Working for free

Artists and freelancers regularly get asked to do unpaid work for organisations and institutions. In this blog post I discuss one of the common scenarios, share some thoughts on how things need to change and suggest some actions you can take.

Photo by kevser on Pexels.com

Should I say yes to unpaid work?

This is a perennial complex problem for those of us working in the arts and one I regularly want to moan about. So instead I’m giving it some thought and offering some alternatives to approaching this thorny question. Opportunities to give away your artwork, time, expertise, knowledge, potential earnings and wellbeing are bountiful. The creative world is full of ways for you to not earn any money. Finding ways to do the opposite and make an income is one of the greatest challenges of creative practice.

There are some things in the sector that pop up again and again which involve working for free and I have been thinking a lot about about how to make these decisions for yourself and how to try and make changes in the sector so this happens less.

There is no one simple answer to whether or not you choose to work for free as it all depends on:

  • where you are in your career
  • what you are being asked to do for free
  • your own financial situation
  • the financial situation of the organisation offering the thing
  • what else you might get out if it

The main thing to remember and to focus on is exposure does not pay the bills. Artists cannot live on goodwill. Those of us that have to make a living cannot keep being undercut by those who can afford to work for free. What ends up happening is those who need to earn a living say yes to unpaid things because it’s presented as ‘good for their career’ and they don’t have the confidence or leaderships skills to say no and why.

Choosing to work for free is a different thing – writing a speculative application, a proposal, responding to an open brief, donating work for a charity etc is a matter of choice. The problem really is when artists are asked to do work which really should be paid, such as running events, providing design or creative work or giving up their time & expertise to help a funded organisation do their job. It’s the latter I am focussing on here.

Over the 17 years I have been self employed, I have done plenty of unpaid work and I still chose to do some now, but only if I don’t feel exploited by the organisation and when it is otherwise beneficial for me. I choose not to work for free when it is mainly beneficial to an organisation with paid staff.

I do consultancy work for organisations on artist support and development activities as well as offering mentoring, training and business support to artists and creative businesses in partnership with organisations. Please get in touch if this is something your organisation would like to develop.

In the last few months I have been asked to be on a selection or jury panel for open exhibitions, both run by organisations with local authority funding support and salaried staff. With exquisite irony, this is exactly the thing I have been writing a report about for Artquest – for which I have been paid a professional consultancy fee. The report I’ve written is about artist Open Calls and making them more equitable and fair for artists. There’s a lot in this project about unpaid labour for artists, about paying fairly, about appreciating the value that artists and freelancers bring to an organisation, and paying them fairly for their work, including those on selection panels. So in both these cases, I have declined to do the work. In the first case I asked about fee as it was not mentioned and then declined in a vague way citing busy on the day. But more recently I’ve tackled the issue headlong and said why I can’t do the work for free, that I understand their budget restrictions etc and why it is important to value artists time.

My own work in my Narrative Threads solo exhibition 2015

In both cases I’ve felt vulnerable doing this and sad not to do the work – it’s something I would really enjoy doing, but I have to practice what I preach and not take on unpaid work in order to (hopefully) further my professional relationships with the organisations involved. That’s the issue I’m weighing in the balance every time I consider some unpaid work –

Will there be other benefits to me in doing this?

What is the non-financial value to me in this transaction?

Is there a value to me in this transaction at all or is all the value benefitting the organisation?

Why should I give up several hours of my potential income-generating time in order to benefit their open call exhibition? They are not charities. The people asking me have salaried jobs. Would they do it for free?

1292 Foodbank Visits in 18 Weeks, Ruth Singer, 2020. Hand stitch on cotton.

Its really important to remember that it’s not the fault of the person doing the asking, it’s the fault of the structures they work within who expect freelancers and artists to work for free. There is a pervasive culture of creatives working for free, an established, but unspoken rule that artists will do stuff for free because we need to further our careers and being helpful to organisations who are the gatekeepers of exhibitions and other forms of paid work is seen as necessary.

As a result of this culture of unpaid labour, it falls to me, as the unpaid artist, to explain to them, to pass on to their managers and budget-holders why they shouldn’t ask artists to work for free. If you value my professional expertise in this project, I deserve a professional fee.

I freely admit I didn’t know or think about this properly when I was employed by an organisation. I employed artists but I did expect them to travel across London and come to an unpaid meeting to discuss the 2 days of paid work. That’s not fair. I know that now and I point it out to organisations as often as I can, where they haven’t already addressed it (some have).

