Artist Bethan Maddocks, talks about her freelance experience and why she joined a trade union.
I have worked as a freelance artist for over ten years now, and love the freedoms and flexibility the profession offers me, and have learnt with time, experience and a strong artistic community surrounding me how to somewhat avoid some of the pitfalls of job and financial insecurity.
I work in a variety of ways, from teaching for arts and community organisations, to applying for and getting sculptural commissions to designing large scale interactive theatre installations- the work is diverse and I get to meet a huge variety of people and communities throughout which is great.
The nature of the work means that some work (teaching especially) is well paid, and others is poorly paid, so that I (and I assume many artists like me) create a balancing act between the quality of the project, the organisation that I’m working with, whether it is a beneficial or exciting project that I’d like to work on, in balance to the payment offered to decide what work I take on. It means I take on a large amount of work with vulnerable communities, which is incredibly rewarding but also very exhausting. Being freelance there is often very little support within and out of sessions such as a line-manager or HR department to discuss our needs with or to discuss any difficult or upsetting scenarios or stories you have heard or witnessed.
In the last few years it has become increasingly visible in the work that I do that the health and social care support that was there in the past has completely disappeared due to “austerity measures”. Often it feels like you are on the front line working with people who need far more care and support than I am either trained or capable of giving. I often hear artists in my position talking of ‘burn out’.
I’m lucky enough in a place in my career to turn down the huge amount of projects that promote payment through ‘exposure’; and I’ve found organisations like Artists’ Union England really helpful in helping me to set rates and expectations when taking on new projects.
I joined Artists’ Union England about two years ago, more out of happiness that there are new unions being created, than expectation that I’d need to use it. Being from County Durham I grew up knowing there’s “Power in a Union” and I have strong memories of Durham’s Big Meet from my childhood, but I thought that as the work artists do is so diverse it would be difficult to find common threads to fight from. However last year I had a very difficult contractual issue with a very large organisation. They had lawyers on call, a large finance department and several staff working on the commission - it was a hugely imbalanced power dynamic, however, by talking with my Union, working through the contract wording and knowing that due to my membership I had access to legal support, I was able to fight my corner, feel far more confident in my language and communication and ultimately get the payments and rights that had been promised to me. Since then I’ve become an even stronger advocate of Unionism. It’s hard and lonely sometimes working so precariously, but its very good to know that the support is there as and when I need it via my Union.