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.

My Creative Retreat

What I learned from taking a week out to just be an artist again

It makes me laugh when I get comments saying how nice it must be just to stitch all day in my lovely studio. I think it would be nice too, but that isn’t quite the reality of making a living from my creative practice. I spend 90% of my working hours online and sometimes it feels like 90% of my entire life in front of the computer! Time spent actually making stuff with my hands is only a small part of what I do. But I’m not saying that to make you feel sorry for me. I chose this working life and on the whole it suits me. I love the work I do on the computer from 1:1 mentoring to writing resources for my Maker Membership to recording the Making Meaning podcast to writing blog posts like this. It’s all creative practice and it’s all stuff I love but I also love the artist studio bit too. It’s all too easy for that to get squeezed out by the challenges of making a living, delivering projects and running a complex multi-stranded business pretty much singlehandedly.

Moving house last year and settling into my new studio has proved to be an excellent decision. The new space is inspiring and I have access to country walks within minutes of my home which really helps me with thinking and reflecting on my creative work. I haven’t however, got into a good routine of using this space for making / studio work on a regular basis. I have only just over the last 6 months or so got back into making new work after lockdowns which sapped pretty much all of my creativity.

I’m winding up a lot of projects at the moment and looking forward to the autumn and winter of getting back to some things of my own that have been on pause for far too long – a book I planned in 2018 for a start – and finishing off several pieces and groups of work that have been waiting for me. To kickstart this I took myself on an artists retreat in early September and I’m going to share a bit more about that and why it worked so well for me.

A few years ago I started taking a few days in autumn or winter to reflect, focus on my practice and basically get away from the computer for few days. It seems like a real indulgence, spending money to go somewhere else to do what I could be doing in my own studio. And yes it is, in some ways, but also it is an acknowledgement that my artist practice doesn’t get the attention it deserves in an average week. Also I tell myself, I have a home studio so I am not paying rent for it every month, so I can save it up and go away for a few days of space to think and work.

Drawing and printing materials, plus cups of tea set out on a table, one pair f hands with sketchbook
Gillian’s printing and drawing set up outside

This time I invited my long-time friend and collaborator Gillian McFarland to join me. We used to share a studio in Leicester but she now lives back in Scotland so we met in the middle, near Barnard Castle. We also co-mentor each other so have really got to explore our practice together in the last few months so this was a perfect time to reflect and get moving with some new things.

Collection of found objects and natural materials including acorns and old broken pottery, feathers and twigs
Our nature table and found items

We walked and talked, gathered and drew. We did some printing and some natural dyeing and lots of reflecting on our own practices and where we were going. There was lots of reading and sharing ideas, and listening and suggesting.

I made a start on some ideas that have been brewing for years, stitched paths on fragments of cloth and printed paths on lino.

Long narrow textile with fine pink stitched line along the length, displayed on a rugged stone wall
Stitched paths in thread
Black and white artist prints laid on a table. Prints are wiggly lines travelling across the print plate.
Experimental prints

I also visited a lot of medieval sites, churches, abbeys, castles – returning to my roots as a medievalist! This has been a powerful reminder of just how much I want to revisit with the eyes of an artist rather than an academic history student.

I did two research visits to museum collections as well, looking at corded quilting which was absolute heaven! And spent some time just browsing for fun at the Bowes Museum. Museum browsing is probably my top choice for inspiration and idea-nurturing.

Broken roman and medieval pottery display from the Bowes Museum
Broken roman and medieval pottery display from the Bowes Museum

So what have I learned from this trip?

  • Creativity needs space to thrive. I can find that space at home in a normal busy week but allowing myself the space to expand into a bigger creative space was really useful
  • Time to think and reflect is fundamental.
  • Talking to someone about your practice helps you figure things out yourself
  • There’s always a lot of unknown with creative practice. You have to learn to be comfortable with not knowing if what you do will be good or useful or what you intended.
  • Experimenting and releasing some of the self-imposed restrictions on what you do can be joyful as well as scary
  • And I learned that the ideas that are bubbling away under the surface need to rise up and get the attention they deserve, whether or not they turn out to be good.

