Putting a proper value on the arts

Comment by students at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds ANL-151025-114649001
Comment by students at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds ANL-151025-114649001
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For those of us seeking employment in the world of arts and culture, how do we squeeze a first foot in through the door?

If we want to gain valuable experience, build our reputation within the industry, and earn the gratification of others, should we be offering offer our labour for free?

This was an approach recently taken by Sainsbury’s, who placed an advertisement looking for an artist to refurbish their Camden canteen. They wanted someone who would do the work for nothing.

The company later apologised, following an online backlash. Critics were quick to point out the hypocrisy of the situation. It would be absurd, after all, to ask Sainsbury’s to offer their own services free of charge. Would they let us run down the aisles of their supermarket, throwing the last Chateauneuf du Pape into the trolley before scrambling for the doors? Their business just doesn’t work like that.

So why would they expect designers and artists to work for free?

The Toronto marketing agency Zulu Alpha Kilo illustrated this with a video of people from all industries being asked to work for free. Thus an architect was asked to give away their blueprints. Free taster breakfasts were requested at a restaurant. And squatting on his exercise ball, a personal trainer was given the opportunity to demonstrate his expertise - unpaid.

Of course, all of these businesses politely declined.

Unfortunately, artists often feel they don’t have a voice when it comes to their pay. The creative industry is brutal for aspiring artists, and many end up taking work without pay because it is the only work they can get. In the long term, this can seem an act of self-sabotage.

Part of the problem is down to funding. Applying for an arts grant is an arduous process – one which can prove daunting for new artists. Perhaps it was designed this way. With public spending on the arts in rapid decline, the money is already spread thin.

On top of this, money is largely directed towards the established (albeit expensive) opera and ballet companies. Small companies and individuals are increasingly disregarded.

Areas like ours are hit the hardest. What little money that is invested into the arts - approximately 0.3% of public expenditure – is often kept in the capital. A review of Arts Council England found that 43.4% of grant money was spent in London.

With such little funding, market towns like Bury have less chance to make an impact. We are both too small for a designated arts centre and too large to benefit from the same community networks as villages.

Working in a theatre box office, I witness first-hand the lack of interest many young people take in the arts. And I’m not the only one to spot this. The Cultural Learning Association estimates that students are abandoning arts subjects at GCSE level at a rate of 14% over the past five years.

The arts provide a world of wonder and inspiration for anyone bold enough to venture into it. We must all challenge ourselves to prevent this world collapsing.

-- Joel McEvoy-Swift is a student at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds