Here’s how it is. Here’s how it starts.
You and your peers will graduate. Some of you will have better degrees than others. Deep down, none of you will feel like real artists. You won’t be talked to as real artists either.
They’ll call you emerging.
It’s a form of token support that proposes to help you get a foot in the door, but simulataneously insinuates that you don’t know what you are doing yet.
It seems like there is a lot of opportunity available for emerging artists. Almost every venue, gallery and institution has open calls for you.
But then you look at the money.
How are you supposed to make anything with that?
Some places have the gall to call them ‘micro commissions’, as if they are some sort of snack fund that you receive between your main commissions.
As an emerging artist you are supposed to compete with established artists on a fraction of the budget. Your work becomes smaller and more portable in comparison.
It doesn’t seem fair.
It’s not fair.
You, and your peers decide that things have to change.
And that change isn’t for you, it’s also for everyone struggling up this treacherous ladder after you.
As a cohort, you attack.
There isn’t a plan, but if there was it would look something like the following.
One team infiltrates the infrastructure. They get low paid jobs in the sector. Supporting arts organisations and other artists. They appear front of house, they get producorial jobs, technical roles, or roles in marketing. Jobs that seem to come without much money and even less credit.
But they are not there for the money. They are there for the intel. They are there to fill in the jobs above them, to climb the ladder slowly into positions of power with budgets, when the previous owners leave and the institutions can’t afford to replace them.
More work and power for the same pay.
Another battalion of the legion continue as artists, but their role is propaganda. The infiltrators can’t be loud on social media, they have to be seen walking the company line, but the freelance artists are now expected to shout loud about their plight, about the pay, the hours, the lack of opportunity and credit.
Obviously, they are still making work too. Often on a budget of nothing, or one of those micro-commissions that barely covers the cost of traveling somewhere. They also, if they are lucky, get work with more established artists. This normally happens in a junior position, it often happens without much credit or money.
The third attack wave is more subtle. This section of the cohort works to subvert the infrastructure. They may also call themselves producers, or promoters.
These folk are the ones putting on avant-garde nights in local pubs, creating festivals of new work. They set up as an alternative.
Generally, these alternative nights tend to do rather well. They are seemingly better attended than more established venues. The audiences are vibrant and diverse.
The artists are young and daring. There’s a feeling of something vital happening. It is exciting and a little feral. There’s still no money though.
The traditional venues, perhaps with some prompting from their new intern, take note. We could use some of that, they say. Let us support you, let us help you.
And with those words the infiltration has happened.
Very quickly you find yourself promoted to a position of genuine power. It happens almost too quickly.
The organisation is replacing some of the old guard. It’s time for new blood. They’re moving on, and moving up, some of them are moving out to become freelance consultants.
You find yourself with the power of an institution, if not necessarily the money of an institution.
It’s time to get everybody in.
You begin by creating daring new seasons of work, featuring young creatives alongside some of the giants.
And your peers follow. You get them on the ladder, you support their work by branding it and providing space. You argue for the money, and maybe you get a little. You hand it out as best as you can. Of course some of the older artists complain. How are we supposed to make a living, they ask, when all you are interested in is young people? Where is the support for emerged artists? For the mid-career artists?
You don’t have the money to support everyone, you explain, but you will continue to help them in every way you can. You invite them in for lunch time talks and refer the young artists to them for advice and support, all of which can be supported by the Arts Council.
You vow to continue to shake things up, to dispel the inequity, to stop micro-commissions, and to open up the institution for all.
You find yourself on panels and being asked to go and see work all over the place. talking about how daring you are being, how fierce and bold this work is, and how it is like nothing that has come before.
And it works, people listen to you and people want to talk to you, because they know that you can make things happen for them.
It feels a little weird though. Whilst you suddenly finding yourself traveling across the globe to look at other institutions, festivals and work, the nights that you used to put on in the local pubs disappear, you don’t have the time and no one seems able to keep them running without you.
You also start to notice that you are seeing the same work in every place you go, and every festival you attend. The circus has its own acts. You invite some of the young artists you know to join you and represent their work.
You contribute to this giant traveling circus. They take the work you support and you take the work they are supporting. It feeds back on itself.
You call it international exchange, but something niggles. It feels awfully like nepotism. You are told, this is how the sector works, and since the money supporting this circus isn’t yours, there’s little you can do about it.
You explain as much when one of your peers calls you out on it. Why are you booking this work from abroad when you can be supporting local talent that is desperate for an opportunity?
Some time has passed.
You’ve got into a rhythm.
You’ve lost that feeling of being an impostor, because you’ve seen that almost everyone is an impostor. Everyone is making it up as they go and really the job is fire-fighting.
You are at the top now. You have a title that likely has the word ‘creative’ in it, but it feels far more administrative.
You have a team. A constantly revolving crew of people that want your job but have to settle for marketing and producing. They move far easier between institutions than you can, and that’s not a bad thing, the connections reinforce the sector. However, that means a large chunk of people working for you are now not from the place the institution is situated.
They’ll talk about place-making a lot, but in reality they’ll pitch seasons that are based on things about the area that are new to them, but not new to the local population.
They’ll see a weird building in the town and discover its weird history and commission a whole season based on that. However, the locals have heard that story since they were in primary school. In a way it is already their story and their place.
You get an artist in from another place to tell these people about the place that they already live in.
You get an email from a local artist that points out that the work you’ve commissioned looks very similar to a work that was here about six years ago. It was their work.