In conclusion, the most impactful thing we can all be doing about this is talking about it rather than hiding our frustrations and disappointments and letting bad practice continue unchallenged. We can sign up to campaigns like the brilliant Paying Artists. We can also make conscious choices about what we do for free, rather than just accepting it as the way things are. If you feel able to share, I would love to hear your thoughts about when you are asked to work for free and how you responded.

If you are struggling with this issue, I suggest starting with this: record all the unpaid work you do in a project or in the development stages of a project with an organisation. You may not do anything with this but it is so useful to have some data. If you feel able, you could share it with the organisation and just say “This is the amount of [additional] work I did unpaid in this project, if I was charging, this would be £££ value.” Making our unpaid work visible is a great first step in opening up the conversation.

This is the first in a series of blog posts tackling money issues around artist and freelance practice. I’ll be sharing more soon as this stuff is really important for us to talk about and for organisations to be aware of, and ideally, act upon. Please share this post or my social posts to try and get the message across. It would be great if you wanted to write your own post addressing some of the issues and how you approach working for free / getting paid for your professional expertise. I would also love to hear from organisations about what you are doing on this issue! You can get in touch with me here.


Email inboxes can be full of all kinds of tedious and boring things. Work. Bills. Adverts for things you don’t want. I’d like to brighten your inbox with a couple of emails a month full of inspiration, ideas and ways to see and share what I’m doing. 

Joining my Studio Stories email list is the best way to keep in touch with what I’m doing, more blog posts about creative business and about my work and projects. I’ll share courses and workshops too as well as behind the scenes studio stuff.

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If you would like some support in development your work, sorting out your fees and deciding what to concentrate on, I’d be happy to help. I offer 1:1 mentoring for artists exploring their practice, as well as my Find Your Focus course running in January. Find Your Focus covers core values, a realistic review of your year, looking at what matters most and then working on how to build in more of the good stuff and less of the stuff that’s not taking you forwards. The course is delivered through 5 video lessons starting on 3rd January, fresh and ready for the new year.


Artist Mentoring

If you are feeling a bit at sea with your creative practice, I’m here to help. I’ve created my mentoring programmes after years of working with and supporting artists and really understanding the challenges of creative life. I’m on your side to help you figure out the meanings and the reasons behind your creative practice and how to move forwards. Find out more here.

Artist Mentoring

Support and guidance with your creative practice with experienced artist & mentor Ruth Singer

My 1:1 mentoring sessions are back! I took a break in August and September to get a few other things finished and to have time to figure out what I wanted to do with my mentoring practice.

I’ve been mentoring since at least 2014 (according to my oldest testimonial!) but I am sure I was doing it more informally before then too. And I really do love it! It’s so energising to feel like you are making a difference to someone’s creative practice and to see the change and growth in your clients.

The two episodes of this series of Making Meaning Podcast are with two of my recent mentees and both talk about how useful and nurturing it is to have support in your creative practice. Mandeep’s podcast episode is here and there will be a new one out 29th September with guest Gillian Lee Smith reflecting on mentoring.

Here’s what Mandeep said on Instagram

“Today involved a moment of reflection within my practice – looking back, looking at my present stance, and looking ahead. 

It’s been a few months now that I’ve been working with artist and mentor @ruthsingertextiles to help articulate my creative thoughts, and today’s session was as fruitful as always. I’ve come to think of each session together as a series of layers gently building towards the bigger picture. 

The biggest and most important factor in choosing to work with Ruth is her holistic approach – having the capacity to engage, listen, provide space and show a genuine interest in bringing out the potential of my professional practice in line with my own holistic way of working, through inner and outer care. I’m felt understood in my visual language; the exchange of conversation never fails to inspire or encourage my wider ambitions.

This isn’t a push to gather more clients for Ruth nor is it a paid partnership; more an open sharing of thoughts, of how the idea of togetherness contributes to raising one another, of how what we can learn from one another organically weaves into our individual practices. 

This linocut was a print I began last year which went miserably wrong, yet taught me a lot about technique and about myself. But most of all it invited conversation of all kinds to take place with printmakers and non-printmakers, influencing the developmental direction of my practice. It was an eye-opener, much like mentoring is – expansive; your hand held, with soft focussed guidance in finding your footing in your practice, and individual seat in the big art world.”

