Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
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By: Becky Hunter
I am an emerging freelance art writer, working on growing my business. This blog is my attempt to be 100% truthful about getting work, getting paid, time, marketing & networking, dispelling the myths around creative portfolio careers.
# 9 [6 September 2011]
My workspace history...
So, I finally have a workspace that I'm super happy with, except in one respect: it's in the bedroom of our huge two-room+kitchen apartment, and my boyfriend has such a different sleep schedule to me that when I'd like to be working (early morning) he's still sleeping. Apart from that it's pretty much perfect. My desk is nestled in the corner by a big, bright window, I can hear the rain, and the fan keeps me cool. We have creaky wood floors, which I love; my desk has plenty of drawers; the internet works beautifuly; and I have cheery yellow flowers on the second windowledge.
The two best things about it are:
1. Mike's workspace (music studio) is in the other room, so I can close the door and we both have space and privacy for most of the day.
2. I don't have to leave the house to go to work! (Except when I'm at the gallery, which- since it's unpaid - I'm reducing to two days per week on location, from this week).
Before we moved here, we were sharing Mike's tiny, dark, one-window-man-cave a few blocks West. My desk was in the narrow hallway - meaning visitors had to clamber past me - and I worked approximately five feet away from the couch+desk, on which Mike did his music and college work. It was suffocating for both of us, but we each managed to do some pretty good work while we were there, despite the stress and general awfulness. I tried working at the gallery, the front porch and several lovely cafes, but the heat and lack of AC generally got the better of me.
Turning the clock back a little further, I used my childhood, dark wood writing desk (good feeling) set up in a packed box room at my parent's house (literally packed with laundry, my brother's possessions, family photos, videos, books... hardly any floor space). Mess drives me crazy, so not sure how I coped, except out of necessity. A few years ago it was equally disordered, and my sewing room. Privacy here was good though, and it was always cold, which I find conducive to thinking for some reason. Big jumpers = the best.
York University was prior to that - during my MA i divided my time between my huge rented room, with a wide desk and peeling paint in Heslington, and the postgrad art history study room, which had THE BEST office chairs ever. Back support rules. And a slow internet connection, which promoted hard work, and hard copy reading and note-taking. I had a couple of lovely friends that woulg work there too, and we'd chat for approx 10 minutes per day, then get down to writing. I love that kind of study mate. At home, I'd talk to my intelligent, well travelled, hippy landlady about my work and hers, and it felt good. Except Mike was far, far away in the USA.
In London, I wrote in various horribly messy bedrooms, kitchen tables, living rooms, cafes, etc. I used a desk at a gallery I worked in for a while. And also loved to stay late in my very first studio in Dalston, propped up on my elbows with my laptop, a clutter of magazines, and a beer on the mezzanine. I wrote a couple of my first ever art reviews (actually published by a-n's print magazine) that way.
Anyway, I thought I'd list my workspaces, as I know very few freelance writers that actually have offices, or even desk space in an academic or creative setting. Again, it's one of those non-glamorous aspects of the writing life, that you just have to get used to. Then again, I love working at home. I get antsy if I'm elsewhere for too long (though I like looong walks too). I like the idea of having a writing studio - more like a conventional white-walled, dusty art studio surrounded by the smells and sounds of art making. Perhaps that's something I'll work on creating if I stay in Philadelphia past this year. I've met another couple of writers who envision something similar.
How about you?
# 8 [29 August 2011]
PMT and getting work done
I'll write more next week about my essay for Anthony Boswell - the commissioning, research, and writing processes - but for now, the text is available on my website.
But I wanted to dip a bit more into embarassement this week, by talking about PMT (pre menstural tension, haha): how that horrible, anxious, tired, miserable hormonal swing affects my freelance work, and ways I've tried to combat it.
I'm at the point now in my "writing career" where I don't make enough to pay the rent, but I have enough (paid and unpaid) work to do that I have to write for a substantial part of each day, to deadline, and to a high quality. But every time PMT comes around, those feelings I've just mentioned swarm in with a vengeance. Every task I touch seems to fall apart, communication becomes extra difficult, and I require so much sleep that I'm likely to nod off at my desk.
More specifically, I find that "fear of writing" - or that low-level anxiety that comes with doing creative work - is multiplied and gets paralysing. And my brain just feels foggier, as if I'm working with treacle instead of neurons.
Being freelance (like being an artist?) requires planning and self-discipline that, at first, I thought was unlike that in a "normal" day job. But once I remembered the type of small scale project management, organization, and generally excellent manner that I conducted myself in my last actual job (at a charity), I realised I had to stop being a baby about it. The only difference with freelancing is that there's no-one (except your inner critic) keeping an eye on how much work you do, how long it takes, and whether you've met your targets for the day.
Usually, this is difficult but manageable, but with PMT comes a sort of mental melt-down that I'm not proud of.
I haven't figured out exactly how to deal with it yet, but some of the things I'm trying are:
1. Letting myself sleep in later, and trying to go to bed earlier
2. Trying to stay off the internet, as it is too stressing to read about other people's smooth running lives and careers
3. Unless a huge deadline is looming, I try to focus on easier tasks and work less hours over the days of PMT, or at least break down large tasks into chunks - though sometimes in my panic I just forget to do this
What would be ideal, and what I plan to do next, is to keep a careful track of my emotions in my diary, so that I learn to work with my strengths and carry myself during weaker times. Without a boss or timesheet to motivate me during horrible days, I need to do the inner work that results in a stronger & gentler character as I build my business.
