Survey of Arts Management

Course blog for American University PERF-570, Fall 2014

Don’t Work For Free For Rich People

This article from Flavorwire presents the issue of those in the arts industry being underpaid – and often unpaid – reminded me of our in-class discussion on Monday about Cirque Du Soleil performer salaries. This issue has been written about again and again, usually presenting it as a symbol of artists being undervalued. While I think this is often true, and I definitely advocate for artists and nonprofit workers and writers etc to be paid equally to other industries, I also agree that context plays a part as well. A big part of the question is who is paying you. If it’s a large for profit company who can afford to pay you more but doesn’t, then yes that is completely unfair and devalues the creative industry. But often times the organizations and groups that arts minded people align themselves with simply cannot afford to pay their employees competitive salaries, understanding that their employees work because they truly believe in the cause rather than to make a lot of money. Another part of the argument is unpaid internships – I’ve certainly done my fair share of them and I’m sure most people in this class have as well. Was I frustrated at the time that I wasn’t being paid to do the same work as paid employees? Yes, and I’m sure in some cases I was being taken advantage of for my unpaid labor. But I also got great experience doing something I genuinely liked, which prepared me for the paid jobs I have had since.

I especially liked this point from the article: “I think there are exceptions to the rule. If no one’s making any money on a project, if everyone involved is in it solely for the love of what they’re doing (and likely with the awareness that it’s not a viable commercial pursuit), there’s nothing wrong with donating your time and talent.

Because here’s the thing: this isn’t just about unpaid labor. One reason people, especially young people with creative aspirations, work for free is to form valuable relationships that will push their careers forward. But you can’t form a valuable relationship with a rich person who can afford to but won’t pay you a reasonable wage, because your entire relationship with that rich person is based on their failure to acknowledge the value of the work you’re doing for them.”

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2 comments on “Don’t Work For Free For Rich People

  1. evanjsanderson
    October 21, 2014

    Great article! It reminds me of an NPR program I just listened to about this exact topic. Internships are a tricky business for all the reasons outlined in your post; and it’s possible that in the Arts world, there is the added layer that even employees generally put in more time than they are justifiably paid for. One of the TED speaker talks about a different dynamic – what he calls ‘free work.’ After being fed up with working at a mediocre job for mediocre people, he decided to reach out to organizations that he was truly passionate about and offer free work. Not an internship, but just plain old free work, solving any problem that they might have. He cut right through the bullshit of being ‘an intern’ and all that entails, and basically said: I know that I’m working for free, and I’m happy to do it, because I want to be associated with what you do, and I want you to consider me valuable so you will decide to pay me at some point. Risky, but it worked, and he ended up finding work that way. This is a rather privileged perspective but interesting because it places the worker and the organization on the same level (or at least acknowledges the power dynamic). I started to think about it more and more, and it made a twisted sense. There are organizations that I would love to work with. Would I consider doing it for free? Yes. I would. Not an internship. Just free work for a place that I believe in.

    Weird.

  2. hshambroom
    October 22, 2014

    What an interesting example of working for free Evan! It’s definitely true, as you pointed out, that it is a privileged perspective (though that doesn’t make it bad!), and I think that’s an issue throughout a lot of the world of the arts – the people who can afford to have unpaid internships or work for nearly nothing do often come from a privileged background that allows them other means of money. They also frequently work for wealthy collectors or gallerists who themselves come from privilege. This is of course not always true, but I think there is an added stigma in the arts, and specifically in the museum and gallery world, that it is the work of, and existing for, the upper class.

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