I’ve realised over the last couple of years of online mentoring that figuring out your creative practice isn’t something that can be achieved in one session! I now offer 3 or 6 session packages which give the mentee time and space to figure things out and move forward.

Find out more about mentoring here. If what you are looking for is community and a lighter touch of support then you might find my Maker Membership is the right space for you. I share loads of resources in the online space and we meet monthly on Zoom for group chats where you can ask for advice or feedback on your work. You can find out a bit of what it’s like by listening to Maker Membership episode of the podcast here.

What kind of things do you struggle with in your creative practice? What kind of support or help might take you forward into doing your best creative work? I’d love to hear from you, you can comment here or on my Instagram page.

Community Spirit of Leicestershire launch

My project celebrating the Stories of pandemic volunteering in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland is going on tour

I’ve been working on this project most of the year and even longer in the planning and development. It’s finally almost out in the world! Back in 2020 when volunteering to help run a local foodbank, I realised just how important volunteering was to me and other volunteers. We felt useful and engaged and were making a real difference. I wanted to capture that energy and celebrate it and make sure that volunteers got a proper thank you for their incredible work.

Eventually I turned this into a funding application and created Community Spirit of Leicestershire with support from Arts Council England and Leicester city community funds.

From 5th September the resulting work, created by volunteers, will be shown in libraries and community centres as well as the foodbank where it all started for me. And you can also see the project film here.

There’s details of the tour venues here and a press release here.

I’ve worked with Mandeep Dhadialla as associate artist while I’ve been both lead artist and project producer (plus marketing, admin, funding, workshop-leader!). It’s been a real joy to see this come together and to be able to use a creative project to say THANK YOU to all volunteers for your amazing work.


Creative Producer

Projects around making things happen and bringing together people, places and stories

I love working with people to explore places and stories. I create and deliver projects inspired by my three sources of joy: textiles, artists and heritage. I add in research, partnerships and funding to produce experiences around People, Places and Stories

The experiences I create might be for artists, for textile-lovers, around heritage and stories, by, with and for communities.

Find out more about my Creative Producer work here.

Sanctuary Stories and Research Resonance

A couple of weeks ago Mandeep Dhadialla and I concluded our summer community project called Sanctuary Stories. I wrote a little about the project development here. The work made is now on show at Leicester Central Library until 31st August. Sanctuary Stories was part of the city-wide Journeys Festival run by ArtReach and we worked with participants from Roots Group who are all Leicester-based but from sanctuary-seeking backgrounds.

Mandeep created the project concept and ran most of the workshops while I worked on the behind-the-scenes project producer work. But delightfully, she also invited me to be part of the creative workshop side. The project focussed on print and book making exploring stories of nature, wellbeing and belonging. My part was to introduce slow stitch on the papers and books with the idea of a meditative stitch practice.

The previous week the group made collograph-style collages which Mandeep blind embossed onto heavy white paper to create beautiful textured, simple pieces. We stitched into these pieces and Mandeep later made them in to folded forms.

I created my samples around a theme I’m working on for myself on borders, boundaries, paths and journeys. The stitches represent a border, a path, containment and freedom. That’s where the research resonance of the title comes in – making the samples for this workshop created all kinds of connections with my own work. Talking to Mandeep about her work and the meanings behind this workshop programme also sparked ideas for both of us. She and I will be talking more about this in a podcast due out in mid-September. It was a real pleasure to work with this group and to collaborate with Mandeep on this project and the results are so lovely. I hope plenty of you will be able to see them in Leicester Library in the next week.


Creative Producer

Projects around making things happen and bringing together people, places and stories

I love working with people to explore places and stories. I create and deliver projects inspired by my three sources of joy: textiles, artists and heritage. I add in research, partnerships and funding to produce experiences around People, Places and Stories

The experiences I create might be for artists, for textile-lovers, around heritage and stories, by, with and for communities.

Find out more about my Creative Producer work here.

Mentoring for artists and creative businesses

Book now for current mentoring prices before I have a rest from 1:1 and prepare a new support programme

I currently offer 1:1 mentoring and business support to artists, makers and anyone running or starting a creative business. Over the last 10 years or so this element of my work has grown and even more so during the pandemic when I was able to mentor via Zoom and work with people around the country. I absolutely love doing this work – talking to people about their creative practice is great, helping them find a way through the many challenges of creative practice is a privilege and a joy. But it’s still work, it’s work that requires me to be highly experienced and knowledgeable about the whole creative sector, to be reflective and open to learning all the time, to listen well and be perceptive, to be a good communicator and to be a supportive, welcoming and safe person to talk to. So although this work is joyful for me, it is tiring and requires a lot of input and thinking outside of the hours I spend talking to people. I need a break.

