When do we protest?

Posted: 20/12/2013 in free archaeology, resistance
Tags: , , , , ,

Lorna Richardson (@lornarichardson) summarised the Malvern Gazette‘s news, ‘62% funding cut to archaeology service, increased use of volunteers to fill gaps [and Worcestershire County Council explicitly ‘wants to recruit a team of volunteers to make up for scrapping some paid positions‘]. When do we protest?

[The Council for British Archaeology’s produced an explanatory briefing note (PDF). Comments should be sent to FutureFit@worcestershire.gov.uk by the 13th of January 2014.]

Any reasonable person will share the energy-sapping concerns of the Time Walk Project (@Timewalkproject): ‘Will protest make a difference? Has anything done by present Government given you hope that they care about heritage?’ But as Lorna insisted, she’s ‘not going down without a fight‘, and none of us should, because we are all in the waiting-list-reducing queue for the queue for the wall.

‘How do they get away with that!?’

In the case of then unemployed geology graduate Cait Reilly being forced out of volunteering at the Pen Museum and Learning Centre, and into workfare at Poundland, (possible archaeologist) Trenchfeet had queried, ‘Why can’t the muse[u]m pay a living wage?’ At least in the case of the Serpentine Galleries, it is clear that they can, and that they choose not to.

As lacerating arts commentator David Lee explains, the publicly-funded Serpentine displays art that ‘is hawked by the world’s wealthiest and most powerful shopkeepers, has its value maintained by salerooms who rig prices during glamorous soirées, is traded in by billionaire collectors who purport to like it but treat it merely as a secure commodity of exchange, and is endorsed using a new language [International Art English (IAE)] written by “international curators” no literate outsider can fathom’.

Though the Arts Council ‘screamed hourly’ about the 30% cut to its government funding and warned of ‘hard choices‘, it protected its own subsidy of the Serpentine. As state art institutions that are ‘bankrolling the already well supplied‘, the Heritage Lottery Fund contributes £3m a year and Arts Council England contributes £1.3m+ a year, to pay for the Serpentine’s running costs and exhibitions.

Between 2011 and 2012 alone, Director Julia Peyton-Jones’ earnings rose by about 60% to ‘between £140,000 and £150,000’; and her unlisted Co-Director Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s earnings rose by at least 45% to ‘within the range of £120,000 to £130,000’.

Yet the £4.3m+ of public funds could not be stretched to cover £12,875 for the co-director’s full-time research assistant to be a minimum-wage employee rather than a ‘volunteer‘, or £7,725 for any one of its part-time fundraisers to be paid themselves, or £5,150 for any one of the dogsbodies who organise, administer and deliver the public programmes for which the Serpentine is given the £4.3m.(1)

When I discussed this issue with an official in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), they exclaimed, ‘how do they get away with that!?’

They don’t necessarily…

People spread the word in social networks and social media (which is how I heard about it), organised and pressed the issue. For example, I tweeted (concerning) the Serpentine Galleries, the Future Interns’ action and workers’ ability to resist; and blogged about the exploitative and misleading Volunteer Research Assistant advert (for an administrative worker), and the other “opportunities” for volunteering/internship.

Obviously infinitely more effective, the Precarious Workers Brigade (PWB) and the Future Interns (and the Ragpickers?) decided to engage in direct action. They schemed, wrote to the galleries’ management, encouraged public participation and performed a Christmas-themed flashmob, ‘all we want for Xmas is pay’, where they presented visitors with annotated copies of the job advert on Christmas scrolls.

photo of Future Interns' direct action at the Serpentine Galleries

‘Our campaign took off more than we could ever have imagined’ (Future Interns, 14th December 2013)

(The protest coincided with SantaCon. ‘Half a dozen’ of the people in the photo were in the protest.)

The Serpentine wrote back twice, before the action to defend their exploitation of unpaid labour, after the action to concede defeat. ‘We take our responsibility as employers very seriously and this advertisement is not in line with our current terms on Volunteer placements.’

David Lee summarised the situation from the art clique’s perspective. ‘So who pays for the Serpentine? You do. Who is it for? Definitely not you. What is its purpose? Mind your own business.’ Or don’t. We can fight back. We can resist austerity, voluntarisation and free archaeology.


1: Volunteer, Public Programmes, Serpentine Galleries (Southwark Arts Forum e-bulletin, 19th November 2013)

Serpentine Galleries' job advert for public programme volunteers

Serpentine Galleries’ job advert for public programme volunteers

  1. […] the people doing it – find some damn money or the work doesn’t get done. Take a stand. There are others who will get on board. But for now, take this message to heart: if you use FreeArchaeology, then the Krampus is going to […]

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