Give change a chance

Posted by: Artsadmin on Aug 6, 2013

Give change a chance — just what emerging means in the current climate

On 12 June, our Assistant artists' advisor and producer Cat Harrison gave a talk in Derry as part of the All Ireland Performing Arts Conference. Cat talks about the crisis sweeping the arts and creative industries, what ‘emerging’ means to her in the current climate, and how organisations and individuals in the sector should give change a chance. Below you can see the speech in full.

Hi. Hi there. Thanks for coming along. 

You’re maybe wondering who the hell I am. Well, I’m a person called Cat Harrison. I work in the arts, which, as many of you will correctly infer means I have several jobs, but mostly I work as an artist and as a producer in London. On one hand I work as the Assistant Artists’ Advisor and Producer at Artsadmin and on the other I work as an artist and co-founder of interactive theatre makers non zero one.

Sometimes I refer to myself as a “slashie”, being an artist/ producer, and sometimes I refer to myself as an “arts professional” - usually this is when I’m meeting someone not from the arts and I’m trying to sound suitably serious without going into too much convoluted detail as to what I actually do.

I officially started my arts career in 2009, and today I’d like to talk to you about what it’s like being an emerging arts-professional in the recession, and how I think we might be able to use the current changes happening to improve our situation.

Ben Summerskill, of gay rights group Stonewall said, “If everyone in the room agrees with you, then you’re probably in the wrong room”. So I’ll try to offer some provocations and I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts now or afterwards, as this is what my peers seem to be chatting a lot about.

So, I should get started. It’ll come as no surprise that we are currently in a crisis, aka the recession. And the title of this talk “Give change a chance” probably feels a bit moot, as we’re all having to go through changes whether we like it or not.

There is some debate over when the recession actually started, but generally it is accepted that by January 2009 we had had two consecutive years of falling GDP and so we were in economic crisis. I graduated in the summer of 2009, so working full-time in an age of austerity is all I’ve ever known. It’s my norm.

It’s normal to me that many of my friends still live with their parents (the last survey in October 2012 states that there are 2.9million, or a quarter of people aged 20-34 living with their parents). It’s normal that everybody else rents and house-shares. I have many friends who are unemployed and have been looking for work for over 3 months. It is unusual for any of my friends under the age of 34 to have invested in property.

In terms of my friends in the arts, any kind of regular employment is considered luxurious.

My well-to-do arts industry buddies are hitting wages of around £25k-£30k a year. Most, like me, are living at something just under £20k a year and a lot of others (mostly full-time artists) live off an amount much less than that.

But I’m sure this comes as no surprise to you, I’m sure that you know people in this situation – they’re maybe artists you work with, or your employees, or your friends or family members, or even yourself.

However, it does come as a shock to people who don’t work in the arts, and I find that interesting. Because when I ask my civil servant friend if the arts should be cut further – he says yes it should, just like everything else. When I explain that Culture accounts for around 0.4% of government spending, as opposed to the 25% going to the NHS or the 14% going towards running government, it shows what a different league the arts sit in. When I explain that the Culture sector doesn’t really judge success by how much money you’ve made, and that better art isn’t better value for money art, he does listen, and he understands.

Everyone engages in culture on some level and I think we should be doing more to reach the public, rather than the politicians.

In the UK our current Culture Secretary only sees an economic case for the arts and our Education Secretary is trying to squeeze arts out of schools altogether. It seems that they can’t understand how something can be judged on quality, or wellbeing or life value. But their voters can. And politicians do care about their voters. I believe that if we can get the message to the public that they all engage in culture, and that our culture sector is being culled – not reduced, but culled – they will notice. And politicians will notice that.

Politicians will also notice that Britain is doing badly in comparison to other countries. Obviously in Greece and Spain arts spending has been more or less eradicated, but in Scandinavia and Germany they’ve actually increased their arts budgets, even in a time of recession. It’s a sign of confidence and stability.

It may be a low blow, but even the French government contributes twice as much as the UK government towards culture. These kinds of things, which is what the “What Next” movement is all about, will help support and not alienate politicians like Maria Miller, when she’s protecting things like the DCMS, which (fingers crossed) it looks like she’s doing.

So, aside from international comparisons, the way we can get the public to fight the corner for Culture, is to get them engaged in it in the first place. And that means getting artists involved. We need to stop making surveys and statistics and encourage quality creativity to thrive.

Forest Fringe co-founder Andy Field once told me, “the crisis is not an affliction on the system, the crisis is the system”. I think that in one way this is because the Culture Sector works in such a top down approach: from the Government to the DCMS to the Arts Councils the NPOs to the artist.