I’m winding down my current mentoring offer which starts with a single session at £60 so I can have a rest in August and then I’m going to relaunch a new programme of 1:1 support options in September. I’ll continue to take mentoring bookings until the end of June 2022 (or until I’m booked up) then that’s it until September, when I’ll release limited slots for 1:1 support and the price will go up.

The new programme will focus around longer-term mentoring about creative practice and have alongside this a more defined business support offer for people who need a more practical, skills and knowledge based input from me.

I’ll also be releasing a lot more of my workbooks and self-led development toolkits for your own reflection and development as well as some online short courses and ebooks. I’ve got loads of ideas but I need the time to properly plan and develop them. I already make my Gentle Goal Setting course available as a download workbook which you can use alone or alongside a 1:1 session.

So if you have been thinking about mentoring or business support from me, now is your time to book! I will keep the bookings open until 30th June (or until I’m booked up) but all sessions (regardless of how many you pre-pay for) will need to take place before 10th August to be within the old pricing structure. Just drop me a line if you want to find out more and check availability using the form at the end of the mentoring page. If you have already talked to me first and are ready to book a session or several, you can find the payment page here.

Creative confidence through mentoring

Mentoring for artists, makers and creative business owners

Recently my friend and mentor Melody Vaughan shared a series of blog posts about mentoring / coaching within a craft context. She has generously included me in one of her posts, as well as Sharon Adams who is also an artist-mentor. Melody reflected on the importance of mentoring and also the relevance of a mentor who is in the same or similar field and understands the content of craft.

I work with makers in all materials and also those outside of making – I’ve worked outside of craft as well as inside for over 25 years now and have a lot of experience of supporting others including the last year running the Establish part of the WebinArt professional development programme for 28 professional artists. I’ve written more about mentoring here so you can find out what it is all about.

I also recommend reading all Melody’s posts about mentoring and coaching in general if you are thinking that it would be something useful for you. I am sure it would be useful for everyone, but I know it depends on your situation and finances and if you feel ready for that kind of self-reflection. 

I completely understand that not everyone is ready for the commitment, cost and time of 1:1 mentoring, so I am developing a group mentoring programme which will run first in the autumn – winter (for those who aren’t makers focussed on Christmas selling) and again in in the new year. This will be a great way of experiencing mentoring without the intensity of 1:1 and also experience the benefits of sharing with others, making connections within the creative world and learning about how others work to apply to your own practice, in a supportive, facilitated space. This will be online so accessible to as many as possible (in UK timezone!).

If this sounds like something you are interested in being part of this, please drop me a line and I’ll put you on the list to hear about it first.

Textiles In Lockdown Online Talk

Join Ruth Singer to hear more about the textiles in lockdown project with Gawthorpe Textiles Collection, Monday 18th January.

Textiles in Lockdown was a commission from Gawthorpe Textiles Collection to gather stories about textile making during the first UK lockdown in March-June 2020. I worked with them over the late summer to collect stories from over 300 professional and hobby makers about their textile practice during this time and how impactful it had been for their wellbeing, mental health and creative businesses. From these stories I created an ebook and a podcast, both of which are now freely available to enjoy.

Graphic with rainbow of threads in a circle shape with text Textiles in Lockdown and funders logos

Gawthorpe Textiles Collection have invited me back this month to present a live Zoom talk about the project, about my work and creating the ebook and podcast. On Monday 18th January at 7pm I will be sharing my thoughts and answering your questions about the project and about how important textile making is for our wellbeing in this new 2021 lockdown. Tickets are just £5. Please book here, directly with Gawthorpe.

Image of Ruth Singer, side view, sitting in her studio working on a piece of hand embroidery. Wooden shelves and boxes in the background.

Creative Communities

Working on your own as a creative maker or artist is hard enough in normal times and it’s even more challenging this year, both financially and personally. Isolation and struggling alone is very real. It can be hard to connect with friends and make new ones when you aren’t doing exhibitions, shows, teaching or other events where we normally get together.

WebinArt Establish programme has been created to help established artists and makers to connect, share, learn and grow. We are here to support you.

