For many, a career in the arts seems an unattainable dream. The industry is famously competitive and opportunities to work in it are rare. In other industries, getting a paid internship is a great way to get the experience needed to kickstart a career, but in the arts this is virtually impossible. Organisations often cannot afford to pay interns, meaning people are discouraged from pursuing their passion.
Throughout the UK, arts funding has been a massive issue for years. Arts organisations struggle to cover the cost of their permanent staff, often downsizing in order to pay fairly, and volunteers are relied upon to do much of the ‘front of house’ work. When opportunities are made available, they are unpaid and therefore only accessible to those who can afford to fund several weeks working in an organisation, often based in large cities.
For many, a career in the arts seems an unattainable dream
Funding is an even greater issue in regional theatre, where it would be far cheaper to stay for several weeks. The lack of funding in regional theatre means that most internships are based in large cities, especially London, where living costs are significantly more than other UK cities. This creates a real issue for those who cannot afford to fund the several weeks required to complete an internship. The arts become dominated by people whose families can afford to support them, or by people who live in these cities already. How are people from low-income families expected to pursue a passion when lack of funding means they are being driven away?
When internships are paid, organisations often state these opportunities are only available to individuals from a lower-income background. The aim behind these internships is to diversify the arts – organisations are slowly recognising the class divide present in the industry. These internships, often offered as a training placement, are a fantastic way to gain experience, but they are almost mythical, appearing only for a lucky few. And with the volume of applications these organisations undoubtedly receive, it is very difficult even to get the internship in the first place.
The arts become dominated by people whose families can afford to support them
From my own experience, placements and internships are a hugely beneficial experience and made me realise pursuing a career in the arts was something I was interested in. I’m from a relatively small town, about two hours away from Birmingham. There’s only one theatre there. Opportunities for internships are therefore limited, and travelling to Birmingham by train would cost almost £30 for a return each day. Travelling to Cardiff is about the same, London would be unthinkable.
For a module last year, I had to complete a placement which was worth 50% of my module. I ended up returning to my home theatre where, as a former member of their youth theatre, I was lucky enough to get a placement. My position was unpaid and, while I found the experience beneficial, I realise how lucky I was to be able to get a placement there. It was only through living in the town that I was able to afford getting unpaid work experience.
With the limited opportunities being taken up by people from high-income backgrounds, the stories that matter to many will be forgotten
But this was for a module. Would I have been able to get a placement simply for experience? I’m not so sure.
The real issue here lies in the way the government has, historically, handled arts funding. The arts are treated as second best, when science and technology can provide sustainable investment in the UK. Ultimately this lack of funding is damaging the arts. We often see the arts as an opportunity to tell stories about people just like us, but with the limited opportunities being taken up by people from high-income backgrounds, the stories that matter to many will be forgotten.
The only way to get a career in the arts, ultimately, is to have a real passion and determination to do whatever it takes. Funding, in an ideal world, should be made available to all arts organisations to support internships. But until then there are opportunities available while at university which can make unpaid internships more viable. Bursaries are available, making an internship less financially daunting. Finding the right opportunity is hard, but there is help available while you’re at university and it is worth investigating the funding available to you.