Punchcard Economy

Precarious Workers and FACT

Apr 06 2014 · by Sam Meech

Last week saw some interesting discussion about paid roles and volunteering within arts institutions, as the Precarious Workers Brigade sent an open letter to FACT Liverpool, regarding their restructuring of jobs within the organisation, in particular the gallery supervisors. It was something that I touched on in my post about the Time and Motion symposium, and it was interesting to see both the PWB call for some kind of explanation of FACT’s employment policy (in reference to the politics of their exhibition, including my own work), but also FACT’s detailed response which gives an insight into different kinds of roles (paid and unpaid) throughout the organisation.

“As members of the Precarious Workers Brigade we must appeal to the image of our patron saint San Precario, who also appeared in the show. We understand the pressures publicly funded, non-profit arts organisations such as yours are under. However, we are concerned that by not paying people, only those who can afford to work for free will be able to benefit from these positions. As volunteering is becoming more prevalent, those who are unable to take up these unpaid ‘opportunities’ are less likely to enter the sector.

We wanted to flag this up and ask you to consider the ethics of offering volunteer positions that used to be paid in your organisation. The overall increase in volunteering across the economy is part of a whole raft of changes that are most definitely “redefining working life” many of which you highlighted in your show.”

(excerpt from the open letter by Precarious Workers Brigade)


“Many people make the mistake of assuming that all volunteers are young, or are looking to begin a career in the arts. However, we know our volunteers are here for all kinds of reasons, are at all stages of life, and that many of them would not have applied for jobs at FACT. We also are appreciative of these different motivations, as a number of our paid members of staff volunteer in various other organisations.

Some people offer their time because they are looking for a new direction in life, some because they are hoping rebuild confidence after a career break, others volunteer for enjoyment and of course, some volunteer to get a foot on the career ladder. Whatever their motivation to volunteer at FACT, our 70 new recruits will all have access to a carefully structured programme of skills development in a range of areas including business planning, marketing campaigns, exhibition development, workshop planning and working with community groups as well as receiving unique opportunities to meet and learn from artists and curators. We feel very strongly that our volunteers should never be required to work a minimum number of hours and it is important that we fit into their lifestyle, and never the other way around.”

(excerpt from the FACT response)


In summary I’m not sure how I feel about it all – I feel complicit in both perspectives and I’m maybe trying to be over diplomatic as a result. I have bigger gripes really about the trend in institutions towards casual labour for technical staff (something FACT have re-addressed, reinstating a full-time tech manager role) as this is something that I have seen have an negative impact on workers livelihoods but also the function of organisations to exhibit work properly.

I think the letter from PWB has given a brave voice to sense of frustration at funded organisations losing paid roles, and provoked FACT to respond with a level of transparency which feels quite new. Even as someone who was part of Time & Motion, I sometimes struggle to understand how exactly the organisation works, and who does what. The details in their response are interesting but also highlight how difficult it is to manage something that big. They may well be making a wrong call (it is perhaps too soon to say) but they seem to have a solid reasoning and approach, and if they follow up on their ideas, then there is the potential for it to be very useful programme for the the volunteers themselves.

It doesn’t necessarily change the unease I feel about relying on unpaid workers as part of a business model, but I would say that FACT make a good point about people volunteering for more reasons than simply a first step on a career ladder. I’ve seen it from my time as a (volunteer) trustee with the Plaza Cinema in Waterloo – a charity organisation (not publicly funded) that is 90% volunteer run (across all levels). People get a lot from simply being part of something and finding their role within that, and they do it for all kinds of reasons.  I would argue that community-led organisations like the Plaza are slightly different, though some of the broader benefits for volunteers are the same. The fear is, as well expressed by the PWB letter, that the value of (and opportunities for) workers in the arts, and especially flagship institutions, is undercut by ‘free labour’.