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.


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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.

Making Community Spirit

Behind the scenes on my current community project

Creating great projects is all about the preparation and behind the scenes work. As my Community Spirit project is coming to an end, I’m reflecting on all the work and unseen effort, creativity and chaos that goes on to make things like this look seamless. I started working on the funding application last summer when my house move got delayed again and I suddenly had 2 weeks with not much in the diary. But the idea of the project was even longer ago than that. While I was deep in the middle of volunteering for the foodbank in 2020 I went for a walk in the park (because I couldn’t go any further) and was thinking about just how vital and impactful volunteering was proving to be. And I wanted something to show for it. Something that others could see and that would really shine a light on the amazing work done by volunteers. It took 12 months more before I turned it into a funding application and then it took three attempts to get the funding, taking me through to the very end of 2021. It was hard to write the application and even harder to revise and change it and keep the energy and enthusiasm needed to get it finally funded.

Luckily, one of the changes I made to the project in the re-submitting stage was to bring in an associate artist. I realised that I need to collaborate, to work with others and have a team to work with. I invited Mandeep Dhadialla to work with me on this because of her experience in running community workshops. In fact originally I thought she would be doing all of the workshops although it really didn’t work out like that!

Our first joint job was to create the concept for the artwork. I love coming up with different ideas for making projects where different people can collaborate and work towards a finished piece. The original application says that we’d make a quilt but I knew from the start that I actually wanted to do something different. I love a community quilt project but there are a lot of them around and I always want to take the least obvious route in a creative project.

The other element in this project was that I was working with Mandeep not just by myself and I soon realised that the quilt idea wouldn’t work with Mandeep’s print on paper specialism. So I wanted to find a different way of working that would allow paper and textile to be used and I realised that it would also be great if the pieces made could be returned to the participants rather than produce one large piece which would then need a home.

One of the inspirations was Alinah Azadeh’s Medals for Everyday Courage, shared by Craftspace. I loved the idea of medals or tokens to celebrate the work volunteers had done. But I didn’t want to copy this idea for my own project, I needed my own concept. We bounced around a lot of ideas and eventually rosettes came out top. It worked perfectly – could be made in textile or paper, there’s space for words and images and they would make great mementoes of volunteering for makers to give as gifts or to keep for themselves.

We both worked on creative concepts that would be easy to make in workshops and at home with materials kits and put together all the stuff required and made prototypes.

I wrote instructions and printed booklets with photos to go with make-at-home kits while Mandeep prepared printed and hand drawn papers for the kits and workshops. And then we got started. Over 50 rosettes were made and contributed to the project over the summer and we then had to work out how to bring them together and display them in a way which allowed us to move it around easily and return the rosettes to their makers after the tour ended.

After a lot of research and experimenting, I decided to make a simple quilt for the pieces to attach to and went on the hunt for a suitable display stand which would work. I had a lovely time researching quilt displays but in the end opted for coat rack / open wardrobe style stand. The one I picked was designed to move easily and folds up for transport. It has a large box attached at the bottom which is not ideal in some ways but does mean I can store the packaging for the display all in the base and leave it at the venue.

So then I made the quilt to go on the stand, for the rosettes to attach to. That was a lot harder than I hoped, as I was running out of time and had to short cut to make a simpler version. I had intended to make a complex patterned patchwork but eventually realised that it would be impossible in the time I had left and also would be covered in rosettes so wouldn’t show anyway! So that rather lovely but wonky piece of patchwork is going to become my own artwork about volunteering – smaller scale and more visible as a standalone piece. Mandeep and I spent a day securing rosettes with extra stitching, backing, glue and other scaffolding to make sure they stood up to being moved and handled regularly.

One final inspection by my cat and it was ready to go on tour.

The showcase, along with the film and a booklet of my research is now on show in Loughborough at John Storer House. It’s there until 14th October and then has a couple of other venues in the county before it’s taken apart and the rosettes are returned to volunteers. You can also watch the film and download the booklet here. This is the last of a flurry of community projects I’ve been working on in 2021-22 but there will be more, in time. If you work for an organisation that would benefit from an artist-led project, please get in touch.


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.

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.