enough money to pay an intern: “It is the minimum organisations can do to value the contributions of interns and volunteers. If your organisation can’t do that, then you haven’t got a valid business plan, and I would have to wonder why your organisation is firstly in business and what you hope to achieve.”

Unintended consequences

Whatever the financial situation of the employers, some expressed concern that access to the sector could become more difficult for everyone if wage conditions were to be placed on grants: “Of course this [minimum wage] should always be the ideal, and something to aim for. However by making these conditions essential, then you will be reducing the number of opportunities for young people getting into the sector. I have worked with many young people who have been grateful for short / flexible / supportive volunteering and intern opportunities that only offer expenses. They have found this both rewarding and educational and has always led to paid work in the sector.” Another said: “Sometimes organisations are strapped for cash but still can offer really useful opportunities that can make a different to the ability for people to get experience in the sector, even in they’re not paid.” But it is the practicalities of insisting on a minimum wage for interns that could be the biggest barrier of all, according to one respondent: “It’s pointless putting in place legislation to say that “internships” must be paid according to the minimum wage as organisations are unable or unwilling to pay so rename these positions e.g. ‘voluntary placements’.”

“‘We want to exploit you”

Some respondents pointed to the de-motivating impact of expecting interns to do essential work without payment: “At all of the organisations that I’ve worked at where unpaid interns are used to deliver essential services, the interns feel extremely demoralised, have little respect for the organisation after a couple of months, and feel taken advantage of. It’s not good for team morale and good mental health.”

One young respondent gave a poignant description of how the arts sector’s approach to paying interns has affected their career so far:

“In 2012, I graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama with a first class honours degree in Music. Upon leaving university, I struggled to find work in the arts sector. I really didn’t want to find a 9-5 job that had nothing to do with music or the arts at all, after all I spent four years training to be a musician. How many doctors leave university and have to take up jobs as hair dressers? The whole situation seemed completely ridiculous.

“As a consequence I started working as a waitress for English National Opera, for just a little over a year. Luckily, through waitressing I was able to secure myself an internship working for the marketing department at the ENO. I worked there for free, for approximately three months. While I wasn’t offered travel expenses, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to finally get some work experience. I managed to balance this work, with other projects as an assistant director, my real passion. Again this was unpaid. Had I not had supportive parents I would not have sustained myself through the internship and the directing projects. I waitressed pretty much every single night, but on £6.15 p/h I barely managed to pay my travel costs to be able to cover both my internship at ENO and the directing projects I was undertaking in Wales. I kept reminding myself however, to be grateful for the opportunities. But then after all most a year of doing these sorts of internships and work placements something snapped. Whilst applying for another position as an assistant director, I was again, told ‘it would be work experience’ with no fee.

“At this point I couldn’t help but wonder when this ‘free’ work would stop? How long does one continue to do ‘free’ work? At the age of 26, I decided to go on and do an MA in Music, hoping that this might give me the edge to demand to at least be paid. A year on, and I am still in the same boat. Applications want you to prove you have at least a year of work experience, while internships, bar one or two, are vastly unpaid. As someone with so much to offer the arts sector, one cannot help but feel disheartened. Doesn’t the art sector value young minds? Being told you have to do things for free – despite having the necessary qualifications and experience – is a slap around the face. It says, ‘you’re not good enough to be full-time’. It says, we ‘want to exploit you’.”




  • Are volunteers now doing work that would have previously been done by paid staff?
  • Should organisations pay volunteers if they use them to deliver essential services?
  • Should volunteers be given the same status as paid workers?

Paid / unpaid dilemmas

The growth of volunteering is evident from the responses. In 46% of organisations volunteers are probably or definitely doing work that would have previously been done by paid staff, whilst only 27% say that is probably or definitely not the case. One respondent commented: “the prevalence of people making themselves available actually removes the paid employment positions. When money is tight why would you employ someone if the job can be done for free?”

As for whether volunteers should be paid, whilst the majority of respondents (64%) believe that organisations should pay volunteers if they use them to deliver essential services, a significant minority (20%) disagree. Some responses were unequivocal: “If they are being used for essential services the post should be covered by an employee.” The role of a volunteer is to “add value to essential services” explained one, and another said: “anyone providing essential services should be paid for their work. Let’s get rid of this romantic notion that art is not work. That working in the arts is not work.” But others felt that the value of the experience to a volunteer would be lessened if their work wasn’t essential to the organisation: “As a volunteer you do so knowing you are doing without pay. Volunteers know they are delivering essential services – that’s part of the attraction.” Another commented: “If their services are not essential, they may not feel valued.”

