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Cultural Institutions Are Adopting New Practices

Many young employees of museums, art centres and galleries, libraries and publishing houses move up the career ladder fairly fast, yet workplace success comes at a cost, forcing them to work beyond normal hours and outside formal job descriptions. Nevertheless, employees of cultural institutions are prepared to make the extra effort to help their organisations survive, according to Margarita Kuleva, lecturer at the Department of Sociology, HSE campus in St. Petersburg.

Cultural production is a diverse business, and 'creative industries' (a term used by the renowned American economist and expert in urban studies Richard Florida—see, e.g., Florida R. The rise of the creative class. New York: Basic Books, 2002) operate in different ways, yet they all share a fundamental characteristic, whether in Russia or elsewhere in the world—a heavy reliance on external investment, public or private. In Russia, meagre public funding and underdeveloped private philanthropy both cause cultural organisations to struggle financially; Kuleva has been researching some of the strategies they use to survive.

She examined both ‘older’ cultural institutions, established in Soviet times and supported today mainly by local authorities, and ‘newer’ ones which sustain themselves, e.g. by selling advertising.

Kuleva has found that both types of institutions are likely to exploit the motivation and enthusiasm of younger employees—even more so the older institutions, where the age gap between newcomers and old-timers can be very wide. Such institutions often recruit and promote younger employees while gradually reducing their older workforce and abandoning some of the long-established practices, such as fixed working hours, social security provisions and long-term employment contracts. Kuleva summarised her findings in the paper Wearing a Shock Collar: Young Employees of New and Old Cultural Institutions in the Workplace published in The Journal of Social Policy Studies, no. 2, 2015.

Kuleva’s paper is based on data from the study A Creative City: Reformatting the Public Space, conducted in St. Petersburg between 2012 and 2014.

Kuleva analysed 25 in-depth interviews with employees of cultural institutions, including ten respondents from ‘old’ institutions, such as public libraries, museums, film studios, a creative union, a cultural centre and art centres—all financed by the either district or city authorities, and 15 respondents from 'new' institutions, such as multipurpose cultural venues (combining a theatre, exhibition space, studio and café), art galleries, a bookstore and publishing house, a cultural centre, a theatre, a dance studio and an urban design centre; 19 of the 25 respondents were women aged 25 to 30.

Bohemian Freedom Replaced by Industry Rules

Cultural production has become a focus of media attention both in Russia and worldwide, as creative professions are perceived as representing the neo-liberal 'new world of work' where an individual’s life path is not restricted to just one occupation, and  long-term jobs are replaced by 'intermittent' forms of employment. In addition to that, creative industries are seen by many as an important resource for urban development.

However, available jobs in creative industries rarely fit the outdated stereotype of 'bohemian freedom', and creative workers often face problems such as unpaid overtime and unstable employment.

In fact, some experts today describe creative work as a form of entrepreneurship characterized by blurred boundaries between work and leisure (e.g. networking during social events), high competition, short-term employment contracts and unequal distribution of resources ('stars' vs. most others).

While Careers Go Uphill, Work Conditions Worsen

According to many respondents from both 'old' and 'new' cultural institutions, they started work as undergraduates, the only apparent difference being that in the former case the university referred the undergraduate to their prospective employer, while in the latter case they found the job independently.

Their careers began in a similar way—young interns or volunteers were quickly promoted to higher positions—one respondent reported being promoted from a receptionist to deputy director within just one year. However, their career advancement often came at a cost.

According to Kuleva, in both types of institutions, promotion is usually associated with poorer working conditions, larger workloads, and an increased personal responsibility for the cultural product—in other words, both types of employers tend to take advantage of younger employees' enthusiasm to get them to go beyond their job descriptions and normal working hours.

As young and enthusiastic employees get promoted, they often cause an overall attitude change in the workplace, making it impossible for others to slack off. One respondent, manager of a creative union, described the change as a workplace revolution, saying that before her arrival, "a few women were just sitting there having tea from morning till the end of day... doing nothing. I hired younger staff, trained them and we started working together as a team." Thus, within just a few months, she got promoted and changed the way things worked in her organisation.

The new employees replacing old-timers in art galleries, museums, publishing houses and other similar institutions are prepared to take on additional responsibilities; in fact, the same job title may mean different functions, depending on whether the organisation has updated its style of operation.

New Employees Take on Multiple Responsibilities

While 'older' institutions often rely on government for funding, 'newer' cultural centres depend on being popular and attracting advertisers and sponsors. It explains the difference between the two groups of respondents in term of their job responsibilities.

Respondents from 'older' institutions financed by government report spending considerable time and effort on red tape and having to combine cultural production with bureaucratic procedures. In contrast, employees of 'newer' organisations have to focus more on public relations, advertising, crowdsourcing, and dealing with household tasks such as repairs.

Thus, in both cases employees of cultural institutions have to do things which are formally outside their job descriptions, due mostly to limited budgets and understaffing.

Illusory Flexibility

While both groups of respondents mention 'flexible work schedules', this term appears to mean different things to different people and includes descriptions such as ‘fixed start time and flexible end time’; ‘eight-hour workday with flexible start time’ and even ‘flexible workday lasting ten hours or so’. In many cases, what the respondents describe as a flexible working schedule effectively means unscheduled overtime allowing the employee only illusory flexibility.

In addition to that, 'flexible' work schedules come with increased emphasis on performance as opposed to time spent in the workplace; as a result, work tends to consume the rest of the employee’s life, according to Kuleva.

Thus, many respondents are forced to take their work home and describe working on holidays, weekends and even at night, taking fewer hours of sleep. One respondent, founder of a creative cluster, reported often spending nights at the office and being woken up by business phone calls. However, respondents rarely see it as an issue affecting their rights as employees.

Another respondent employed by a publisher reported what Kuleva describes as a 'dual normative framework' where the employee is required to start and finish work on time (she admits lacking self-discipline and being sometimes late for work) and to maintain a certain performance standard which determines her pay.

According to Kuleva, whether or not employees of cultural institutions are offered a social security package has limited impact on their performance. Those working for 'older' institutions often see the entitlements that come with their job as a mere formality and rarely insist on working the exact number of hours prescribed by their employment contract; similarly, in 'newer' organisations where good performance determines survival employees are even less likely to demand their rights.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, August 21, 2015