You Should Be Honoured: Frustrations Of A Modern Day Arts Graduate

Image courtesy Curious Minds

Would you pay $25,000 to do an internship at a top entertainment company? No, neither would Hannah McHaffie; here she looks at graduate expectations and asks: should it be an honour to work in the arts in any shape or form?

I recently bought a £50 train ticket and went to London for a 30 minute meeting to discuss the prospect of working, voluntarily, for an arts magazine. Keen to develop my film journalism skills by gaining editorial experience, I was delighted at the prospect of interning at said magazine for a month; however, I was quickly informed that no expenses could be covered.

I already work four days a week as an arts programme assistant for cultural production company They Eat Culture (Preston). Taking time off paid work to pursue such unpaid opportunities, that give me experience in the journalism career I actually want, has become a common occurrence for me over the last year. The whole affair made me question why the arts always seems to ask so much from the people who work within it, and even more so from the people keen to start working in it.

It is common knowledge that the arts are woefully underfunded, with institutions like the BFI bracing themselves for further cuts this year, after a 15% chop was made to their funding in 2010 and a further 10% in 2013. The arts are hardly a priority when it comes to current Conservative policy makers. Of course, when looking at where our government’s money goes, we could argue that a need for arts professionals pale in comparison to a need for NHS nurses or disability services.

“Art, images, artefacts, songs and culture”, says Brill, “are the principal means by which human beings define themselves”

But it is also fair to say that those who work in the arts recognise its vital involvement in upholding our country’s well-being and self-expression, never mind creative economy — worth £8.8 million per hour according to a government report earlier this year. Artist Bob and Roberta Smith, aka Patrick Brill, recognises the potential fallout from under-valuing the arts; he started an Art Party in 2013, and passionately campaigns for changes in our national curriculum. “Art, images, artefacts, songs and culture”, says Brill, “are the principal means by which human beings define themselves.”

I know the value of art; but I also see other fellow graduates settling into secure careers, saving for property and progressing into real adulthood… and here I am, jumping on and off of trains, spending my last £10 of the month on a cinema ticket, all in the name of film and my devotion to it. Being an arts graduate means so much more than seeking employment; it is seeking passion and gusto in the things you do on a daily basis; making an artistic ‘difference’ and contributing to the world around you. Yet only 18% of those employed in the cultural sector come from working class families, according to a recent study by Goldsmiths. With evidence like this proving that working in the arts is becoming an increasingly elitist occupation, does this mean it should be an honour, or a luxury, to do so in whatever capacity?


Liz Rymer knows the British film industry inside out, having worked within it for decades before turning her hand to lecturing in Film Studies at Leeds Trinity University. When asked about the difficulty of making it in the arts now, Rymer acknowledges that “it’s not an industry for those who aren’t prepared to work hard”, but also believes that “employment in the arts is the preserve of the middle class.” During my time in higher education, I felt optimistic about my chances of gaining employment and believed by completing my MA in Film Studies I would only enhance this. Despite now holding bachelors and masters degrees, it is my networking and persistence that have got me into arts-related employment.

Rymer concurs. “My advice to my students is that they make and treasure their contacts. It is largely through connections that they will hear about jobs – mostly freelance – and advance their careers.”

As the saying goes, apparently it’s not what you know, but who you know.

“I never felt that the arts industry was elitist when I was an undergraduate at university; but now, two years on, that impression has hit me hard”

I never felt that the arts industry was elitist when I was an undergraduate at university; but now, two years on, that impression has hit me hard. Working every hour under the sun in Edinburgh’s most depressing bar, whilst also meeting academic deadlines and attending an intense schedule of seminars and screenings, I was just about able to fund my studies and pay my rent. When Edinburgh Film Festival rolled around we were all encouraged to volunteer – a way of making contacts and advancing our career prospects.

Volunteering is the sturdy base of any arts festival which, when handled correctly, can benefit both parties, especially when volunteers receive good mentoring and training. Cathryn Peach, creative producer of arts engagement company Wild Rumpus (Cheshire), believes wholeheartedly in the power of volunteering. “I can confidently say that I wouldn’t have the job I have now if I hadn’t volunteered. I also have countless bits of knowledge which I use on a daily basis, from previous volunteering.”

“Due to the hours required, those who can afford to go without a wage benefit the most”

It is also, unfortunately, one which is only available to those with the time and money to volunteer. This is a frustrating predicament for my post-graduate self, who had to give up a chance to volunteer at Edinburgh Film Festival because of financial and academic commitments. Peach also recognises the crippling effect of money on those unable to throw themselves into the experience. “Due to the hours required, those who can afford to go without a wage benefit the most. The job market needs to become more responsive to identifying and opening opportunities for whom this isn’t so easy.”

It frequently seems that those unable to fund their own valuable, volunteer opportunities are still expected to do so in this elitist arts game. The result? The opportunities are snatched up by those young people with wealthy parents who are able and willing to fund those voluntary positions that can open doors to a good career.

C James Fagan

Coming out of university a year ago, I secured my first position on a paid internship scheme run by Curious Minds (Lancashire), an organisation dedicated to improving paid, creative employment for graduates, young people and aspiring arts sector workers. I’m still there; gaining experience, working and saving a little, which makes me lucky compared to many in my field.

“Internships should not only be accessible to those with the financial means to get by without a wage”, Hannah Baldwin told me, who is development coordinator there; “precluding those from less wealthy backgrounds and perpetuating elitism, for which the arts often criticised.”

“In February earlier this year, the Harvey Weinstein Company auctioned off a three-month unpaid internship for $25,000″

Yet even this paid internship has come at a cost: I’ve had to sacrifice my independence. My salary being what it is (low) has forced me to remain at home with my parents until I can afford to rent elsewhere. Meanwhile, I book time off of work to visit film festivals, interview, review, and develop my critical writing skills as a freelance film journalist through different outlets. The article you are reading right now has only been made possible due to a critical writing bursary. For others, unpaid internships feel like the only option, forcing them to sacrifice income in order to gain experience.

One final note to chew on. In February earlier this year, the Harvey Weinstein Company auctioned off a three-month unpaid internship for $25,000; a painful truth which captures the elitism and damaging class divide that has apparently become ever present – and widely accepted — in the arts. This heinous concept of the privilege of unpaid internships brings me back to my initial question: should it be an honour to work in the arts in any shape or form?

To do anything you love for a living is an honour and to do something you hate is a tragedy. People love and hate their work all over the globe in all different fields. With the arts being underfunded, there is always a pressure on organisations to rely more heavily on the underpaid or unpaid. To survive as an arts graduate means to carry a great deal of self-awareness of one’s worth. To love the arts, but have your contributions to it be undervalued, is a futile notion. You should always be honoured to love what you do; but if that means working in the arts, then just be careful that your struggles are rewarded and your worth acknowledged. Otherwise you’ll end up hating working in the industry you love, and that’s the greatest crime of all.

Hannah McHaffie

This article has been commissioned for the collaborative #BeACritic project — an annual programme of mentoring and commissioned critical articles for North-West-based writers, initiated and supported by The Double Negative, Liverpool John Moores University and Arts Council England. See more here

Image, top, courtesy Curious Minds

Arts Council England

Posted on 20/10/2015 by thedoublenegative