Is London too expensive to maintain its cultural dominance?

London is the cultural capital of the world, a hub for young creative talent to come to, master their craft and make their name. However, is London at risk of losing its crown as a result of a seemingly endless rise in the cost of living? I spoke to three up and coming creative talents to get their take on London’s cultural future.

Alice; 21;  Curation Student at Central St Martins

Alice was attracted to the art world at an early age. However, it wasn’t her only option. Fluent in French and Spanish (with conversational Italian thrown in for good measure), languages was the main rival to her current artistic path. When asked why she chose art over languages, particular with respect to how notoriously hard a world it is to enter, she replied “I am embarking on a career in it because I love it, simple as that. The fact that it is hard to enter, and that it is incredibly poorly paid comes second place to that”.

Whilst she seemed unfazed by the financial obstacles of a career in the arts, she said that many of her classmates were likely to be lured to more profitable areas. The dark arts of Public Relations seem to be the most attractive alternative for financially minded art students, but other avenues included journalism, publishing and even law.

I asked Alice if recent rises in university fees and the sheer cost of living in London had impacted upon the social range of people attracted to art college. “Massively” was her response.”It’s very international, but everyone is rich…my school’s been joked of as an elaborate finishing school for middle class girls to finish themselves before they marry a banker”. Although this may be a slight exaggeration, it would appear to be true that top art colleges are most easily accessible to the privately educated. At the Courtauld Institute, for example, 41.5% of students come from independent schools. This problem is common amongst creative courses and institutions. 32.35% of those attending the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and 61.9% of those attending the Royal Academy of Music come from independent schools.

The problem is further exacerbated by the numerous unpaid, or lowly paid, internships those in the creative industries have to perform to earn their dues. Alice, currently working part time at the Natural History Museum, has had to work numerous lowly paid internships and work experience placements throughout her degree. And she’s not alone, “because there’s not a lot of entry points into curation, a lot of people just do years of unpaid internships after unpaid internships”. She added “after you’ve gone to this arts school where everyone is very privileged, then after that it’s fine for them because they can spend that time in London or Paris or Copenhagen or New York just doing unpaid internships for several years and being very comfortable doing that. For the people who can’t do that, after they’ve gone through there three years studying four years studying and their student debt, at the end of that they still have nothing to stand on because they can afford to do the unpaid internships”.

Like many other students in London, Alice has had to work throughout her degree. However, she doesn’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing.

“I also don’t think it’s just my university but it’s part of living in London, that it makes you think of what’s out there at the end of it…everyone I know in London, whatever they’re studying, they’ve always got one eye on the future. London is a harsh city and it makes you very realistic about what you might be capable of and what’s going to be against you when you graduate”.

For the past few years, arts funding has suffered savage cuts. In 2011, the Film Council was abolished and the Art Council’s budget was cut by almost 30%. London has not been immune to culture cuts. This year the English National Opera received a 29% cut in funding. However this doesn’t seem to be affecting arts students too much: “Oh there are loads of internships, because they are all unpaid”.

Contrary to what you might expect, Alice was not overwhelming against unpaid internships. She argued that they often allowed smaller galleries the chance to give genuine experience to young aspiring curators which they would not be able to do if they were forced to pay their interns.

“You always think when you think of unpaid internships that the horrible organisation, they’re carrying out this slave labour and they’re exploiting these poor students, but a lot of unpaid internships are offered by companies that are small and want to help someone but also need the help themselves and they just physically would not be able to have a paid intern and they’re not trying to exploit anyone, this is simply them trying to give an opportunity to someone – give them valuable work experience as opposed to just getting coffee, they’re actually going to give them challenging work”.

So what advice would Alice give her younger self? Would she still go into this world knowing what she knows now? “Definitely”. However, she would have to break a few home truths to her 18 year olf self, “You won’t get the authentic university experience that you thought you were going to get…I quite often don’t feel like a student, I look at my uni and everthing else as if it were a job already”. The most important message she has for her younger self, and indeed anyone entering the arts, was that you never know what the future will hold. “I’d never predicted that I’d be in this position four years ago, but it’s not a bad thing”.

Oli; 21; Freelance Art Director

Oli has been working in advert and music video production for the past three years. This essentially means acting as a dogsbody for every aspect of production. It can take years and years to get past this stage. However, Oli seemed to embrace this fact. He chose not to go to University and after three years of unsteady work he is arguably in a better position than someone who spent £27,000 on a degree.

