Who Is The Cultural Worker? Art, work, and change

As museums and galleries begin to open their doors again, and with complaints that funding is tighter than ever, where does that leave the cultural workers who were already in precarious situations before the pandemic?

Article by Katie Dibb | 30 Apr 2021
  • Cultural Workers

International Workers' Day, or May Day as it is more commonly known, is celebrated around the world as a day of protest, parties and direct action. The concept of the ‘worker’ can give you immediate dusty visuals of the past – the industrial revolution, the unregulated working day or children climbing up chimneys. Or worse, the ‘worker’ has become an over-intellectualised word used by everyone but the worker themselves.  

In simple terms, someone is a worker if 'they have to turn up for work even if they don’t want to.' A worker is anyone who has a job, whether that is contracted or not, that involves someone else giving them orders and is rewarded either monetarily or otherwise. As illustrated in 2019 when Labour’s ‘red wall’ turned blue, politicians and journalists alike have all been grasping at straws trying to understand ‘the working class' – who they are and what they want – and in the meantime writing some incredibly patronising think-pieces.

One thing is clear, however – that the archival image of the strong, white, male, covered in sweat and dirt worker is no longer the worker of the present day. For the last couple of decades new ways of working have expanded, aided mostly by technological development resulting in the definition of a worker becoming blurred. This uncertainty has allowed for employers to take advantage of this legal dubiousness and implement exploitative work practices. Despite the sector's reputation for socialist ideals, these exploitative practices are rife in the arts and cultural industries.  

Institutional change, interrogating the system

The arts sector is full of contradictions. Despite being renowned for its creativity, it continually falls into the same old traps of exhibiting the same artists in the same tired-out white spaces. Institutions within the cultural sector have tried to address these issues to an extent, such as when Maria Balshaw was appointed new Director of the Tate (although not before the staff were asked to contribute towards a boat for Nicholas Serota’s retirement).

Regardless, Balshaw’s appointment brought with it a sense of promise for better representation of women and artists of colour. Yet cut to 2020 and an outpouring of responses from cultural institutions re: BLM that, as The White Pube astutely put it in their text, FUCK THE POLICE, FUCK  THE STATE, FUCK THE TATE, failed to centre 'the protection or care of black lives; the only benefit in sight is for the institution.' 

Scotland-based institutions such as Creative Scotland have also been making an increased effort to acknowledge some of the disparities within the cultural field. The role of interrogating systemic issues, however, tends to fall to smaller organisations such as Transmission and Arika. This becomes an issue as these smaller organisations do not have as much access to funding as larger institutions and therefore end up having to take on exhausting amounts of unpaid labour, a problem that is even more complex when you realise that Transmission have decided to have a majority POC committee.

It is of course admirable for Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs) to question the structures within the cultural sector, and indeed the very ethos of many of them is to do so. However in today's economy and benefits system, it is no longer sustainable for committee members to take on the workload and support themselves financially. This can unfortunately cause burnout for its workers, which further contributes to the classist over-reliance on unpaid labour.

This is something that ARIs in Scotland are aware of already, and many are taking active steps to rethink a new sustainable model of working. But this is not going to be a quick fix. Wouldn’t it be ideal if some of the pressure was taken off smaller organisations to be radical, and larger organisations that have the funding took on some more of that workload? Of course this is idealistic, but it does seem unfair that smaller grassroots organisations are constantly having to be radical when conversations around unpaid labour, representation and burnout have now been in the mainstream media for a while.

The unfortunate truth is that larger institutions do not want to make these changes until they have to. Large cultural institutions are run like a business where profit is the main goal. Could it be possible, though, to create another future than this, one that shows a bit more imagination?  

Defining the 'cultural worker'

Instead of mirroring other sectors' exploitative work practices, the cultural sector could pride itself on being a leader in its fair and ethical treatment of workers. These changes are already showing some signs of emerging, but how quickly these transformations occur is determined in part by how we cultural workers self-define. Conversations around unpaid labour have been around for a long time, and there is increasing transparency around issues such as artists' pay and commissioning rates across the cultural sector.

But the discussion around fair pay in the cultural sector needs to include not just the artists, curators and journalists but also the cleaners, the security and the invigilators. Leaving these roles out of the conversation not only excludes a large section of people from the potential for better working conditions, but also unintentionally undermines the value of cultural work, generally. It’s beneficial for everyone to widen the definition of a cultural worker in order to emphasise that all cultural work is work and therefore demands workers' rights.  

The union United Voices of the World (UVW) have been championing cultural workers for years, most notably their 2015 cases campaigning for sick pay for cleaners working at Sotheby’s and  The Barbican Centre. Not only were these campaigns successful, they were seemingly joyous occasions, disrupting sales of over £20.9m with shouts of “we drown out your auctions,” as men in suits looked amusingly uncomfortable.

They have further defended workers, such as in their current case against St. George’s University of London (SGUL), where they are making the case that 'racial justice is impossible without an end to outsourcing' (a system where a certain portion of the labour is employed externally using freelance or zero hour contracts). With 27% of their in-house staff identifying as BAME and 100% of their outsourced security identifying as BAME or migrants, SGUL have created a racially divided two-tier system.

The stark difference between the working conditions of in-house staff compared to outsourced 'illustrates how outsourcing perpetuates systemic and institutional racism.' Although this particular case is looking at SGUL specifically, this problematic issue of outsourcing can easily be applied to many progressive cultural institutions such as Goldsmiths and UAL.

Cultural workers in Scotland

Despite Scotland’s reputation as a cultural haven in the UK, cultural workers' rights are under threat here too. In 2016 the National Museums of Scotland rejected requests to allow invigilators to have their own seats despite complaints that not having them was 'affecting their health by leading to back and ligament strain'. This harsh decision came after staff strikes over what they contested was an unfair two-tier system due to outsourcing staff. 

UVW have also addressed the similarities between workers' struggles within and outside of the cultural sector by launching their subsidiary Designers and Cultural Workers (DCW). DCW aims to 'fight to build a more equitable culture from below' by first deconstructing the unfair hierarchies that are enabled by the casualisation of cultural work 'in the interest of distributing profits to those at the top.' This reflects a promising new approach to organising within the cultural sector that seeks to value our cleaners, invigilators and security just as much as our artists and curators. 

Part of my understanding of this is from my first-hand experience of working within both the hospitality and cultural sectors (as so many of us do) but also as someone that has a direct connection to the NG27 legal case. The NG27 case involved 27 art historians who successfully took The National Gallery to court in order to argue their status as ‘workers’. This result has had an underreported amount of influence on other worker cases such as the recent successful campaign against Uber.

These cases are similar because they are both examples of outsourcing labour. These types of contracts can seem ideal to a certain demographic, such as a student who wants flexible hours. What’s not to like about choosing your shift pattern without much pressing responsibility? However this becomes a hyper-capitalist nightmare when the rota suddenly shifts from staff having a 25-hour working week to seven, an all-too familiar situation for many. Seeking some redress, employers can stymie any confrontations with the reminder that a flexible working situation means that they also have absolutely no legal obligation to guarantee any working hours at all.

The usual solution is to leave the unremunerative job, have a cry and a drink, then head to an art opening where some charm and wit can summon a great new work opportunity as a temp gallery invigilator with the faint promise of career trajectory.  One month into the job, the glossy industry façade starts to fade and then comes the realisation that a new cultural freelancing career can seem very similar to precarious hospitality gigs – minus the tips.