THE BLOG

Are the Arts Too 'Middle Class'?

01/12/2015 16:53 GMT | Updated 30/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The arts are returning to the province of white, middle class men. This is the common hunch that was confirmed on Monday of this week in a report on diversity in and access to the arts by an industry organisation.

Create, who carried out their study in conjunction with Goldsmiths University, reported on a number of worrying findings, such as the fact that the vast majority of those surveyed (76%) grew up with at least one parent in a 'middle class' (managerial or professional) job, and that over half also had a parent with a degree whilst growing up.

Throughout the report, in fact, is evidence that the arts, cultural and media industries have many entrenched barriers for working class people, women, and/or Black African or Minority Ethnic (BAME) people who are interested in arts careers. A remarkable 88% of respondents reported working for free at some point in their career. Even once paid, women still earn less than men in the sector. And, finally, a significant - 20% - discrepancy was reported between the perceptions of ethnicity as a barrier to access when white people and BAME people are asked; white people are far less likely to regard it as significant to their access.

These forms of inaccessibility in the arts are only exacerbated by internships: a form of ambiguous labour that is increasingly mandatory for those entering many sectors, such as the arts, in the last half decade or so and that all too often requires institutional or familial financial support. As the High Fliers 2015 graduate employment report tells us: 'recruiters have confirmed that a third of this year's entry-level positions will be filled by graduates who have already worked for their organisations' as interns, on placements, or on vacation stints.

There are a number of reasons internships are exacerbating inequality of access to various sectors, including the arts. In particular, as many campaigns and reports have covered, many internships are unpaid; as Alan Milburn noted in a 2012 report on fair access to professions, 63% of cultural and creative internships, and 56% of media-related ones (as advertised on the Graduate Talent Pool website) were unpaid. And, whilst the landscape has changed somewhat, unpaid internships still occupy a significant role in the creative industries. Create reports that 32% of the women and 23% of the men surveyed stated they had done unpaid internships.

These internships are not, unfortunately, helping people to overcome barriers and experience new industries. Instead, as IPPR's research is finding, internships are often as inaccessible and lacking in diversity as entry-level jobs. This is particularly the case for those who don't already have the privileges associated with easy entry into the labour market. These groups, such as those who are working class, BAME, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT), disabled, non-Londoners, and/or women, struggle with access to both entry level jobs and internships in many sectors. We interviewed one person who spoke of needing prior experience to get temporary, unpaid experience working at a gallery. Another interviewee described being "fired" for requesting half a day off an unpaid internship at a cultural industry workplace in order to do paid work. And a number of young women explained to us how they struggled with confidence issues that their male peers never appeared to confront.

It cannot pass unnoted in this context that the 30% cuts to the budget of the Arts Council (England) implemented between 2010 and 2015, alongside the likely further cuts to be announced in the Spending Review on Wednesday 25th, significantly worsen the pressures in the arts to reduce costs. It is likely that this is partially what drives the sector's tendency towards using interns as a source of unpaid labour.

Rather than helping improve access to and diversity within competitive sectors, such as the arts, internships currently risk perpetuating existing inequalities in these sectors. We need to repurpose internships so that they improve access and diversity to sectors such as these. Looking towards certain, more exemplary sector practices, such as Channel 4's '360° Diversity Charter,' which is making serious efforts to enshrine diversity at every level on and off screen, we can see the ways that employers can take action. It is vital that action is taken together by employers, policymakers and campaigners to ensure that internships become an opportunity to facilitate access to desirable jobs, rather than letting internships become yet another barrier.