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Speaking from a personal standpoint, I fully developed my passion for art and culture while in university. It wasn’t until the end of my educational experience that I realised how much of a minority I was in my chosen field. I was the only black student in the art program for five years, being taught by white professors and being taught about black art in the context of art history. However I always felt that I stood out in a good way in the midst of my classmates and especially during discussions of discrimination of any kind in the cultural sector.

Lack of diversity in art is very concerning as fewer and fewer students in general are taking up creative pursuits and the study of them. Between 2003 and 2013, there was a 50% drop in students learning design and technology at the GCSE level, and 25 percent for other craft-related subjects. This data doesn’t only reflect black students; it is a generalised statistic of students who aren’t taking art courses. A fifty percent drop.

For those who consider themselves stakeholders in the arts and in the humanities, even in the slightest way, now is the time to seriously begin attracting younger, ethnically-mixed demographics by ensuring that any student, especially students born into cultural-deserts, who want to, can pursue a career in the arts. It is a question of sustaining relevance, of disproving myths that say education in the studio and about the theory and history of art is a waste of time. 

Anyone who has had their life enriched by art in any of its manifestations should know that such an endeavour is no waste of time, and should want to see the arts flourish and touch as many people as possible. Yet, I wonder, what can be done to combat the cynicism, the current cycle of expensive degrees that plop goodhearted and lofty-minded graduates into dog-eat-dog arenas of perpetual unpaid internships?

Today, an art student striving after an undergraduate degree has a fair deal of obstacles in front of their promising career in the arts. Students must be able to complete their studies to the best of their abilities, while possibly, hopefully, working for a gallery or institution for free and somehow funding a  healthy and sane standard of living. The entry point for any budding professional is an internship, the working for free bit, a work experience and line on the CV and possibly, for the luckiest ones, an open door into full-time employment.

“Unpaid work placements and informal recruitment methods mean that entry into employment in the arts and cultural sectors is harder for students who are not from white, middle class backgrounds”, finds a report published by the higher education equality body Equality Challenge Unit. From my own experience, working as an intern in a foreign environment, in which employment opportunities were already scarce, belonging to the cultural sector has proven to be difficult.

The work from the internship is never the most taxing part; it is the lack of compensation for working hard. Many of the internships I applied for did not offer payment for travel or payment for lunch. Or payment at all. Coming from a less than middle class background, I understand how affording the costs of living is a trial for others in similar situations.

Add that to the cost of grad school. Not only is an undergraduate degree insufficient for many jobs in established institutions, but students and recent graduates are also in competition with, and at a disadvantage to, individuals who have advanced degrees or at least a few years’ precise professional experience, which is now a requirement for lower than entry-level positions.

Internships today are as competitive as rookie salaried positions, and oftentimes students are only gaining minimal work experience that doesn’t prepare them for a practical career in the arts. Author Andy Parkinson writes, “Although organisations may seek out a more diverse pool of candidates and be successful in their recruitment, they may fail to recognise that the organisation needs to change and support the person more effectively if they are to be successful and progress in their careers.”It would benefit students greatly, would benefit culture as a whole in the long run greatly, if more internships at museums, galleries, art consultancies and so on did pay more reasonably and and offer participation in the professional sphere beyond answering phones and  compiling mailing lists.

 Or perhaps by simply offering more internships for the same positions. If knowledge and school credit are all that is forked over, institutions must fork them over more freely, with less to lose than to gain. Of course, annual budgets are tight in the scope of ambitious exhibition planning and payrolls. Yet how many enthusiastic individuals with effectual ideas might have shot at becoming truly competent and valuable instead of making the sacrifices that ultimately extinguish their hopes of a career in fine art? How many forward-thinking youths that are yet unable to tune into such enthusiasm?

It may be that low pay, limited entry opportunities and a perception of institutions as “closed” or discriminatory towards, and irrelevant to, certain ethnic groups have an impact on people’s decisions to work to create and preserve cultural patrimony. In London, where most of England’s national museums are located, around 30% of the population is minority-ethnic and there continues to be a significant under-representation of minority-ethnic staff in the museum workforce. However, certain institutions are now creating programs to aid ethnic groups and minorities in attaining professional positions in the arts.  If more museums and galleries attempt to follow the example of the Royal Pavilion and Museums in Brighton, there might be a slight shift in the personnel and drought of resources in the art world.

But before these type of projects continue there has to be acknowledgement of the lack of non-traditional and minority students in art, and the lack of resources for all students born without stellar social connections and bottomless trust funds to be able to pursue a career in the arts, a field that should itself enjoy more influence than it currently does.

It isn’t just about having black art students, but also about art profiting from the viewpoints of a diverse, prepared group that can enter creative circles and maintain and grow their position within it. More programmes need to be initiated by universities and art schools, in communities, public museums, private galleries, by the art press and by individual artists that will assist willing outsiders in viewing art, understanding art, criticising art and sharing art. Perhaps then the will arts realise their own value within society and be able to cast wider, more lucrative nets — making some room for more candidates fueled by passion and adaptable aptitude to get that CV with all the right bullet points. 

Sean Steadman

Sources:  Allen, Kim, and Jocey Quinn, “Work Placements In The Arts And Cultural Sector: Diversity, Equality And Access — ADM-HEA”, Adm.Heacademy.Ac.Uk, 2015

La Valle, I., O’Regan, S. and Jackson, C., “The Art of Getting Started: Graduate Skills in a Fragmented Labour Market”, Report 364, Institute for Employment Studies, Grantham Book Services, 2000

Parkinson, Andy, and Jamie Buttrick, Equality And Diversity Within The Arts And Cultural Sector In England, Ebook. 1st ed. London: Arts Council London, 2015

Davies, Maurice, and Lucy Shaw, The Ethnic Diversity Of The Museum Workforce. London: Museums Association, 2010

December 7th, 2016

http://artmag.saatchigallery.com/no-work-for-the-avant-garde/