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Career: When Should You Work for Free?
Here are some things to consider before saying "yes".
Career 15 Feb 2022


The creative industries are known for their issue with unpaid labour. The art world is particularly guilty of this. In ‘There’s No Way That You Get Paid to Do the Arts’, Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien, and Mark Taylor revealed that 47% of under-30s in their survey of people working in the arts had done at least one unpaid internship during their career.

The assumption that everyone “has to” work for free for a while to establish themselves, means that only those who can afford to go unpaid get to climb the career ladder. Why do you think so many artists have family who work in the art world, or why so many famous actors went to Eton? They’re independently funded, meaning they can afford to work at a white cube gallery for a year for a £5 lunch budget per day, or have a go at having an acting career and if it goes badly they can just join the Family Firm anyway.

We think that is total BS, and that galleries/museums/publications shouldn’t advertise for positions they can’t appropriately pay someone to do. Unfortunately, that’s just not the world we live in – yet.

So, are there times you can justify working for no payment? Here are some things to consider before saying “yes” to giving your time, skills, and effort to unpaid work:

Will this boost your profile / make you contacts?

Sometimes it might be worth doing a non-paid job / gig for the promotion it will give you and your brand. Maybe it’s worth writing that article for a company’s newsletter that goes out to 1000s of people, which will include your name, biography, and picture. Or perhaps that short internship at a gallery will mean you make industry contacts.

Will this rule you out from taking on a different, paid/more interesting opportunity?

There is nothing worse than being trapped in a non-paid obligation that means you have to turn down something that is paid, interesting, and better for your career. Is this going to take up all of your time? Maybe it’s a “no” this time.

Will this add to your portfolio? Does your portfolio need adding to?

If you’re a budding journalist, writing articles for free that are going to be published on professional-looking sites or publications might be worth it to get your portfolio started and build up your reputation. If you’re a young artist, maybe you should agree to paint that small mural for free, because it’ll be an example of large-scale work that you otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do.

Will this lead to a *guaranteed* paid position?

Perhaps you’re an aspiring curator, and this unpaid internship is going to act like a probabation period with the gallery who have said that they can offer you paid work straight after. You will definitely want to get this in writing, but the future prospects could outweigh the difficult financial position the internship has put you in temporarily.

Is the company one you want to support?

It might be that the free work you’re being asked to do is for a charity you love, or for a dear friend who needs a favour. If you can take the financial strain and can spare your time, then maybe you can forget your day rate just this once.

Will you have any rights over what you produce for the company?

Get. Your. Rights. In. Writing. If you’re going to work for a company for free – especially one you might not know too much about – make sure they’re not going to screw you over down the line in regards to your intellectual property rights / your ability to share the work you’ve done for them. If you’re not even going to be allowed to add photos of what you’ve worked on to your portfolio, or add it as a line on your CV, it’s probably got to be a hard “no” to this “opportunity”.

Author: Verity Babbs

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