Giving time

So does it matter what volunteers do? Some think not: “Volunteering is the equivalent of donating to that charity. Some people can’t afford money and so their time is the next best commodity.” And one pointed out that volunteers are an essential part of governance, yet “charity trustees cannot in most cases be remunerated by law”. Also, it isn’t only the arts sector where people work for free, as one respondent pointed out: “…many other essential third sector services are provided by volunteers so the arts shouldn’t be held up as a place for derision on the subject. Volunteers have chosen to do something in their own time.”

Suitable rewards

Indeed, many noted that the volunteer/organisation relationship can work well for both, without any money changing hands. One made the point that “paying volunteers will affect the relationship between the volunteer and the organisation they’re volunteering for and this change may not necessarily be for the better”, though others suggested that organisations should “pay expenses and ensure volunteers are not out of pocket” and another said there should be “some reward offered to them for offering their time but not necessarily financial”.

The non-monetary value of volunteering to the volunteer was widely commented on: “Many people enjoy contributing to their local community by doing small amounts of voluntary work” said one. For some volunteers the benefit is “on their CV which can equate to a monetary value anyway”. Recognition might be another such reward, though one respondent suggested that, like payment, this is not always offered: “I brought 17 years of media background to a local museum here in the USA, provided them with numerous positioning pieces for use on their website and YouTube channel. When it came time for the annual major gift fundraiser and donor appreciation cocktail party, they didn’t invite me to the party but expected me to PARK CARS!!”

Unviable alternatives

For some organisations, volunteers are critical to their viability and without them “the events would simply not happen”. One commented that, if volunteers had to be paid, “more organisations may have to close. How does this help anyone when… people are willing to work for little or no pay. It’s horrible but at least there is hope.” But for others, paying volunteers would introduce complexity into the organisations: “voluntary means voluntary and to start paying volunteers, unless they are taking on the responsibilities of a paid member of staff and offered a contract, starts blurring the lines and muddies the field.” Another thought that money could be better spent elsewhere: “If people are willing to give up their time voluntarily (for whatever their personal reasons) then why can’t resources be used to get more arts activity rather than paying people.”

But such arguments are difficult to square with the experiences of those whose paid work is being squeezed out due to growing expectations that volunteers can be found to replace them. One said: “I am continually asked to work for free and I’m utterly sick of it. I am 58 years old and have thirty plus years of experience in many aspects of the arts... This habit of recruiting volunteers in every situation is leading to the arts being regarded as an industry for the unpaid.”




  • Are freelances now doing work that would have previously been done by employees?
  • Are freelance contracts preferable to short fixed-term employment contracts?

The freelance trend

Almost half of respondents (48%) reported that freelances were now doing work that would have previously been done by employees in their organisations, whereas less than a quarter (23%) thought this wasn’t the case. Freelance working has become an integral part of the arts sector, according to a respondent who has held permanent roles in a number of organisations and now turned freelance: “Over the years I have seen the rise in the use of freelancers… which, while causing fear in the first instance, have now become an established part of the arts scene.” Relatively few expressed serious concerns about the sector’s move towards freelance status, but comments were made about the growing use of volunteers and interns to replace paid freelance workers, such as the freelance fine art/exhibition technician who had lost work to interns in galleries.

Flexible benefits

Whilst 35% of respondents agree that freelance contracts are preferable to short-term employment contracts, and only 18% disagree, the majority are unsure, and this variation is reflected in wide-ranging comments. The relative merits of each are generally thought to depend on individual circumstances, but “allow[ing] the contractor to remain flexible and to take on other work” comes across as being the primary benefit for freelance workers. “I personally like having my tax and NI paid for on fixed-term contracts, but the flexibility of freelance is a benefit, as is learning how to manage my own business and submit tax returns” said one. Another mentioned the ability to work under “contracts as part-time work, and work as a freelance other parts of the week”. There can be tax benefits associated with this, and one pointed out: “If the freelancer is employed by other organisations and is registered self-employed, a freelance contract can be beneficial to them because they can claim expenditure against their self-assessment claim, which they would otherwise not be able to do.”

Unequal status

But freelances aren’t universally positive about their situation. One said: “I work freelance and it is unstable and inconsistent, therefore I find it difficult to plan finances and my future. I would therefore prefer to have a short term fixed contract as I would find this a less stressful way to work and I think I would feel more valued by the employer.” Another argued, “freelance workers should have the same status as paid staff; they often don’t.” Someone with experience of both freelance and short-term contracts echoed this: “There is more security and greater value placed on employment contracts. Freelance contracts tend to be lower paid and involve more risk and investment on the part of the freelancer.” This chimes with another comment that “…freelancers are the first to be laid off. The freelancers I know are the ones having most difficulty finding work now.” The absence of an employment contract can leave freelances more vulnerable to bad practice. Once cited the importance of good communication about contract renewal and another pointed out: “There is no support network or union for freelance art professionals – primarily because they are almost always in competition with each other.”

