Professional Development Evening in collaboration with Cultural Enterprise Office, hosted at Stills.
Realising the value of Internships and Volunteer Programmes.
Tuesday 26th June
It’s no secret that Voluntary placements have gotten something of a bad reputaton over the past few years. The nature of rewarding voluntary work is surely based on the mutual exchange of knowledge, experience and support and this balance is sometimes difficult to maintain when times are hard and jobs are scarce. However, particularly in the creative industries, these placements provide some seriously valuable insight into how companies really run, as well as the opportunity to meet and work with highly qualified and knowledgeable people. Helpful, too, for many going through their post-grad Benjamin Braddock-in-The Graduate phase, where you want some meaningful direction, but don’t want to pin yourself down to a long term commitment. As obvious as it may sound, sometimes knowing what you don’t want is the gateway to finding what you do, and that’s one way in which volunteering can be its most meaningful- it gives you the time to reflect, yet still be proactive and learn.
In the spirit of this discussion, last Tuesday Stills gallery on Cockburn Street hosted an evening for those interested in learning more about the benefits of unpaid placements. Many of us there were either on such placements (like myself and Carly Shearer, Collective’s other Voluntary Projects Assistant), or had done them in the past, and were now working for organisations interested in knowing more and being part of the discussion. After introducing ourselves, Carol Sinclair of Cultural Enterprise Office (http://culturalenterpriseoffice.co.uk/website/) started things off, introducing our speakers and giving us some illuminating facts and figures relating to employment in the visual arts.
Unsurprisingly, both jobs and even voluntary positions relating to the arts in Scotland are dauntingly competitive. With 90% of those in the visual arts claiming to be self employed, it struck me that people in my position really need to educate themselves with some core business skills if they intend to nurture a future in the creative industries. A good wake up call, indeed.
Our first speaker was Kate Martin, now working freelance as a curator and arts educator, under the banner of Contemporary Art Exchange (http://contemporaryartexchange.org/). Kate, who has an MA in Museum studies and World Heritage studies, is originally from Australia. Now located primarily in Edinburgh, she spoke to us about the many curatorial projects and self-motivated ventures she undertook whilst holding down paid jobs in order to expand and cultivate her growing interest in curation. She mentioned at one point working a seven-day week to support her interning. Taking a big swig of beer, I thought to myself how insane that sounded, and how long and difficult a journey it can be. However, Kate was pragmatic as well as enthusiastic, explaining that it was only for a limited period and how many of her most exciting opportunities arose through chance encounters whilst in such roles.
At this point Iain MacLachlan, a HMRC representative, contributed some practical advice, addressing questions on paying tax, National Insurance, tax credits, claiming benefits and how this affects the above. He also enthused about the business link website (http://businesslink.gov.uk), a resource which gives support and information relating starting up and improving businesses.
Next, we heard from Rachel Adams. Rachel is full time visual artist – always an encouraging thing to hear – with an MA in Fine Art, as well as co-founder of Leith-based gallery and studios Rhubaba (http://www.rhubaba.org/ - great website, by the way). She has recently worked at ECA, getting paid to be a digital media assistant but, like Kate, she had previously done a massive amount of labour-of-love type work, with the set up of Rhubaba itself being a mammoth mental and physical undertaking. She brought up the fact that one of the most over-looked parts of interning is the opportunity to improve your practical skills, whether building your studio from scratch or teaching yourself to make a website. She also emphasised how important it is to know when to stop volunteering – when you feel like you’re not learning anything or your heart’s not in it, she said, it’s time to move on.
What struck me overall was a sense that there is no definitive ‘route to success’ with volunteering. There is frustratingly little you can do about the issue of funding yourself through a period of voluntary work (seen as many as a sort of ‘luxury’ when, really, you have little choice most of the time and have to work hard to do it). Having said that, it seems there is a lot you can take control of- such as the opportunities you follow up, the connections you sustain afterwards and the way you choose to interact with whichever organisation you’re working for. The Holy grail of paid employment in an area you love is rarely found through placements alone but from listening to Kate and Rachel, it seems like you greatly increase your ‘luck’ factor by getting stuck in and trying things out. The evening as a whole was a really interesting and positive look at a subject that draws some skepticism, and sharing individuals’ own experiences proved a really good way to structure a useful and inspiring discussion.
Many thanks to Stills, for beer and hospitality, and to the speakers, of course!