Fine arts’ expectation of free work a cultural problem

As a theater major and film studies concentrator, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I would like to work professionally in those fields. But what might be more surprising is that despite all the experience I have accrued in both mediums, it was not until this past summer (going into my senior year) that I had ever been paid for my creative work: doing film work for a CURI project and assistant directing at the Northfield Arts Guild.

Or is that actually surprising? It seems to be taken as a given that artists are expected to work for free until a while into their careers, moreso than in many other fields. Though many people attribute this to the highly competitive nature of these fields, I think that it has more to due with practices that have become normalized and facilitated by the culture of these professions.

It’s not like other fields aren’t also competitive. I have heard many friends fretting about their prospects for highly sought-after internships. And, to be fair, many of these positions are also unpaid. But it seems to me that the expectation of unpaid labor is slightly different in the arts. It seems ingrained in the culture that young artists should not value their own work.

In a lot of artistic fields, particularly theater, there is a lot of division between the creative side of the work and the economic side. I think that this is often exploited to teach creative types to not expect to be compensated for their work and to be prostrate themselves in gratuity to anyone who merely allows them to practice their craft.

This culture can also be hazardous to the safety of young artists. In an environment where one has to work job after job for little-to-no-pay essentially until someone recommends them for a decently compensated position, it can be really difficult to say no to projects that seem more dangerous than one is comfortable with.

The romanticized notion of the starving artist doesn’t help at all with this problem. When you think about it, it’s actually really bizarre how normal it is for even the most skilled young artists to expect to make barely enough to get by, if even that.

And since unpaid or underpaid work is such a normalized practice not just on a corporate level, but also in the expectations of the artistic community, it is a really tough issue to solve. How can we convince artistic institutions to start spending extra money for work that most folks are prepared to do for free even if that goes against their best interests?

It’s also tricky to deal with this issue in an educational environment. It’s not too difficult for faculty to help their students finesse their creative skills, but how can they teach them to function in the professional world in a way that’s financially sustainable? On the technical side, students hoping to gain hands-on experience with lights, sound or set design while making money can do so working on light crew or in the scene shop. But when student performers are expected to spend upwards of 20 hours a week working on a show, the idea of them seeing a dime would be scoffed at. Where is the line between who gets paid and who doesn’t? And I’m not necessarily trying to argue that student actors have to be paid or that shop workers shouldn’t, but when some people on a production are getting paid and some aren’t, it certainly sends a message.

Obviously, an educational institution can’t just start paying everyone because it is not a professional environment. But perhaps there can be more stress or even a class that teaches students how to reasonably assess the value of their work and how to apply that to a healthy professional career.

But even then, we still run into the issue that many arts employers are not used to paying their low-level employees, and it’ll be difficult to make that change happen. But at the very least, we can try to change the culture so that young artists aren’t obliged to feel immeasurably grateful to be permitted to work for free.

Fine arts students should be able to feel that their internships are something they earned, not some magical gift they happened to be randomly granted.

Chaz Mayo ’18 ( is from Rice Lake, Wis. He majors in theater and medieval studies.