“You have more than one route. With something like banking or more corporate, I imagine it’s very difficult to get a job with out getting the right degree first and then either applying for the job or knowing someone to be introduced toThe nice thing about this is experience can be as key as a degree, so I chose not to got to university and after 2/3 years of assisting and working in this business it’s starting to become more and more steady”.

Oli acknowledged that whilst he didn’t need a university degree, the film industry is quite a nepotistic world in which connections can be extremely valuable. “I can’t deny that the contacts I have have really helped me out, I have a lot of family in the business…but there are definitely ways of doing it without contacts”.

The film industry was always attractive to Oli, his family introduced him to the business and he had experience as a runner before he left school. He was not naive to the risks of going into such a competitive industry.

However, like Alice, he is not entirely certain on what the future will hold. “I think I have a plan”, he says nervously,  “so I like to think I have a general view on where my career is heading, but because I’m still young and a small fish in the business I haven’t shut my eyes to trying something I haven’t done yet because I might like it more”.

One thing that seems to be universal with young creative talent in London is that the future is unknown. Their careers could go in any direction, but they are very much at the mercy of trends and fashion.

Oli in particular emphasised that at the start of your career, young creatives are at the whim of whoever is giving them the next pay cheque.

“Be prepared to be called the evening before and have a job in the morning. I think the advice is the same as any other job, you just have to make yourself more valuable than those around you”.

Michael; 22; Actor

Michael was, by far, the most positive aspiring creative that I spoke to. As with the others, he acknowledged how expensive London was, but was clearly convinced that the benefits of living in London far outweighed the cost.

Michael left RADA three years ago, and has been gradually building his experience since. He has recently been cast in a production of Attempts On Her Life by Martin Crimp which will be showing at the Edinburgh Festival. He was doubtful whether he would have been able to achieve much and grow as an actor without living in London.

Part of the reasoning behind moving to London was the easy access to opportunities. As an actor networking, although a dirty word, is key and having a huge variety places to go and people to see makes it a thousand times easier. Being able to watch a show on a whim or book tickets to something that is just on your doorstep is invaluable, and can sometimes be taken granted.

I asked Michael if he was able to survive in London on the basis of acting alone: I received a firm “No!”

At least not at the moment! Ideally that will change very soon. It was one of the things that was hammered into me when I was training, that there is a very small percentage of actors that can live comfortably off acting alone. No matter how successful you are in monetary terms there will always a point when you are not working. When you are starting out you tend not to have capital to just live off so getting a ‘real’ job is not only important but entirely necessary.

So if actors cannot cannot afford to sustain themselves on acting alone, are they able to finance projects and plays themselves? Have cuts to arts funding made it harder for actors to gain experience? This questions received a firm “Definitely!”

Michael told me that when he and his friends have sought funding for various projects, the majority of the time they are unsuccessful. When they are successful, it is generally not the amount they were aiming for, or has to be focused on commercial rather than artistic success. As Michael said, “It’s sad but the biggest word in show-business, is business”.

Michael was far more positive about the state of arts education than Alice. Although Michael acknowledged that the rise in tuition fees may have had an impact on the number or type of people going to drama schools, this was not something that he had seen. Michael emphasised that actors know that their profession is unlikely to make them rich so “if money is the deciding factor in your decision to go on an art course it may not be the career for you!”

Conclusion

So what have we learned? Well, if you’re a young person in the creative arts, the start of your career is not going to be easy. You are going to need to do whatever you can for however little money is on offer, if any. But it doesn’t seem as though anyone in this world is particularly naive about it. It may narrow the demographic that feel they can afford to enter the arts, but to an extent that’s true for all professions. Life as a student is getting prohibitively expensive and, for most careers, a degree on its own is not enough to land a job.

However, what does seem unique to the arts and what will hit London hard is the lack of funding being made available. Cuts to arts funding has dramtically reduced the avenues for arts students and the number of students applying to arts courses if falling.

Those going into the creative sector know what it’s like better than anyone. They have seen the risks, they have seen the lack of financial backing, they have seen the years supplementing your income as a waiter, they have seen all this and they are still willing to enter this world. If anything, they embrace the fact that they are part of a profession that could lead anywhere and you don’t know what is coming from one day to the next.

Artists are used to a degree of suffering, perhaps its not them we should be worried about. As Michael said, “Yes. Living costs are high, as are house prices, but that doesn’t stop creative people creating”. But what does it say about a society when participation and enjoyment of the arts is the preserve of an elite few and not considered a public good? The financial crisis and London’s cost of living boom may not have priced out artists just yet, but it may have the potential to price out the public.

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