February 27, 2018

Top 40: Graduates kick start careers to challenge inequality in UK arts organisations

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The 40 outstanding graduates, all from low income backgrounds, officially start year-long paid placements with arts organisations to kick start their careers in the sector, nurture their leadership talent and help catapult them into senior positions traditionally dominated by graduates from more privileged backgrounds.

They are part of the Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries programme to promote fairness and opportunity for graduates from low income backgrounds amidst what the Social Mobility Commission calls ‘left-behind Britain’ and publication of Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Equality and Diversity report.

The UK’s arts sector has traditionally recruited staff via unpaid internships which penalise graduates from low income backgrounds who cannot afford to work for nothing. Surveys reveal that more than 75% workers hail from middle income backgrounds and almost 90% of staff have had to work for free at some point in their careers.

Jerwood Arts Director Lilli Geissendorfer said: “The tradition of unpaid internships has for too long meant that UK arts organisations don’t reflect the diversity of their audiences or artists. The Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries are about creating a level playing field and empowering a new generation of graduates from low-income backgrounds to claim the arts for themselves. We know it can work because alumni of the programme are already securing significant roles in leading arts organisations and a majority of organisations are changing their recruitment practices after being involved in the programme.”

Recent evaluation of the programme’s second edition, which completed in 2016, shows that:

  • 60% of host employers extended contracts with placements, or made them permanent, once the year-long placement ended.
  • 98% of hosts were considering ways in which they can target future job opportunities towards low income graduates.

Alumni are attaining significant senior positions across the arts. They have gone on to become: Executive Director of Chisenhale Dance Space in Tower Hamlets, London; Artistic Director of Birmingham’s Fierce Festival; Curator at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester; Producer with the English Touring Theatre and Classical Music Programme Manager for the British Council.

The programme’s insistence on paying a living wage is encouraging host organisations to increase the salaries of existing staff to ensure fairness across the board.

Hosts in this third edition include the Turner Contemporary, Liverpool Biennial and Sage Gateshead – as well as smaller scale arts organisations – and represent 13 of the most disadvantaged areas identified by the Social Mobility Commission. Some of the graduates will also get experience of working in the arts internationally through a partnership with the British Council, new to this third edition.

Graduates who applied for the programme must have received a full maintenance grant throughout university. Those selected are paid according to the Living Wage Foundation’s recommended salary, with host organisations paying 25% of the placement’s wage, and the remaining 75% coming from the bursary fund.

The 40 graduates joining the programme include:

Lauren Walsh. Lauren has wanted to work in theatre since seeing the Fringe whilst at university in Edinburgh and has landed a placement at the other end of the country, working as Production Assistant at Theatre Royal Plymouth. She says: ‘I have some experience working within arts organisations, but as I have been unable to afford to volunteer for long I have not gained the depth of knowledge or skills that I am hoping for. This opportunity is exactly what I have been looking for.’’ Lauren is recording her placement experiences at www.laurenwalshblog.wordpress.com

Chris Lloyd. Chris has been taken on as a Social Media Assistant at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, after proving his passion for communication with an incredible video setting out his application. He says: “Growing up in various council estates, I always thought that ‘The Arts’ were for other people and unobtainable to me. There were no resources where I lived and little opportunity to go further afield to see anything. I took a huge risk of leaving a full time job in retail to attend University to study film. This role is an invaluable opportunity for me.”

Mandeep Glover. Mandeep is swapping work as a receptionist at Mercedes Benz to become Resident Assistant Director at Curve Theatre, Leicester. She said: “I wish to play a leading role in the development of diversity in the industry on a national scale as it is a topic that has affected me a great deal as a member of the British South Asian community and being from a lower socio-economical background. Mandeep is documenting her placement:  https://mandeepstheatreblog.wordpress.com

Jonny Goode. Former BT Customer Sales Advisor Jonny Goode is working on delivery of the 2019 Turner Prize in his new role as Audience Development Assistant at Turner Contemporary, Margate. He said: “Attempting to enter the arts workplace since graduating has been extremely difficult and opportunities like these are few and far between. But by breaking down the socio-economic barriers that recent graduates like myself are facing, Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries grants us the opportunity to make an impact within the industry.”

Download the Policy Briefing, Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries Programme, 2017-19 


Chris Lloyd (still)