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.

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.