Artist Jo Howell, talks about her freelance experience and why she joined a trade union.
I have been running my own business as a freelance artist and photographer since 2010. Starting a business straight out of University, and after one of the biggest financial collapses the world has ever seen, was pretty brave. When I first set up my business the Artists Union England didn’t exist, but corruption and extortion was definitely rife within the arts sector. The very nature of art being a product of self-sacrifice and love, means that it is easy for employers to exploit that love. However, the reality is that 90% of the work that I do as a freelance is not the work that I love to do.
I really don’t love creating budgets, or have a particular care for organisational work like booking venues, advertising, or planning. Literally, only one tenth of what I do is the fun part of creating art. I have to do the rest of the work because I am just like everyone else who needs to heat their home, and pay their taxes. When you frame it in a realistic sense like this, you can become angry at the injustice of the amount of people who expect artists to give over time for free. As a manager in a company you would not be expected to create the staff rota or timetable for deliveries for free and in your own time. Quite often this is the case with call out’s for proposals. In order to stand a chance in rigorous interview processes that often include the need for the applying artist to produce a resolved pitch for the brief, a basic budget plan, a basic time plan, an online portfolio, your cv, a 10 minute presentation, and finally an interview; that you might have already worked a full week for free just in the preparation for the application.
Another stark injustice is that the flat fee system allows for organisations to pit artists against each other in a battle of who can offer the most outcomes for the least investment. If we continue to work in this way then we will completely under value the work that we all do, and it will become impossible to gain fair working terms and conditions. The Artists Union England started with a few brave souls who realised that these tactics were at play. Institutional systematic impropriety that creates a stagnant culture of poor quality arts programming based upon a drastically underpaid workforce. Artists have always flocked together in the creation of movements, communities, and cooperatives. A union of artists to stand together to change the system from the top down with a covenant of care and fair pay. It’s a very long road. We need the gatekeepers to be working with artists to change the system to a much fairer one.
Some inroads are already being made with cultural commissioners springing up in Cities across the country. Conversations are starting to create waves with the right people. Standing alone in the quagmire of the arts world as a working class woman, a person from the LGTBQ community, as a black person, an Asian person, or as a disabled person, is terrifying. You know that there is still institutional level discriminatory practices because you see them and face them every day. As just one person it is a lonely and difficult road to fight for equal opportunities, but with your union behind you the road is less lonely and the problems you encounter are shared.
The power of the unions waned when Maggie Thatcher gutted them all in the 80’s, but there was also a lot of corruption. The world has changed beyond all recognition since then. The advent of digital technology and web based communication has created many opportunities for new covenants to be made. Accountable to each other and self-motivated. Today’s unions aren’t the husks of yesteryear, they are dynamic forces of people coming together to fight for all of our working rights. We face uncertain times ahead with the looming spectra of Brexit. We have opted to isolate our country even further from the world. We have opted to reduce opportunities for our children, and ourselves. Art, music, science, and all of the creative arts will all be effected. Sharing crosscurrents of creativity with Europe has been going on for millennia in Britain. Most of the funding from Europe was spent in the North East, which was good because the London centric system often forgets that we are here.
I understand why many people of my parents generation opted for it. The lies were very convincing. The propaganda was cleverly targeted. The message of every person for themselves was clearly stated. You have nothing because we don’t control our borders. Outsiders are taking your stuff…
I don’t think we will progress at all if we continue to act in this insular way. We will never have true democracy unless we can begin to acknowledge the oppression that exists, and is perpetuated, at government level. We have to work together to share information, to coordinate our resources, and to have our voices heard. The Unions are having a renaissance because there needs to be a backlash, and a resounding call for accountability. Without it we might as well sign up to the new world order of Corporate Neo Feudalism. Plug in and drop out. Leave it to someone else to sort out.
If you are reading this, as an artist or creative, I have been a member of the Artists Union England for 5 years. The next 5 years we will need each other more than ever. Have your voice heard. We will back you up in the name of fairness, and cultural progression. Our work is important, our work can be political, but it is vitally important.