Who is the cultural worker? Art, work and change


International Workers’ Day, or May 1 as it is more commonly known, is celebrated around the world as a day of protest, celebration and direct action. The concept of the “worker” can give you immediate dusty images of the past – the industrial revolution, the unregulated workday, or children climbing up chimneys. Or worse, “worker” has become a superintellectualized word used by everyone except the workers themselves.

Simply put, someone is a worker if ‘they have to show up for work even if they don’t want to. ‘ A worker is anyone who has a job, whether contracted or not, that involves someone else who gives them orders and who is rewarded financially or otherwise. As illustrated in 2019, when Labor’s ‘red wall’ turned blue, politicians and journalists all struggled to understand ‘the working class’ – who they are and what they want – and while waiting to understand. ‘write some incredibly condescending thoughts – plays.

One thing is clear, however, that the archival image of the strong, white, male worker covered in sweat and dirt is no longer the worker today. Over the past two decades, new ways of working have developed, aided mainly by technological development, which has blurred the definition of a worker. This uncertainty has allowed employers to take advantage of this legal doubt and implement abusive labor practices. Despite the industry’s reputation for socialist ideals, these exploitative practices are rife in the arts and cultural industries.

Institutional change, questioning the system

The arts sector is full of contradictions. Although he is renowned for his creativity, he continually falls into the same old traps of exhibiting the same artists in the same tired white spaces. Institutions in the cultural sector have tried to address these issues to some extent, such as when Maria Balshaw was appointed the new director of Tate (although not before staff were asked to contribute to a boat for the retirement of Nicholas Serota).

Either way, Balshaw’s appointment brought a sense of promise for better representation of women and artists of color. Yet cut to 2020 and a wave of responses from cultural institutions re: BLM which, as The White Pube artfully put it in their text, FUCK THE POLICE, FUCK THE STATE, FUCK THE TATE, failed to focus on “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 made an increased effort to recognize certain disparities within the cultural field. However, the role of interrogating systemic issues tends to fall on smaller organizations such as Transmission and Arika. This becomes a problem because these small organizations do not have as much access to funding as large institutions and therefore end up having to take on exhausting amounts of unpaid work, a problem which is even more complex when one realizes that Transmission decided to have a majority POC committee.

It is of course admirable for Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs) to question structures within the cultural sector, and indeed the very philosophy of many of them is to do so. However, in today’s economy and benefit system, it is no longer viable for committee members to shoulder the workload and support themselves financially. Unfortunately, this can cause burnout for its workers, which further contributes to classists’ over-reliance on unpaid work.

This is something that IRAs in Scotland are already aware of, and many are taking active steps to rethink a new sustainable working model. But it won’t be a quick fix. Wouldn’t it be ideal if some of the pressure was taken off the smaller organizations to be radical, and the larger organizations that have the funding take on more of that workload? Sure, that’s idealistic, but it seems unfair that small, grassroots organizations constantly have to be radical when conversations about unpaid work, representation and burnout have now been in the mainstream media for quite some time.

The sad truth is that big institutions don’t want to make these changes until they have to. Large cultural institutions are run like a business where profit is the main goal. Would it be possible, however, to create a future other than this, a future that shows a little more imagination?

Defining the “cultural worker”

Instead of reflecting the exploitative labor practices of other sectors, the cultural sector could claim to be a leader in its fair and ethical treatment of workers. These changes are already showing signs of emerging, but how quickly these transformations occur is determined in part by how we as cultural workers define ourselves. Conversations about unpaid work have been around for a long time, and there is increasing transparency on issues such as artist compensation and commission rates in the cultural sector.

But the discussion about fair remuneration in the cultural sector must include not only artists, curators and journalists, but also cleaners, security guards and supervisors. Leaving these roles out of the conversation not only excludes a large part of the population from the potential for better working conditions, but also unintentionally undermines the value of cultural work, in general. It is beneficial for everyone to broaden the definition of a cultural worker to emphasize that all cultural work is work and therefore claims workers’ rights.

United Voices of the World (UVW) has championed cultural workers for years, including their 2015 cases campaigning for sick pay for housekeepers working at Sotheby’s and The Barbacane Center. Not only were these campaigns successful, but they were apparently joyous occasions, disrupting sales for over £ 20.9 million with cries of “we’re stifling your auction”, as the men in suits looked oddly uncomfortable.

They further defended the workers, as in their current case against St. George’s University in London (SGUL), where they argue that ‘Racial justice is impossible without the end of outsourcing‘(a system where a certain portion of the workforce is employed outside using freelance or zero hour contracts). With 27% of their internal staff identifying as BAME and 100% of their outsourced security identifying as BAME or migrants, SGUL has created a racially divided two-tier system.

The glaring difference between the working conditions of internal staff and those of outsourced staff “illustrates how outsourcing perpetuates systemic and institutional racism”. While this particular case looks specifically at SGUL, this problematic question of outsourcing can easily be applied to many progressive cultural institutions such as Silversmiths and UAL.

Cultural workers in Scotland

Despite Scotland’s reputation as a cultural paradise in the UK, the rights of cultural workers are also under threat here. In 2016, the National Museums of Scotland rejected requests to allow supervisors to have their own seats despite complaints that not having them was “”affecting their health by causing strain on the back and ligaments‘. The harsh decision came after staff strikes over what they contested to be an unfair two-tier system due to staff outsourcing.

UVW also addressed the similarities between workers’ struggles within and outside 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 unjust hierarchies made possible by the precariousness of cultural work “in the interest of distributing benefits to those at the top”. This reflects a promising new organizational approach within the cultural sector that seeks to value our cleaners, supervisors and safety just as much as our artists and curators.

Part of my understanding of this comes from my first-hand experience working in the hospitality and culture industries (as many of us do), but also as someone who has a direct connection to the NG27 legal case. The NG27 case involved 27 art historians who successfully sued the National Gallery in order to assert their status as “workers”. This result has had an underestimated influence on other worker cases such as the recent successful campaign against Uber.

These cases are similar as they are both examples of labor outsourcing. These types of contracts may seem ideal for a certain demographic, such as a student who wants flexible hours. What’s not to like about choosing your work schedule without too many pressing responsibilities? However, it becomes a hypercapitalistic nightmare when the rotation suddenly switches from staff with a 25-hour workweek to seven, a situation far too familiar to many. Seeking redress, employers can prevent a confrontation by reminding that a flexible work situation means they also have no legal obligation to guarantee working hours at all.

The usual solution is to quit the unpaid work, cry and drink, then go to a vernissage where a little charm and wit can summon a new opportunity to work as a temporary gallery overseer with the weak. promise of a career path. A month into the job, the shiny facade of the industry begins to fade, and then comes the realization that a new career as a cultural freelance writer can seem very similar to precarious gigs in the hospitality industry – minus the tips.


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