Lyn Gardner: Where are the opportunities for self-exploiting support staff after the fringe is over?
As we head into the final weekend of the fringe, artists will be totting up their gains and losses. Some will have done well – well enough to offset the exhaustion and the debts – and the fringe will have given them the opportunities they dreamed of when they filled in their fringe registration form earlier in the year.
But there is a whole army of people without whom those artists could not have done what they’ve done, mustered the audiences, maybe won awards, and perhaps got the chance of a tour or a residency and on-going relationship with a venue. These people don’t just support artists, but also the venues who are here scouting for talent.
They are the support staff: the box office staff, the arts industry and press and flyering teams on whom the whole tottering edifice of the fringe is built and without whom artists cannot find success. And the question that must be asked is: where are the onward opportunities for these people without whom the fringe would not exist once the festival is over?
In the wake of the Fair Fringe campaign and before the start of the festival I talked with the Pleasance’s Anthony Alderson about the venue’s use of volunteers. He made the point that only three of the Pleasance’s full-time staff did not come through the volunteer route and that paying everyone would mean adding about £5 to each ticket sold, which would have a direct impact for artists.
But as I wrote earlier in the year: “It is one thing for an artist to willingly self-exploit, but it is quite another for success to be built on the exploitation of those working for venues in non-creative roles during the festival.”
It may have been the case that for previous generations a month on no or low pay during the festival was indeed a way of advancing a career in the arts. They could look on it as an investment in the same way that artists invest by paying to play in Edinburgh during the festival.
But I know a number of people working in support roles who have done so over several years but still find it hard to move onto any better-paid role in the arts. So they keep coming back to the fringe, keep gaining more experience but never graduate into to full-time, living-wage employment in the arts. And its not because they are rubbish at their jobs.
They continue to self-exploit, they do not complain when asked to work long hours with no days off because they need the reference to gain further employment – and in any case they often feel a huge obligation to the artists whose work they are supporting so they always go the extra mile. They also know that coming up behind them is another influx of new graduates who are all hungry for experience and still labouring under the illusion that working for nothing in Edinburgh during August is an assured stepping stone to a decent career in the arts.
But even if they do manage to graduate into full-time, year-round work in the arts it is often in low-paid, minimum-wage, zero-hours contracts as front-of-house staff, box-office and press and marketing roles. This is not just an Edinburgh issue: it’s a much wider problem. The industry makes a great song and dance about valuing artists, so why does it treat those without whom the artists cannot do their jobs with so little regard?
I reckon there are very good reasons why the turnover of those in press and marketing positions in many of our institutions is so high. There is a talent drain, with people who love the arts with a passion leaving to go into other industries where they are valued more, treated better, their opinions listened to, and they are paid more. And they don’t get bullied – something that seems to happen a lot when those further up the organisation hold press officers responsible for what journalists write.
A great press officer is worth their weight in gold and brings a huge amount of contacts, social capital, good will and expertise to an organisation. The job is about so much more than just handing out tickets to Quentin Letts.
I think that it’s time that we acknowledged this and recognise that while artists can be vocal about the conditions in which they are asked to make art, if those who work in PR roles talk about the injustices and inequalities they face, it is seen by the industry as career-ending disloyalty.
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