So that’s what I’m doing over the next few months. Allowing my creative practice some space. Pausing and ending some projects to allow the capacity for some others – my podcast is pausing over the autumn and will restart some time in the new year and my community projects are all coming to an end. I’m going to try spending one day a week properly focussing in my studio and not turning the computer on at all. I am going to take drawing and writing out on my walks and do a lot more visiting inspiring places and just see what happens.

Cloth scraps and threads in beige and purple dyed with natural dyes
Cloth scraps and threads dyed with foraged natural dyes during the week

If you would like some support and nurturing of your creative practice, wherever you are in your career, I would love to help. I really do love mentoring, being trusted to travel alongside a creative journey and help you figure things out. I would love to grow this side of my work and help more people so I have created some new mentoring package – 3 or 6 months of 1:1 support via monthly Zoom calls. You can find out more here. If 1:1 isn’t right for you at this time, you might like to look at my Maker Membership which is by far the most affordable way to work with me and get feedback on your creative practice, as well as be part of a supportive community. And finally, my Find Your Focus course runs in January – this is a development from my Gentle Goal Setting workshops / workbook which involves reflection, finding your own criteria for success and creating guiding light principles and activities which will take you 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.

Gentle Goal Setting Course for creatives

Reviewing the year and gentle planning for creative practice in 2022

It’s hard to see the wood for the trees at the moment. It’s hard to focus on keeping your creative practice thriving when the world is chaos. The last couple of years have been really rough for small businesses and creatives. I truly believe that it’s much easier when you can by find and focus on what matters to you and create goals that are gentle, manageable and nurturing to your creative spirit, whether you run a business or not.

Last year I shared my ways of gently reviewing the past year and making plans for this year. You can read my posts about my own goal setting here and here. I’m doing this again for 2022 and invite you to give yourself the space and time to reflect and plan with gentleness too.

My approach is built around self-compassion and taking your energy into account, not just focussing on finances and big leaps. Tiny steps are enough.

This winter’s Gentle Goal Setting comprises a self-study workbook full of supportive thinking exercises about celebrating your achievements (however small they may seem), looking at your values and what is most important to you. Through working through my exercises, you will be able to create create realistic and meaningful goals for the new year. It’s suitable for for artists / makers / writers / creative businesses / freelancers (and anyone aspiring to be one of those in 2022) who want to take a reflective look back over what you have learned and how you can grow and develop in a gentle and mindful way.

This is Kate’s feedback from last year’s Gentle Goal Setting

I have worked for myself for over twenty years and have been stuck in the trap of setting myself ridiculous goals, having unrealistic expectations of what I can achieve  “when I set my mind to it” and being hard on myself when I don’t tick everything off my list or have unproductive days. Working with Ruth on the Gentle Goals Setting course has really helped me to look at what I’m doing from the point of view of an observer, accept and celebrate how much I actually achieve and realise that setting more realistic goals and factoring in time for longer breaks, more time off and room for days when I just don’t feel like working has actually made me more productive and happier. I now have the workbook and tools to help me re-assess in the future when I am feeling unbalanced and make changes that will nurture me as a creative person and feel happier and healthier with space for things other than work. I can highly recommend it.

Kate Unwin, The Moon and The Furrow, 2021 Gentle Goals Participant

I’m revising Gentle Goal Setting for this year, with new exercises and adaptations following feedback from last years participants. Firstly I am running this in January instead of December so you can get this year out of the way first! The workbook is now suitable for anyone who wants to set goals for their creative practice / business and / or life, not just those running a business. There’s a live session at 5pm GMT Monday 10th January for two hours and a repeat on Monday 17th January at 12pm. These sessions will be recorded so you can catch up afterwards. There will also be a community chat space for you to share with other participants about your own gentle goals work.

The course is open for the whole of January too if you prefer self-study without taking part in the live session. If there’s interest from participants, we will also book in a follow up later in the year to see how we are all getting on with our own goals.

I’m also adding in ongoing 1:1 email support from me during set hours throughout January.

I will guide you through my review process in a live online workshop, then give you a workbook for quiet, slow reflection on your own creative journey. This will take you from reviewing the year to working out some goals about how you want to feel about your business / practice.