Project coordinator Ed Adam and consultant Sovay Berriman tell Jane Watt how Alias (Artists-led Initiative Advisory service) has developed over the last ten years. They discuss the dilemmas that artist-led organisations face and offer their survival tips.
Alias is advice for artists from artists. It was set up in 1999 as an Arts Council South West scheme. Building on its success, it evolved into an independent Community Interest Company in 2007. It supports artist-led groups and activity through its free advisory service and seminar programme. It also publishes debate on artist-led issues online at www.aliasarts.org
Alias is currently governed by five directors: Paul Harper, Julie Penfold, Andy Whall, Neil Walker and Hal Camplin. Its advisory service is run by seven consultants and it draws on an ever-growing bank of specialist advisors. Each consultant and director is invited to be a part of Alias because of their own personal experience in the sphere of artist-led and independent arts activity.
You’ve been going for ten years now. In terms of how you work and what you do as an organisation, what has changed and what has remained constant in that time?
Ed Adam: The main change for Alias had been its transformation into a Community Interest Company (CIC). Whilst previously Arts Council England administered Alias’ services, we are now responsible for all day-to-day elements of running a company from fundraising to accounts. Positively this means the company can be responsive to the needs of our artists’ groups and we can shape the organisation accordingly. In terms of how we work, Alias’ remit to work with artist-led groups in the south west has not altered but the number of groups we are now able to work with has grown. Equally Alias has become increasingly keen to bring in groups from across the UK and beyond to work and network with groups in the South West.
Dominic Thomas raises a number of interesting points in his Alias editorial ‘The Rise of the Artist-Led Group – an Administrative Practice?’ in which he questions the status, and sometimes exploitation, of artist-led activity in a sector that is seen to be increasingly administrative and professionalised. How can artist-led groups stay true to their artistic and creative roots whilst balancing every day financial and practical concerns?
EA: That’s a difficult one and is something I myself am still trying to balance out. I think you always have to have a clear idea of what is really important to you and what you’re trying to achieve with your practice. Being an artist doesn’t mean that you have to be poor or that you have to have a commercial element to your work in order to make money.
Sovay Berriman: I think it’s always important to consider why you’re involved in any art activity, whether it be artist-led or not; is the focus financial or artistic? If the art is the main concern then I think it’s realistic to say that this is not going to be highly lucrative. Keep your aim as the production of high-quality, critically relevant artwork and find another way to live and be financially solvent. ‘Transferable skills’ is a popular term at the moment and, whilst this is a symptom of the ‘professionalism’ Dominic talks about, it is also true that artists do have many skills that can enable them to earn a living beyond the production of their own artwork: a living that doesn’t have to interfere with the creative and philosophical core of their artistic practice.
EA: Residencies, talks, mentoring, teaching etc all allow you to draw and expand upon your practice and still bring in income. You also have to be flexible and be aware that your practice alone isn’t always going to be able to pay the bills.
Do the needs and expectations of rural-based and urban-based artist groups differ?
EA: Artists working in rural areas often don’t have access to support networks or social events with their peers and so Alias can obviously help them by getting them in touch with other artists in their area and kick-start greater peer interaction. However, no matter where they work artists do have shared aspirations about developing their practice and reaching certain goals. I work from a rural village but I’m still aware of and engaged with networks in cities across the UK.
Is artist-led activity the preserve of the emerging artist?
SB: No-way! It’s for whoever wants to do it! There are no rules or guidelines which is what is great. It’s just about wanting to make something happen and going ahead. From a political angle it’s about not being passive, sitting around waiting to be discovered.
EA: No it definitely isn’t, though there’s no doubt in my mind that artist-led activity has become an important starting point for new graduates and emerging artists. ‘Artist-led’ is such a general term and can encompass a huge variety of working models, practices and career levels. To me it means a self-determined attitude to push your practice forward by working with other artists and that is something I want to do through out my career.
Could Alias’ way of working be translated, or rolled out in other areas of the UK and beyond? And is that something you’d like to do?
SB: It’s an initiative that’s relevant anywhere where artists are pulling together to make something happen with an independent spirit. Personally I’d love to see Alias exist nationwide, but at the moment we don’t have the capacity to do that – maybe if someone would like to help us expand…
What top survival tips do you have for artist-led organisations?
- Have clear aims of what you want to do and how you are going to achieve it.
- Get some kind of structure, just so everyone knows what everyone else is doing; it’s more efficient and can prevent disputes!
- Talk to each other; if there’s a problem talk about it, festering feelings will possibly lead to the falling apart of your group and your friendship.
- Network with other similar organisations – being part of a strong network is only ever going to help. Be nosy, find out how they work and what has and hasn’t worked for them. Share your concerns and problems along with your successes! Membership groups like Spike Associates and Eastside’s Extra Special People are good places to start.
- Use what’s out there to help you. Make contact with artists’ support organisations in your region, be it your local Arts Council Officer, Alias or other similar bodies. They exist to help, so use them. Even if whoever you speak to can’t answer your questions they’ll usually know someone who can.
- Create your own opportunities wherever possible. If there aren’t many opportunities for artists in your area, try and create them yourself. If you’re able to kick-start some energy and activity, other opportunities will arise from it.
- Keep a blog, get visible and share your experiences with other artists.
How does Alias keep fresh, inspired and interested in what its doing?
EA: We work with over forty artist-led groups each year and their energy and commitment naturally energises and informs Alias. We also bring in new advisers and consultants, often from the very groups we have worked with. For example our newest director Hal Camplin, came to Alias originally through his own artist-led initiative, Kangaroo Kourt.
SB: By all the consultants and directors keeping up to date with their own activity and of what’s going on generally. Also there is turnover in these roles, it’s really positive to have a rotating set of advisors.
EA: Alias is current developing a number of hubs across the South West – physical points of exchange and dialogue for our groups. These hubs will offer a physical presence for Alias’ networks to come together and share ideas and pave the way for collaboration and production of work,
‘Artist-led risk’ by Steven Paige, 2009
‘The Rise of the Artist-Led Group - an Administrative Practice?’ by Dominic Thomas, 2008.
Extra Special People
Warp at G39
Islington Mill Art Academy
Networking artists networks
First published: a-n.co.uk October 2009
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