How do we choose what unpaid opportunities we support with our creative energy?

A reflection on a discussion event sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly bits of unpaid roles in the Arts.

Chatting about money is a sticky topic in the arts, but it shouldn't be taboo - let us try and talk about it more openly. In this sector, it seems to be the default, and sometimes expected position, for scarce, entry-level roles to be voluntary, fueled by the creative energy supplied by the generosity of others. It feels to me like the fight for getting paid for supporting creative content is a never ending - an intensive and exhausting negotiation that requires bucket loads of confidence, self-belief, and industry knowledge: experience gained by being stuffed over, repeatedly. When the line between professional development and exploitation is so fuzzy, even with the ‘opportunities’ that are led by established and publicly funded arts organisations, how do creatives choose what unpaid opportunities they support? 

On a surprisingly sunny Wednesday afternoon, in February, we gathered online as a group of creatives, with a range of career experiences, to discuss unpaid roles in the arts, exploring the prompts we use to question how much of our time and resources we invest into an creative opportunity that doesn’t pay in pounds and pence. We talked about shared experiences, opinions, non-monetary benefits, and problems, unpicking sub-topics that included collaboration, volunteering, and grey areas, like being expected to work unpaid overtime on the weekend.

We spoke about the arts sector's heavy reliance on voluntary labour, and the potential unregulated environment that it creates for exploitation. Together, we explored the benefits and drawbacks of unpaid labour. Rather than just having a good old moan, we tried to steer towards strategies and tools we use to question the benefits of an opportunity, helping to inform if we invest our creative energy into a project. The notes from the session took the form of the questions we ask of unpaid opportunities, and also identified any red flags we routinely spot in the industry: a potential early-warning sign for creatives to steer clear of a project.

The most valuable lesson I took away from our conversation was the need to interrogate the creative opportunities I engage with more; for example, asking the organisers to address difficult but essential questions like  ‘why is the role unpaid?’ and ’who will benefit through the delivery of the project?’. Looking back, I wish I had the confidence to ask similar questions. Undoubtedly, the questions identified in the session could be used to gather more information about an opportunity to lead decision making, directing where creative energy is invested, helping to avoid less-positive experiences in the arts. Through a process of retroactively asking these questions, such as ‘why?’, I also was able to see the positive attributes of the successful voluntary roles that I continue to contribute to, like the opportunity to meet amazing people and access professional development resources.

Creatives need to build their own criteria to decide which unpaid opportunities to support with their creative energy, if any at all. Do not occupy an unpaid role simply because it exists in the creative sector, even when associated with an established or publicly funded organisation. Always interrogate. Ask questions of opportunities that are important to you, and use your evaluation of any responses to inform your decision making process. In the worst case scenario, when you spot an opportunity that is a pyramid scheme of exploitation, playing on romanticised dreams of it leading to ‘a career in the arts’ - yes, stuff like this exists - talk to a friend about why you think it is a bad one and do not go anywhere near it.  


Ryan Boultbee, an artist-curator based in Nottingham; he also co-leads  No Jobs in the Arts, a project creating professional development opportunities for early-career creatives. The event is kindly supported by Voicemag and UK New Artists to enable Ryan to work towards his Gold Arts Award.


Ryan Boultbee

Ryan Boultbee

Ryan Boultbee, an artist-curator based in Nottingham; he also co-leads No Jobs in the Arts, a project creating professional development opportunities for early-career creatives, in the East Midlands.

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