Working Conditions in Three Acts
A Call for Structural Change
Over the past ten years I have been working in the field of contemporary art in Germany and Turkey in recognized art spaces and established institutions. I have worked in different positions on various platforms, from being an intern to project coordinator and from curatorial assistant to curator. In 2010, shortly before I moved from Istanbul to Frankfurt to continue my studies, I had been working as coordinator of an artist-run non-profit gallery and as a contributor for a center-left daily newspaper in Istanbul. Apart from a number of internships, these two positions were my first professional experiences in my early twenties, right after university, where I could learn and experiment but also understand what it means to be a cultural worker. What these two positions had in common is that they did not offer me any type of contract before I started working. At the time I thought this was normal. The common sense thinking was that you should be happy to have found any job at all. On top of that, I was lucky to have found a job where I could learn and work on my own initiative with passion – so why would I speak up? After all, I was the one inexperienced enough to agree to work without a contract. After about a year I was considering working less to have more time for my studies and there were also other issues I was planning to communicate openly about to the artist group that ran the art space – my employers. After a few mobbing phone calls and texts I emailed them about my discontent, which led to my leaving. Whether I quit or got fired was never mutually and properly stated. Apparently, it didn’t have to be clarified since there was no official working contract.
For secular Turkish people, Europe is believed to have higher standards in basic human rights and proper living and working conditions. I thought that the working conditions would be fairer in Germany. They partially are, but the problem continues in various other forms. The level of abuse in the cultural sector is the same, but the ways in which it is handled are different – often subtler and more manipulative. I never forgot how I received my first contract in one of the most respected large-scale organizations in Germany. My research-based internship was coming to an end and I knew that they needed to hire people to coordinate the projects. The head of the department was satisfied with my work and she wanted to keep me on the team. One day, the CEO came to our office and asked me to come out to the corridor to talk to him privately. The first thing he said to me was “I heard that you want to stay.” How could I possibly respond as an international MA student who was thankful to get this internship, who could speak English and Turkish but almost no German and who had very little clue about working conditions in Germany? He already set the power tone. I got a contract with the lowest payment possible. For one year, I worked day and night to realize two main projects in this well-established and prominent art exhibition, worked closely with artists and curators and coordinated the project I was assigned from beginning till the end. At a certain point after working for some months and growing friendships with my German colleagues in the office, I realized that I was getting paid significantly less than they were, although our titles were all the same: Project Assistant. Perhaps that was because I was young, inexperienced or foreign – I didn’t know. A colleague advised me to talk to my boss, but we were already under high pressure as the grand exhibition opening was approaching and I didn’t want to add additional stress to anybody. Today, I would answer this white male CEO differently by saying, “True, I want to stay and I heard that you want to keep me, too.” I would negotiate for a fair contract that would pay for my labor. Towards the end of my contract, when the stress-level normalized for everyone, I finally spoke to my boss, and they agreed to pay me symbolically a little bit more at the end. It was not at all close to what I should have earned, but nevertheless I was glad to be heard. After this experience, I had the privilege to work in two other institutions in Germany for five years with people who had a sense of justice and fairness. I felt heard and appreciated. If the contracts were not temporary I probably would have stayed longer but, as contracts in the arts sector are typically limited to two or three years, I had to find something else again. Although these two jobs included long working hours and short deadlines, I was happy with my working conditions – until my next position.
I was about to sign a new contract with another German art institution. My– now former– boss came to my office and sat down by the table next to me, friendly and sneaky. “There was an unfortunate misunderstanding regarding the income,” she said. In the interview, I was told I would get paid more. So in the end I was not going to get paid what I was promised. This was uncomfortable but still fine with me as I found the artistic program of this institution critical and consistent. I was there to learn, to collect more experiences and move further with my curatorial work. But after that first “misunderstanding” came the topic of unpaid overtime hours. I was told that it is impossible to get reimbursed for overtime, nor was it allowed to take holidays in return. When I had to work late, I was allowed to get in a bit later the next day but never take a day off. I found this confusing, as in my last job I could count my overtime hours and take extra holidays in return. Here, there was no compensation at all for overtime. How was I supposed to function? Like a robot? The explanation I was offered was simple: This was a smaller institution with a smaller budget, so there was no money for that. Later on I found out that the budget was not that tight at all. The conversation went on. My former boss also recommended not to demand extra payment or holidays for overtime as apparently the person who worked in the position before me complained about it to the board and it backfired. As this was an uncomfortable and difficult situation for everyone, I was advised not to open up the topic again. In my experiences, it was always so easy to make you believe that you were not worth fair pay and that you shouldn’t stand up for your working rights. After two years of working there, I didn’t stay any longer. I didn’t want a further extension of the same contract with the same role. I will remember the excellent exhibitions and good times, but mostly I will remember the crisis-management, exploitation and exhaustion. Being passionate about your job shouldn’t mean that your labor is charity. I know many assistants, curators, coordinators, trainees and cultural workers who all face similar conditions. These experiences in different organizational structures tell us the same thing: No matter where we come from, no matter where we stand in the classical hierarchy, no matter what they tell you, we should never give up our self-worth and self-government, and the need to continue to fight together for structural changes.
"Working Conditions in Three Acts" appeared in print issue 11, "Faux Culture"