One respondent had specific reservations about freelance working for those with little work experience: “I don’t think freelance contracts are as good as it’s better for them to have real line-management and support to learn as much as possible and progress. Also to be entitled to training whilst working there and be included in the life of the organisation.”

An attractive option

The flexibility of hiring freelances can benefit organisations too. One respondent said this can “free up an organisation to bring in specific expertise on a short-term basis”. Freelance workers can also be ideal for managing peaks and troughs in workloads: “We have a freelancer who has joined recently to take on one aspect of a permanent employee’s responsibilities as their area of work had grown beyond a one person job. The work taken on is ad hoc and not enough to sustain a permanent role.”

Freelance workers can be an easier option: “The red-tape and bureaucracy of employment law make it difficult for small organisations to manage large numbers of fixed-term employment contracts” said one, while the opportunity to minimise costs by using freelances was thought to be a benefit by several: “Many organisations have been able to sustain themselves through the use of freelancers because they do not have the on-costs required for fixed-term contracts,” said one. Another described it as a means of “keeping fixed costs and related overheads down and maximising financial flexibility, although this does create management challenges in terms of limited /reduced control.”

The leader of an international performing arts organisation described the benefits for their organisation: “My whole team are freelance which means they bring a wealth of experience in other companies to our company. They are paid for what they do, they want to keep being contracted, so work hard and behave courteously to each other and they don’t have any complacency that, in my experience, comes with the security of employment!”

Thinking of the future

But there are drawbacks for organisations too. One person pointed out: “Freelancers often prefer to work in a way that they can negotiate their own work practices. However… this is not as preferable as it makes long term aims and strategic development difficult, lacking in continuity for an organisation.” Another asked whether, ultimately, if too many arts professionals become freelances, “will we run out of professional staff to lead and mentor?”



Working practices in the arts sector are clearly adapting to straitened financial times. Classical economic theory predicts that wages will fall if demand for work outstrips the opportunities available, and this may well be the case in the arts, with every likelihood that average pay in the sector has declined in recent years. But this model is inadequate to describe the more complex picture emerging from this survey, which reveals that two distinct groups of workers – the ‘poorly paid’ and the ‘unpaid’ – are offering their services as a substitute for the ‘paid’. The willingness of many highly skilled and qualified people to work for nothing or next-to-nothing in the absence of paid work opportunities is a phenomenon that distinguishes the arts from many other sectors. And ironically, it is the relative effectiveness of these unpaid and poorly paid workers – whether interns, apprentices or volunteers – as substitutes for paid staff that makes them less likely to find paid work in the sector.

This re-structuring of the workforce is being driven by arts organisations needing to keep labour costs to a minimum or face potential extinction, yet leaves them burdened with a sense of moral outrage at the exploitation of the most vulnerable members of the workforce. But, in the absence of tighter legislation around minimum wage (including more precise definitions of the term ‘worker’) or harsher sanctions by funders on organisations that rely over-heavily (whatever that might be) on cheap or free labour, there is no obvious way back. Money talks, and embracing the prospect of oblivion from a viewpoint on the moral high-ground is not something that many will entertain. The world has changed, and it would need a combination of more money and a labour shortage in the sector – hardly a prospect, even on a distant horizon – to reverse the trend.

The brightest glimmer of hope for both workers and arts organisations may lie in freelance working. Almost 200,000 sole traders set up in business in the UK last year, according to the latest Government statistics. By indicating the extent to which freelance workers are replacing employed workers, this survey shows that the arts are part of this national trend. Whilst there are acknowledged advantages and disadvantages to freelance working, the promising combination of an appetite for self-employment by workers and demand for freelances by organisations, suggests that, while unpaid and low paid roles have gained a foothold in the arts ecology, there may still be opportunities ahead for those prepared to go it alone.

Download AP Pulse: Employment practices in the arts full report (.pdf)

Liz Hill is Editor of ArtsProfessional.

This article is not intended to be read as a research report, but aims to highlight some of the issues raised by the findings from the survey. The raw survey data is held by Arts Intelligence Ltd, and can be further interrogated. For details of this service, contact editors@artsprofessional.co.uk.

Liz Hill