So many schemes and opportunities are bound by rules to serve the agendas of the guys higher up in the chain, that sometimes it’s very difficult as an artist to make the piece you want to make. I’ve often had thoughts that I’m fitting square peg projects into round hole funding applications, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

We’re all being told to tighten our belts, but that doesn’t mean we need to narrow our ways of thinking. Now is the time for gut feelings, for risk-taking, for embracing change. We are the arts movement – so let’s keep moving forward and keep thinking creatively. One way arts venues and organisations can do that is by thinking about how they serve their artists.

At Artsadmin we produce a bank of around 40 artists, some more intensely than others. When my boss, Judith Knight MBE, set up the company in 1979, she wanted to produce artists making unusual work that she’d never experienced before. At the time it involved taking these contemporary works by artists like Station House Opera and Ann Bean and placing them in traditional performance settings like galleries and theatres.

Now, 30 years later, Artsadmin still prides itself on producing artists making work on the fringes of categorised genres, we even still work with Station House and Ann, but the way those artists make work has changed dramatically. Their work no longer sits in traditional performance spaces, but more and more we’re producing site-responsive and community driven projects. It’s a challenge, and we don’t always get it right, but we’re trying to remain flexible to what our artists want to do.

And this brings me onto the “emerging” thing. It’s kinda zeitgeist isn’t it? A bit of an arts industry bingo buzzword. I guess I’m an “emerging arts professional”. My arts career has spanned less than 5 years. In terms of my producing career I’m on a relatively low band of pay and I’ve only ever worked for one company in an Assistant role. This means I’ve been involved in producing projects ranging from £6k to £160k but I’ve only ever managed the smaller projects entirely by myself.

It’s by no means black & white but there’s a clear-ish career path that could lie ahead of me, and it’s one based on skills that I build up the more projects I produce and the more experience I gain. Similarly as an advisor, which is a much rarer role, there are opportunities to take on bigger ideas, increasing my learning and specialist expertise.

As an artist, this idea of “emerging” is much less clear. Yes, nz1 is less than 5 years old, but it seems arbitrary to base these things on age or time, when hailed artists like Carmen Herrera only sold her first painting at the age of 89, six decades after she first started painting.

Or Stacy Makishi, who I think is one of the best performance artists out there right now, only turned to making her current work in her 40s. At non zero one we’ve been lucky enough to have had significant commissions from The Barbican, from the National Theatre, from the Science Museum most recently. We’ve received funding from the Arts Council and from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, we’re artists in residence at Royal Holloway University, we’re able to support two members to work regularly for the company on PAYE (even if it is only part-time, even if that will only be for another year) – do any of these factors take us out of the “emerging” box?

The real problems with labeling artists in light of experience – whether early, mid-career or established – is that the work being made by artists is constantly evolving and shifting, and this can be in terms of genre, form, cost, audience or reception.

Another one of our Artsadmin originals, Graeme Miller, who has been making work for over 30 years, has created work that’s been based in performance, sound, film and sculpture intermittently. In 1990 he made a performance work A Girl Skipping that has been described as “a seminal work of British Theatre” and won a Time Out/ Dance Umbrella Award. Next year celebrates the 10th anniversary of his promenade sound work Linked, which took 4 years to fundraise for.

One of Graeme’s more recent works Moth Theatre won the first Latitude Contemporary Art Award in 2010 and last year’s On Air was part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad and Exhibition Road festival. But I’ve just pulled out these works relatively randomly. Graeme has never rested on his laurels and in between all of these works are many more that he’s made that could be considered “bigger”, “better” or “more successful” depending on how you want to judge it. For me personally, there’s a work called Beheld that I feel particularly drawn to, I think it’s incredible.

So at what point would you draw the line of “emerging” on my artist career, or Graeme’s for that matter? Either way our needs are in essence the same – time, space and money. I would argue that due to the nature of their careers, all artists can be ‘emerging’ several times during their career, in the same way that they could be submerging, or exploding, or simply plateau-ed. No artists’ career starts at the bottom and ends at the top.

Schemes aimed at a career-type of artist – such as something aimed at established artists or emerging artists – need to remain flexible. To think that more established artists don’t need mentorship or guidance is a myth, just like the myth that newer or typically emerging artists don’t need any money. All artists need money, regardless of age or experience.

Romantic notions of “the poor artist” living in bohemian destitution are outdated and unfair.

