New Takes on Museum Freelancing

New Takes on Museum Freelancing

Or I hope my clients don’t read that old post about how museum freelancing is not for me, I have come to the conclusion freelancing is very much for me.

This post is an update of one I wrote nearly three years ago called I tried Museum Freelancing so You Don’t Have To. That post still gets a regular drip of traffic. Yet both my circumstances, and the museum freelancing landscape, have changed a lot since then.

In the original post I described how I had fallen into part-time freelancing after taking a part-time job. I had done a few freelance projects and was about to embark on another part-time employed role. At the time I thought that freelancing wasn’t really for me, and I couldn’t see myself continuing down that path. Now as the start of 2021 approaches I have been fully self employed for nearly two years. I could not have been more wrong (and I should probably not attempt to predict my path again). Now I can’t see myself going back to employment (not least because after the year we’ve all had, there are likely to be fewer permanent museum roles to apply for). I have come to accept and maybe even love the freelance life, so I wanted to revisit the takeaways from my previous post:

Freelancing doesn’t suit everyone

I initially felt that I had been forced into museum freelancing because of a lack of full-time opportunities. Many people are likely to find themselves in that position in the coming months, but I think they will be a little more prepared than I was. 2020 has given most of us experience of the blessing and the curse of working from home. This was actually one of the things I struggled with in my early freelance days. I felt isolated and found it hard to concentrate. But I don’t need to tell anyone about how that feels, many of us will have experienced it this year. You will know by now whether home working suits you, so will be better able to judge how well you would take to the freelance lifestyle.

There is freelancing and ‘freelancing’

I stand by this warning. Some roles advertised as ‘freelance’ or self-employed can just mean that the employer wants to avoid the cost, and the associated employment rights, of taking someone on an as employee. This kind of role can crop up in museums, especially for fixed term project work. It’s important for freelancers to understand their rights and the difference between being an employee, a worker or a freelancer. If you operate your business through a limited company rather than as a sole trader, you and the company you are working for also need to be compliant with IR35.

I underestimated the value (both financial and otherwise) of my time

In my previous post I wrote about settling for work that allowed me to earn just enough money. I should have calculated how much my day rate should really be to allow for sick days, holidays, admin and time spent pitching for more work. This is standard advice for freelancers but I think it is worth repeating. It can be tempting to settle for less lucrative work when you are starting out and don’t have confidence or knowledge of the freelance landscape. There are lots of good resources out their to help with planning and accounting. I highly recommend the Museum Freelance network for resources, but do not limit yourself to museum specific sites. Crunch has excellent free guides.

More than any other type of work, you have to love what you do

You really do need extraordinary powers of motivation to succeed at freelancing in museums. This was particularly true this year. There have been times when the employees of the museums I was working with were part-time furloughed and I still had work to get on with. It’s been an uncertain time for everyone, but being freelance in 2020 has felt particularly isolating.

New takeaways

Clarify, clarify, clarify

When taking on a new project, make sure that you understand the brief. Make sure that your client understands the brief. Sometimes museums don’t know quite what they want. Sometimes they know what they want to achieve but not quite how to achieve it. That’s where you can help them, but only if everyone is on the same page. It’s important to tease this out at the beginning of a project. That way you ensure that you are the right fit for the brief and no one ends up feeling short-changed.

As ever, Museum Freelance have some great resources to help with this, including a guide for creating better freelance briefs.

Make your own opportunities

This year has been particularly hard for freelancers in the creative industries. Because of my mixed income in the last few years, I was one of the 53% of museum freelancers who were not eligible for the government’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (statistic from Museum Freelance poll into the impact of Covid19). Part of what got me through the year was that I was halfway through a Developing Your Creative Practice project, funded by an Arts Council England. This allowed me to use some of my time over lockdown to research and deepen my expertise. This has in turn helped me pitch for more work for the coming months.

Creative freelancers have frequently fallen through the cracks of government support. Meanwhile the Arts Council has made it clear that they are keen to support museum freelancing via their DYCP and Project Grants programmes. For the rest of the financial year, they will not be requiring any match funding from applicants. You can find out more about the support ACE offer from this webinar run by Museum Freelance. In uncertain times, taking the opportunity to develop your own project or practice as a freelancer may help you to build a more sustainable business going forward.

Freelancers can make a difference

Museums have also had a tough year, with the challenges of digital programming, making on site activities safe in an uncertain landscape, and responding to public pressure for racial justice. In each of these challenges there is opportunity for passionate and skilled freelancers to innovate and help provide solutions. During this year I have at times felt isolated, and have felt powerless to help either the museum community or my community in the wider sense during the crises of 2020. I do believe though that we can each make a difference within our niche. Freelancers have the opportunity to look at the bigger picture in a way that employees may not. If you have an idea to help museums trial something new, now may be the time to try it.