Who is the cultural worker? Art, work and change
International Workers’ Day, or May Day as it is more commonly known, is celebrated around the world as a day of protest, parties and direct action. The concept of “worker” can immediately give you dusty images of the past – the industrial revolution, the unregulated working day or children climbing chimneys. Or worse, “worker” has become an over-intellectualized word used by everyone but the worker himself.
In simple terms, someone is a worker if they “have to show up for work even if they don’t want to”. A worker is a person who has a job, whether under contract or not, which involves someone else who gives them orders and who is remunerated, financially or otherwise. As illustrated in 2019 when Labour’s ‘red wall’ turned blue, politicians and journalists all clung to straws trying to figure out ‘the working class’ – who they are and what they want – and in the meantime they wrote incredibly condescending reflections. rooms.
One thing is clear, however – that the archival image of the strong, white, male, sweat-and-dirt worker is no longer the worker of today. Over the past two decades, new ways of working have developed, aided mainly by technological development, which has blurred the definition of a worker. This uncertainty has allowed employers to take advantage of this legal doubt and implement exploitative labor practices. Despite the sector’s reputation for socialist ideals, these exploitative practices are commonplace in the arts and cultural industries.
Institutional change, questioning the system
The arts sector is full of contradictions. Although renowned for its creativity, it continually falls into the same old traps of exhibiting the same artists in the same tired white spaces. Institutions in the cultural sector tried to address these issues to some degree, such as when Maria Balshaw was appointed as the new director of the Tate (but not before staff were asked to contribute to a retirement boat for Nicholas Serota) .
Regardless, Balshaw’s nomination brought a sense of promise for better representation of women and artists of color. Yet cut to 2020 and an outpouring of responses from cultural institutions regarding: BLM who, as The White Pube astutely put it in their text, FUCK THE POLICE, FUCK THE STATE, FUCK THE TATE, failed to center ‘the protection or care of black lives; the only benefit in sight is for the institution.
Scotland-based institutions such as Creative Scotland have also made increased efforts to recognize some of the cultural disparities. However, the role of interrogating systemic issues tends to fall to smaller organizations such as Transmission and Arika. This becomes a problem because these small organizations don’t have as much access to funding as larger institutions and therefore end up having to take on exhausting amounts of unpaid work, a problem that is even more complex when you realize that Transmission has decided to have a majority committee of the POC.
It is of course admirable that Artist-Run Initiatives (ARI) challenge structures within the cultural sector, and indeed the very philosophy of many of them is to do so. However, in today’s economy and benefits system, it is no longer viable for committee members to take on the workload and support themselves financially. This can unfortunately cause burnout among its workers, which further contributes to the classists’ overreliance on unpaid work.
This is something that ARIs in Scotland are already aware of, and many are taking active steps to rethink a new sustainable working model. But that’s not going to be a quick fix. Wouldn’t it be ideal if some of the pressure was taken away from the smaller organizations to be radical, and the larger organizations that have the funding shouldered more of that workload? Sure, that’s idealistic, but it seems unfair that small grassroots organizations constantly have to be radical when conversations about unpaid work, representation and burnout have been in the mainstream media for some time now. .
The sad truth is that big institutions don’t want to make these changes until they have to. Large cultural institutions are run like a business where profit is the main objective. Would it be possible, however, to create another future than this one, which is a little more imaginative?
Defining “cultural worker”
Instead of mirroring the exploitative labor practices of other sectors, the cultural sector could claim to be a leader in its fair and ethical treatment of workers. These changes are already showing signs of emerging, but how quickly these transformations are happening is determined in part by how we cultural workers define ourselves. Conversations around unpaid work have been around for a long time, and there is increasing transparency around issues such as artist compensation and commission rates in the cultural sector.
But the discussion around fair pay in the cultural sector must include not only artists, curators and journalists, but also cleaners, security and supervisors. Leaving these roles out of the conversation not only excludes much of the population from the potential for better working conditions, but also unintentionally undermines the value of cultural work in general. It is to everyone’s benefit to broaden the definition of a cultural worker to emphasize that all cultural work is work and therefore requires workers’ rights.
The United Voices of the World (UVW) union has been defending cultural workers for years, including their 2015 cases campaigning for sick pay for cleaners working at Sotheby’s and The Barbican Centre. Not only were these campaigns successful, they were apparently joyous occasions, disrupting sales of over £20.9m with cries of ‘we’re drowning your bids’, as the men in suits seemed oddly uncomfortable.
They have further defended workers, as in their current case against St. George’s University London (SGUL), where they argue that “racial justice is impossible without an end to outsourcing” (a system in which some of the workforce is employed externally using freelance or zero hour contracts). With 27% of its internal staff identifying as BAME and 100% of its outsourced security identifying as BAME or migrants, SGUL has created a racially divided two-tier system.
The stark difference between the working conditions of in-house and outsourced staff “illustrates how outsourcing perpetuates systemic and institutional racism”. Although this particular case looks specifically at SGUL, this problematic issue of outsourcing can easily be applied to many progressive cultural institutions such as Goldsmiths and UAL.
Cultural workers in Scotland
Despite Scotland’s reputation as a cultural haven in the UK, the rights of cultural workers are also under threat here. In 2016, the National Museums of Scotland rejected requests to allow supervisors to have their own seats despite complaints that not having them “affected their health by causing back and ligament strain”. The harsh decision came after staff strikes over what they disputed was an unfair two-tier system due to the outsourcing of staff.
UVW has also addressed the similarities between the struggles of workers inside and outside the cultural sector by launching their subsidiary Designers and Cultural Workers (DCW). DCW aims to “fight to build a more equitable culture from below” by first deconstructing the unjust hierarchies made possible by the casualization of cultural labor “with the aim of distributing the benefits to those at the top”. This reflects a promising new approach to organizing within the cultural sector that seeks to value our cleaners, supervisors and security as much as our artists and curators.
Some of my understanding of this comes from my direct experience of working in the hospitality and cultural sectors (as many of us do), but also as someone with a direct connection to the case. judicial NG27. The NG27 case involved 27 art historians who successfully sued the National Gallery to assert their status as “workers”. This result had an underreported influence on other worker cases, such as the recent successful campaign against Uber.
These cases are similar because they are both examples of labor outsourcing. These types of contracts may seem ideal to a certain demographic, such as a student who wants flexible hours. What’s not to love about choosing your work schedule without too many pressing responsibilities? However, it becomes a hyper-capitalist nightmare when staff turnover suddenly goes from a 25-hour work week to seven hours, a situation all too familiar to many. Seeking redress, employers can thwart any confrontation by reminding them that a flexible working situation means they have absolutely no legal obligation to guarantee working hours.
The usual solution is to quit the unpaid job, cry and have a drink, then head to an art opening where a bit of charm and wit can summon a new job opportunity as an overseer of temporary gallery with the faint promise of a career trajectory. A month into the job, the glossy facade of the industry begins to fade, and then comes the realization that a new culture freelance career can feel very similar to precarious hosting gigs – minus the tips.