Su Jones from a-n recently wrote an article pointing out how polemic the wages of artists and arts administration is getting – where Arts Council England advertises Relationship Manager roles at £31k a year, and yet the Stanley Picker Fellowship for design artists awards only £12k. These disparities need to be addressed.

Hand on heart, do you feel that you are offering a fair amount to the artists that you employ or commission or support?

Jan Ritsema of the Performing Arts Forum in France, drew my attention to another possible change in the climate of being an artist. I saw him give a talk where he said that, “The age of the chosen artist is dead”. Jan nominated Damien Hirst as the last celebrity artist, and instead referred to an “army of artists” rising up out of education streams. Because it’s true that there are a lot of artists out there, and really successful ones at that, but not really any who have made it to household name celebrity status.

And that’s ok. The age of the celebrity is over. With the internet, photos, film at our fingertips, everyone is a bit famous. We’ve seen it with the rise of participatory and one-on-one shows and social media – everyone wants to be in on the action. Which means that less and less people are true celebrities. Which might actually be a good thing. Jan spoke of reorganizing our schemes and systems to allow a field of artists to bloom, rather than just feeding one single sunflower to grow tall.

One huge expectation of the emerging artist is this idea that they could be “the next big thing”. They could be the new Damien, or the new Tracy or the new Yoko. We need to let that go. Artists need to let that go too.

In my view, what would be most beneficial are schemes that encourage and give ambassadorship to allow groups of artists to flourish. I know it’s a big ask but I also know artists will help with that, as they already do. Artists talk to each other. They talk to each other about who’s been helpful, what schemes are good or bad, how much they’re being paid and where to take work. It’s a very generous sector.

So if there’s any opportunity for you to encourage this generosity, I would advise you to take it. At the very least having support and ambassadorship from an organisation or venue is incredibly valuable to an artist or group of artists. It’s a stamp of approval that gives artists the message: “what I’m doing is good, it’s useful, I should keep going”.

Trust your artists. If all artists are emerging, then they are the best people who will cope with change. Because change is normal to artists.

According to CS Holling’s Phases of Crisis, we’re currently moving into the 4th and last stage – the Reorganisation Phase. Things are not, they cannot, be the same as they were. There is, and there will be, change. But we’re the creative industry; we’re the best people around at coping with change. We’re not bound by traditions or formalities, we’re constantly re-evaluating what culture we want to experience. In short, we’re built for a crisis. We can accept these changes with equanimity, and make them work for us.

We have many things to be grateful for in the UK. We do have many schemes that are awesome at supporting artists, from smaller ones like China Plate and Warwick Arts Centre’s The Dark Room to the national Arts Councils. To be able to apply at any time for money to make artistic work is, in comparison to many other countries, miraculous.

There are also many organisations that have been thinking creatively about how they work, and how they can embrace change to better support their artists and their audiences. Shining examples include National Theatre Wales and National Theatre Scotland, with their building-less status’ that keep them anti-centralized, or Crying Out Loud’s trial of development schemes for critics and venues to try out circus. The flexibility these companies have shown is not without difficulty, but they’ve made those changes work for them.

Another change that might be more applicable to your organisations also links to the idea of the army of artists I spoke about before. At present there are many artists coming out of various education streams and introductory schemes, and more and more so in the case of graduates they are increasingly being taught the pragmatics of managing the administrative side of being an artist as well.

The notion that culture is a business is very much encouraged, and as such there are many artists entering the job market with a broad set of skills. There have always been some artists working in arts administration and management, but now there is an increasing amount of slashies like me. All six of us at non zero one have managed arts jobs at organisations including Frantic Assembly, Blast Theory and Hide & Seek whilst managing the company.

I think the rise of slashies is a good thing. Not to take over from specialists, but to offer a more generalized artistic balance. I think slashies can be valuable in a number of ways – they can offer an artists’ point of view in company decisions, empathise or challenge certain actions and bring a creative element to your company’s everyday workings. Slashies do come with their own set of difficulties – they’re having to juggle a heck of a lot outside of work-time and issues like unpaid leave and overlapping funder or promoter interests will need addressing, but I would encourage having such slashies around in your company. Unsurprising really, as I am one.

In conclusion, we all know that the time for change is here. What we need to do is prove that the cultural and creative industry is the best sector to deal with this change. Now is not the time to take the safe options, but we need to embrace risk, we need to keep things as flexible as possible. Culture is not built on stiff upper lips or a rigid posture –we’re the guys made of instinct, of gut feelings. If we live by that, our public will too. And they’ll thank us for it.

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