“The prospect of a permanent job being withdrawn hit me hard”: Class IS A Big Deal

Museum life... Photo courtesy Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Perma-skint, exhausted, disenfranchised… We need to talk about why working class people aren’t getting ahead in the arts. And as we rarely hear directly from working class people themselves about the obstacles they face, we decided to start asking. Here, our 2018 Fellow Denise Courcoux identifies the dire lack of museum jobs as a major obstacle…

Reflecting on my personal understanding of class, I was surprised to conclude that I don’t think I had much awareness of it until I entered my career in museums and galleries. Everyone I knew growing up in Coventry attended a comprehensive school like me, and even at university, most of my friends had similar backgrounds – and if not, no matter, as shared houses and cheap nights out made uni a wonderful leveller. I did my degree in that too-short window in the early noughties when tuition fees were means-tested, rather than the £9,000 a year routinely charged now.

Class quickly became an issue, however, when I started working in a sector typified by low-paid, precarious work. My own path ‘in’ came through volunteering on my days off from a call centre job; eventually securing a paid front-of-house role in a gallery, and from there, getting my first exhibitions role. That was nine years ago, and this year I secured my first permanent, full-time museum job since then.

I want to be clear that this isn’t a moan about my own position. Working in museums and galleries is always interesting, mostly rewarding and varied, and sometimes positively joyous, and I feel hugely lucky to have hung on in there. I want these opportunities to be available to all. I’m also aware than there is no shortage of white, able-bodied women in the sector, and others have more than financial constraints holding them back. However, I’ve not always found it easy to keep working in museums, and I see some of the issues behind this getting worse, so it’s an important conversation to have.

“Whilst class remains outside the Equality Act’s ‘protected characteristics’, it remains difficult to define”

The lack of diversity in the UK museums workforce is well-documented. The comprehensive Character Matters report (commissioned by Arts Council England, Museums Galleries Scotland, Museums Association, and the Association of Independent Museums) in 2016 was damning in its summary:

“The workforce lacks diversity with regard to gender, ethnicity, disability and education (as workers are very highly educated with the large majority over-qualified for their job role). Although there is little or no data on social class, the combination of the existence of unpaid work to get into the sector, high levels of formal education, and higher than average levels of attendance at fee paying schools also suggests that the sector recruits most regularly from a narrow strata of society.”

An action plan, published earlier this year in response to the report, promises that Arts Council England will prioritise social mobility. But whilst class remains outside the Equality Act’s ‘protected characteristics’, it remains difficult to define and quantify.

“There has been an alarming erosion of entry-level positions in museums and galleries”

There are numerous barriers in the way of people from working class backgrounds getting ahead in the arts; from over-qualification as described above, to less tangible issues such as a lack of confidence, something I struggle with. However, the dearth of good jobs in the sector is, for me, the biggest barrier to people from working class backgrounds. In recent years, there has been an alarming erosion of entry-level positions in museums and galleries. Like many of my contemporaries, my foot in the door was via a visitor services role. The employed gallery invigilator is an increasing rarity, replaced by volunteers in many organisations with squeezed budgets.

Unpaid internships continue to be an issue, with positions such as ‘volunteer project manager’ still appearing in sizeable institutions. For those of us who need a regular income to live, the time commitment demanded by such unpaid roles is impossible to manage, and the opportunities opened up are placed out of reach to all but those who can afford them.

Low pay, static salaries and precarious work may be commonplace, but shouldn’t be accepted as par for the course. I know a number of abundantly talented people who have left the sector for these reasons – taking permanent, better-paid jobs so they can live without the nagging stress of job insecurity. I don’t blame them for a moment, and it’s something I’ve contemplated myself. In a previous museum role, the tantalising prospect of a permanent job being withdrawn hit me hard. I realised that bound up in that fantasy job was not just being in secure work, but being able to plan for the future. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering if pursuing a career I am passionate about was worth it.

“Having a diverse workforce shouldn’t be considered a box-ticking exercise, or some token act of generosity”

As a sector, we are rightly concerned with the diversity of our audiences. How do we reach those visitors who think museums aren’t ‘for them’? How do we challenge the idea of the museum as an all-knowing establishment, and become truly inclusive organisations? How can the work we produce be meaningful to all kinds of visitors, who each bring a rich mixture of life experience, knowledge, feelings and motivations?

These same questions should be applied to museum workforces as well as their audiences. Having a diverse workforce shouldn’t be considered a box-ticking exercise, or some token act of generosity. Having a mix of people creating exhibitions and experiences – with that diversity of life experience, knowledge, feelings and motivations we want in our audiences – isn’t doing the workers a favour, but rather the institutions.

I don’t expect that it will be easy, with a funding crisis that is hitting regional museums with particular force, but the sector must do better. Enabling passionate, talented people who don’t have a financial safety net to develop and sustain careers is essential to ensuring the relevance and perhaps, ultimately, the survival of our museums and galleries.

Denise Courcoux

Read all the articles in this series via #classisabigdeal

Do YOU have a story (short or long) to share with our readers? Submit your experiences to laura@thedoublenegative.co.uk and mike@thedoublenegative.co.uk, or on TwitterInsta or Facebook #classisabigdeal

This series was conceived after long conversations with our writers, including Denise Courcoux and Kenn Taylor. We’ve written about our own experiences, and sometimes have suggestions for what can be done to improve opportunities for people in our sector.

We feel more than ever that it’s important for those who have influence and power in the arts — contemporary art, heritage, publishing, and everything in between and around the edges — to consider the issues that working class people face when entering the workplace, as part of wider intersectional concerns.

Photo courtesy Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
Posted on 25/10/2018 by thedoublenegative