WebinArt is an online creative community of established artists and makers learning, sharing and supporting.  We come together through online forums, Zoom networking and peer mentoring groups to share experiences, knowledge and support each other. I am the co-ordinator for the Establish group, creating a community of peers to learn and grow. This is the best way to work with me on a mentoring basis if you are an established (3 years or so) creative business. And it’s only £8 per month!

Establish Membership gives you access to:

  • An online forum where members share and learn from each other, facilitated by Ruth Singer with monthly focus challenges and topics
  • 2 special events a year delving deep into topics that are important to our members
  • Monthly Zoom networking sessions led by artist and mentor Ruth Singer
  • Quarterly peer mentoring sessions with a small group of like-minded artists/makers where you can talk about the issue you want to delve into for your own business
  • An online school of recorded webinars and artist / organisation interviews 
  • Live webinars once a month
  • Networking with midlands-based arts organisations
  • Optional add-ons (pay as you go) 1:1 mentoring with specialists 

Does this sound like something you need? It’s only £8 per month which is heavily subsidised. If you want to apply, register your interest here. If you aren’t quite sure, find out more here or drop me a line and we can chat.

Very inspiring and motivating. Great to work with others in my group too!

So far it’s been completely transformative. I don’t think I would have got so far with my new business without it.

WebinArt 2020/21 is generously subsidised by our funding partners – Leicestershire County Council, Arts Council England, Derbyshire County Council, Hinckley + Bosworth Borough Council, North West Leicestershire District Council, Blaby District Council + Rutland County Council. 

Artist Development Work

Today I went to the launch of Leicester City Council’s cultural prospectus and strategy. It turns out that this wasn’t the launch of the actual strategy, it was the launch of the work to consult leading towards the strategy, which actually is good as there’s still chance to input in to the decision-making for how the city moves forward.  I have so many hats when it comes to things like this. I am an independent artist and this event was not aimed at me but I am also Chair of Leicester Society of Artists (an unpaid role) and occasional consultant and project lead  for Creative Leicestershire. I choose to get involved in events and conversations and activities around artist development and arts policy as I am professionally and personally engaged with the outcomes of them. And I LOVE a good strategy!

I was delighted to see that one of the key frameworks they are aiming to develop in the strategy is Workforce and Talent Development. From my perspective as an independent artist & cultural freelancer, I am mostly interested in how organisations and councils support and develop the creative talent of artists. But I am concerned that artists are expected to input their ideas (which is of course our means of making a living) into a consultation for which they won’t get paid, and won’t necessarily get credit.

Last year I completed a lengthy consultancy project called Made in Leicestershire looking at market development, networks and professional development for visual artists in the city and county.

 

This work has led directly into a new project for me, again working with Creative Leicestershire on their innovative professional development programme WebinArt, which will restart this spring (subject, as always to funding success). My element will be focussed on co-ordinating peer mentoring groups for mid-career and established artists in Leicestershire and surrounding areas. WebinArt is now taking expressions of interest for artists who would like to be part of the network and benefit from the professional development we will be offering. There’s no commitment required at this stage, you will be sent information about applying once its up and running. It really is a fantastic programme and I am really looking forward to getting artist together to do great things!

I loved working on Made in Leicestershire, getting to speak to artists and help create ideas and proposals to better promote and support them. The majority of the project funding was provided by ERDF, the European Regional Development Fund, just one of the ways in which being part of the EU was great, and is very much missed. I hope to continue developing artist support programmes, enabling creative people to thrive and to support their work in communities alongside their own creative practice.

 

Chair of Leicester Society of Artists

Over the last couple of years I have been working as a consultant for Creative Leicestershire, researching the future of the role of Made in Leicestershire, a network of local artists. Since this work has now finished, I have decided to try and take some of my recommendations forward through working in partnership with another Leicestershire artist network, The Leicester Society of Artists (LSA). In early October I put myself forward as Chair with the hope of taking some of my learning from Made in Leicestershire into this thriving, well-established group. I picked the busiest time of the year to do this, just before our Annual Exhibition opened in early November. The last few weeks have have been intense, with my focus being on the exhibition judges and prizes, the preview event, working with the museum staff and then some PR and marketing activity while the exhibition is open, as well as future planning with our President Lars Tharp and the LSA Council. The exhibition continues until 7th December and is open seven days a week. I have three pieces in the exhibition too and was awarded one of the prizes as well. But the best part so far has been handing over prizes to other artists, which is a joy – and can result in hilarious photos with Tim Fowler!