Arts Mythbusting #1: The Happy Freelancer

Once upon a time there were some knights who lived in a regular sort of kingdom, with a castle and a moat and a few anarchist peasants. The knights all swore fealty to their king, coining the useful synecdoche of pledging their “lance” to describe a contract in which they would go out and do various knightly errands (dragon-slaying, windmill-tilting, moving in an L-shape in chess situations) for their king and their king alone, for approximately 37.5 hours a week excluding statutory Holy Days and Pilgrimage Leave.

But one of these knights was an enterprising lad. He figured he could do a lot better for himself if he went out in the world and sold his errand skills to any old king that was about the place. This meant that, even though he would lose the feudal protection of his original king, he stood to gain great treasure, great glory, and above all, the precious gift of personal freedom as the reward for this risk. And so he set off, knapsack dangling off the back of his lance, a lance that was now free.

I’m a bigger fan of fairytales than most, but as true as this story may be for some fields of work, I’m deeply skeptical about what it means for the people in mine. ConDem figures regarding rises in employment have been attacked by commentators for including precarious casual and self-employed labour. And there is almost nowhere that has seen a greater rise in self-employment than the arts.

Today I came across Susan Jones’ Guardian article trying to offer a balanced view of freelancing in the art world. The standout sentence for me is clear:

in my field, the publicly-funded visual arts – in which self-employment stands at around 50% – it’s more worrying to find that the salaries of arts employees increased during the recession, while freelance fee rates went down.

That can’t be right, can it? In the subsidized sector we’re all big friendly lefty hippies, chowing down over flatbreads together to plan our next collaborative project, right? There wouldn’t be a structural inequity between  artists and institutions would there?

This may be stating the blindingly obvious, but as someone who has worked a fair bit as both, I can say with some authority that there is one, and it is massive. Speaking only of the performing arts that I specialise in, since the slow death of repertory theatre, the work of artists has increasingly become outsourced to freelancers. According to the fairytale, this should deliver a lot of freedom and opportunity to these artists in exchange for a the loss of a little security. In reality the loss is massive and the gains tiny. Theatre makers exist on the ultimate zero-hour contracts, often being asked to work for no guaranteed payment, as Bryony Kimming’s famously lambasts in her rant-blog, or in the case of the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe festivals amongst others, being charged to perform. As a rule, in neither of these deals are the venue managers or programmers staking their own salary in the way they are asking artists to do. The ethics of this are so poor even senior figures are in doubt about them. I’ve spoken to multiple programmers who were moved by Bryony’s blog, but haven’t changed their financial deals to artists. Which is only to be expected, to an extent – organisations are always going to prioritise their own bottom line and core staff both in times of fat and lean if there’s no pressure to do otherwise. As Lyn Gardner writes, the funding bodies tend to be pretty toothless when this happens, which is extra galling when big theatre buildings are given the kind of bailouts a human being never would.

This debate is complex and nuanced. There are laws of supply and demand in play, and the work of an artist will never mirror a regular desk job, nor should it. In essence, though, it seems that the mass casualisation of labour in the arts has shifted power away from frontline workers (artists) and towards management (administrators), and where power is unbalanced it is inevitably abused, even by the most well-meaning and compassionate people. Thus even moderately successful freelancers go without pensions, maternity and paternity pay, unemployment benefits and even on occasion the minimum wage, as the gaping legal loopholes around freelancing are exploited by organisations fraught with funding cuts and declining audiences. Not only is this unethical in a way that would provoke mass outrage if it happened in a different sector, but  economically those same laws of supply and demand mean that a unpaid, unprotected workforce will ultimately drive out the skilled, the smart and the unprivileged, lowering the quality of the art made and sending demand spiraling down through the law of diminishing returns. A system that creates these conditions cannot possibly make an ingenuous case for public support.

There are no real villains in this story, no dragons we can slay to save the kingdom. There is only a broken system, that to fix will require collective bravery, radical thought and a completely new way of working. Furthermore, I think we need to shake off the fairytale of the happy knight, and acknowledge that without freedom from destitution, no-one’s lance is really free.


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