Open Letter to Calvert 22 from Precarious Workers Brigade
Dear Calvert 22,
We notice that you have recently advertised an unpaid gallery volunteer placement for your forthcoming exhibition “…how is it towards the east?”
Whilst we acknowledge that you are aiming to take the time and effort to train young people who want to work in the arts, we are concerned that the tasks described in your volunteer placement sound very much like work that should be paid: ‘invigilating the exhibition’, ‘assisting with Front of House duties’ and ‘working in the Calvert Café’, as well as ‘the option to help out with our diverse talks and events programme’. We are curious as to why this work is not paid? We know that it is possible for arts organisations to avoid legal problems with volunteer positions through using the exemption to the National Minimum Wage legislation designed for charities. We would hope however, that such weak legal frameworks for our sector do not act as our only ethical guide on such matters.
We are concerned that by not paying people to carry out these jobs, only those who can afford to work for free will be able to benefit from your placement scheme: such placements contribute to producing a cultural sector in London that is increasingly reserved for the privileged. Surely such exclusionary employment practices are in direct contradiction of your constitution as a charity, and to the Foundation’s stated mission of connecting the gallery to histories of political radicalism and activism in the local area of East End? We also note that the exhibition ‘examines modes of self-organisation’ focusing on the histories of those on the left who have struggled for worker’s rights, specifically on the 1st May 1886, when they called for 8-hour working day – a date which coincides with the opening of the exhibition. We find that the use of unpaid labour in this context to be particularly paradoxical.
Furthermore, we note from your website, Calvert 22’s partnership with VTB Capital. Whilst we find there to be an incredible contradiction between your partnership with the investment banking sector, and the stated aims of artistic programmes such as “…how is it towards the east?” we would at least hope that these kinds of partnerships would ensure that everyone who works on the programme is paid at least a Minimum Wage.
We raise these issues with you, not to single out Calvert 22 for such practices, but as our friends at Artleaks have succinctly expressed, to draw attention to concrete situations that:
“[…] underscore the precarious condition of cultural workers, and the necessity for sustained protest against the appropriation of politically engaged art, culture and theory by institutions embedded in a tight mesh of capital and power.”
Like Artleaks, we are concerned that:
“By co-opting cultural activity, these sponsors obtain social credibility, which they then proceed to misuse: by refusing decent conditions for cultural workers through oppressive measures – the same workers whose labor makes their subsistence possible.”
The normalisation of practices of free labour through volunteer positions such as this, contributes to a situation where it is acceptable to abstractly question the role of sponsorship and free labour on panel discussions, but unacceptable to concretely act against them. Volunteers, speakers and artists are often subtly frozen out of the sector if they challenge this non-payment or under-payment, and thus feel coerced to prop up the system further.
We have been organising around issues of free labour and precarity in the arts and culture for several years, analysing corporate cynicism and the increasingly intense contradictions in our sector. In this climate of enforced austerity, brought about by investment banks, we encounter over and over again a culture of resignation and silence in art schools and art institutions. Do programmes such as “…how is it towards the east?” simply perpetuate the damaging paradox of providing a subject of discussion that is clearly not to be acted upon? Do they not in effect, simply add to this silencing? We wonder what Calvert 22 want to achieve in this exhibition and programme, what the motivations of the foundation are? We wonder what position the foundation wants to take in relation to its own workers, its own work culture and the community in which it is situated?
There are many guidelines available today that might help you develop a new and more equitable approach to work. Please see the links below:
Art Council England’s guidelines “Internships in the Arts”: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication_archive/internships-arts
Counter Guide to Free Labour in the Arts: http://carrotworkers.wordpress.com/counter-internship-guide/
Intern Aware: http://www.internaware.org/about/why-unpaid-internships-are-wrong/
Artquest’s Intern Culture report: http://www.artquest.org.uk/articles/view/intern_culture
Interns: Volunteer or Employee? volunteernow.co.uk/news/item/61
We would like to ask the foundation to consider the ethics of offering unpaid volunteer placements in your organisation, and to hear your response to this open letter.
With best regards,
Precarious Workers Brigade
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