This doesn’t quite feel like what you were aiming for when you were about being daring and challenging the establishment, but this isn’t your life any more, it’s a job. No, it’s more than a job, you still care and you still enjoy it, but you also have your eye on another life, maybe with a family.
You notice that you have to programme according to the tides of fashion. There’s not as much freedom or money as you’d like. What once felt daring now feels rote. You also notice that audience numbers aren’t great.
When you started this gig the venue enjoyed a small but dedicated older audience. They turned up for everything. You added your peers to that, and for a time the audience numbers were great.
But your peers have moved on, they have busy lives, and the older audience members aren’t that keen on some of the newer works you are programming. And you have to programme it else you’ll look just like the dusty venues you once complained about.
Or maybe not, maybe your venue or festival has always had a solid audience, willing to follow you as you bring them work. However, you often get accused of programming for a particular type of audience, which suggests that you are excluding others, no matter how inclusive you try and make it.
You realise that the audience for this stuff is self selecting and no matter how hard your marketing department tweets about a show, you can predict, with a high degree of accuracy, everyone who is going to turn up. You are also on first name terms with the people that email you to tell you where you are getting it wrong.
You realise that this is a strange balancing act. A high wire without a safety net, and often without an appreciative audience.
You watch with muted fear sometimes as peers at other institutions are accused of racism, or sexism, or inappropriate uses of money when all they are doing is what they are being asked to do.
If you are being unkind, you see that the people, making these accusations are the same young cohort that is starting to complain that no one is taking notice of their work, and that they aren’t being paid to be the artists that they are.
You have a child and a brilliant idea dawns on you.
Art should be for children too!
The problem is that these institutions aren’t accessible to very young people and they are being excluded from the conversation.
You make a case that what the local area and society in general needs is child-accessible art and you are going to lead the way.
This feels daring and new. The sheer luck that you have a child to test this on too.
Many of your team are in a similar position, and it seems so obvious now. You transform the dusty old gallery space into a vibrant messy space, where children can come and get involved.
Your audience pivots, you now have parents and their children. That’s a two-for-one deal that impresses the venue owners. The numbers are up.
You notice that you don’t see as many of the people that used to regularly attend your events. Maybe they’ve moved on.
When you do book adult only work in the evenings, your staff are tired from a day of working, and you are too. You have committments at home. Care-issues, a partner, perhaps.
You don’t get to see as much of the visiting work as you’d like. Sometimes, not a single member of your team attends. The visiting company slink off after the show cursing you all for your lack of hospitality.
They are also cursing the fact that they played to an audience of eight people, two of which they brought with them.
Maybe you get an email on Monday morning asking, exactly, what your marketing team did to promote the show. Maybe they question the insinuation that a company from two-hundred miles away has sufficient connections in the town of your organinsation to rouse an audience themselves.
You concede that they have a point, but that’s how things are.
Your good friend who was head of marketing and is now head of audience development pulls you aside for a word.
You are going to have to compromise, they say. If you start using the venue for more commercial forms, touring stand up comedians, cover bands, that sort of thing, you’ll be able to make enough money and get the audience figures that will allow you to programme the more daring and brave work.
It’s not ideal. Perhaps you can create a seperate brand for these nights to keep things distinct.
Now you are effectively running two venues. One that specialises in cutting edge work made by artists that have been emerging for years and another that looks like every other standard touring venue.
The audiences don’t mix, but they do add up.
Talking of audiences, you notice that the messy spaces are rather quiet, in fact they are as quiet as they were when they were just galleries.
The children are at school during the week, and with the exception of the Christmas pantomime you are now putting on, you don’t see them as an audience so much.
That Christmas, you are our on your annual meal with the team, in what feels like one of the few truly social events you get to attend now, and you stumble into a pub.
On stage is a young performer, their work is so strange and brilliant it leaves you reeling. Later you walk over and ask them if they’d like to come and perform at your venue.
They ask you why they’d want to do that when their audience is here.
You are sat in the office, filling out a funding bid. It’s an important one, and the future of your organisation depends upon in.
You consider your world. The struggle you’ve had trying to get to where you want to go. It’s not been ideal.
It been ideal for your peers either. Many of them are no longer in the arts, and the ones that are mostly subsidise their work with teaching gigs.
But there have been some highlights, you’ve supported amazing work, you’ve seen amazing work and they’ve made amazing work, and this work is now an inspiration to the next generation of artists that are coming up. You’ve set the bar and you’ve set it high.
You realise you feel old.
And then another moment of inspiration.
Art for old people!
Art about the menopause, inter-generational dancing, work around caring for the elderly.
This is brave and new. This is so timely and important and right now.
You write a piece about how vital it is and it gets published in the Guardian. It gets widely shared on social media.
The people around you are all seeing this.
Except for the young ones. They’ve started to complain that your organisation is just work by older established artists and that there is no space for them.
You chat to finance and you find some money. It’s not as much as you’d like, but it’s a start. You think you need to acknowledge that when you give it out, so you call it a micro-commission.
You also offer to put them in contact with the established artists that can mentor them and that you’ll support them in putting together Arts Council apps so that everyone gets paid.
The results of the application come back and it is great news. Your organisation recieved all the money the money you need to commission all of the work.
Everyone’s job is safe.
You get a call from the board. They’ve been thinking.
What this season needs is new blood. There’s that young artist that has been working as a producer here for the last few months, they seem ideal for this sort of thing, of course we’ll put it to interview, but they already have experience here.
They recognise how much you have done. They will support you in going forward.
Perhaps you can be a freelance consultant?