How do the women on Artists Talking find PMT affects their work? What are your tips for battling tiredness and anxiety?
# 7 [24 August 2011]
This week I learn about the importance of sleep! And food! Also how helpful an orderly work process is.
I've been working on a short essay for an Artists Talking artist, that hopefully next week I can expand upon in more detail - nerve-wrackingly waiting for the last draft to be approved just now.
The last commissioned essay I wrote (also waiting for final approval) had surprising flow and simplicity in the working process. I set aside four days, about 2 weeks ago, to research and write. This was an experiment to see whether i could a) work just the right number of hours so that my fee covered a decent wage, and b) work consistently on one project instead of dotting around like a mad hatter.
It worked (though we also didn't have internet available at this time, which helped a lot with concentration). I was writing a 1000-word essay, and my fee for that is £250, unless huge amounts of extra research (= extra pay) are required. So I figured 4 days 9-5 work would give me an ok daily rate of £62.50. (Though I admit this doesnt include customer service time - eg, Skype chats, emails, invoicing). Not exactly luxurious, but still better than the profit of "minus a lot" that I detailed in last week's post.
I planned my research on spiritualist photography, Cornelia Parker and Susan Hiller and the awesome artist that commissioned me for her catalogue; made copious notes and spider diagrams; wrote out three essay plans; pinned one to the wall; and wrote; and rewrote.
Looking back, I was also taking care of myself super-well. Eating good, healthy food at regular intervals; going to bed by 11pm; getting up around 8am; and taking breaks to get outdoors and read interesting novels. I think sleep and food are the writer's (and artist's) greatest weapons!
Writing my more recent essay, I was running out of food in the fridge, and didn't want to distract myself by going for a big shop, and I wasn't sleeping as long or as well. The essay was shorter, but took almost as long to write, in part because I was juggling several competing, small projects instead of focusing on one. Of course, freelancers have to get used to doing this, but I'm still figuring out my schedule in that regard.
Anyway, apologies for the lateness, and obviousness of this post, but I just wanted to mention that food and sleep rule!
# 6 [14 August 2011]
Finding my voice as a critic, having a party, getting paid extra for great work... and still not covering expenses!
Best news first.
I feel like i'm actually making a contribution to the art/writing scene in Philadelphia, and on a national platform to boot. I write for Art Papers and Sculpture, both American print art magazines. I've been covering big group shows in museums/big grant funded gallery spaces for about 6 months for Art Papers, and just dared to pitch a review of a much smaller and more challenging show of web based art at Little Berlin. I also got my first three pitches to Sculpture accepted. Won't reveal the later pieces, but my first is, again, writing on a small but hardworking/intelligent/daring collective space in the north of the city, Extra Extra.
Will post the reviews when they're published later in the year. It is wonderful to have worked so hard to get my writing out there, and now to be able to showcase some of the best, under-reported work in the city. Feeling respected and like all this is worthwhile :)
More good news.
Mike and I had our housewarming party. Met some lovely people, and got to talk more with some artists, teachers, museum people and others. Beginning to feel at home here.
Getting paid (extra).
At the end of July I travelled to Brooklyn, NYC, to interview Australian photographic/mixed media artist Anna Reynolds. She's awesome, with a vibrant practice and a fascinating life story. The article was for a small US-based print mag, Visual Overture, and the pay correspondingly modest ($50 for a 1000 word piece). Overall, it was a good experience, as Anna is a wonderful person to spend time with, and it gave me the chance to experiment with a descriptive feature write-up style, rather than the typical Q&A art mag interview style that I'm used to. I just received the payment (prompt = excellent!) with an additional $15 because the editor loved my piece so much. Despite still representing a tiny sum per word, it meant a lot that my good work was noticed and appreciated.
The $65 fee barely covered my basic expenses (travel from my home to the bus station $3; return bus trip to New York $35; lunch, coffee & late night snack in the city, at least $20; plus internet, phone calls and texts to organize and edit the article with Anna). To save cash next time, I would definitely bring a packed lunch and a flask of tea!
Of course, these expenses don't take into account the 16-hour day I spent (enjoyed!) travelling and talking with Anna, and the 6 (also fun) hours it took to write up the feature.
I hope this post has explained a little of why writers love to meet interesting new artists, but also why we "emerging" critics need artists to make the experience as comfortable as possible for us, because, like you, we're overworked and underpaid. In fact, I wrote an advice piece (unpaid, haha) on that topic for the lovely site We Like Artists not long ago.
# 5 [8 August 2011]
As promised, here's a little more on rates of pay in the art writing world - as well as some notes on why I decided to start this blog.
Honest About Freelancing was inspired by a frank email exchange I had with Rachel Hills - a more established writer than me - and some tweets she posted a few days later.
In my email, I'd gleefully reported to Rachel that my feature pitch to Art Monthly Australia had been accepted. But my glee was tempered with the fact that this was the first print magazine I've written for that offers anything close to fair pay (30 cents per word). Previously, I've been paid 16 pence per word in a UK print mag; 9 cents per word in a high profile US print mag; and anything from 0 to 6 cents per word in online magazines.
Rachel being Australian, I hoped she might have some insight. In her industry (glossy mags & national newspapers), it's the same story: Australian magazines paying a fair wage; UK and US publications paying disproportionately less. Rather than Aussies placing a greater value on writing, this situation might have something to do with the standard of living, or cultural expectations of fair pay, over there. My brother and his girlfriend live in Brisbane and make something like £16 an hour in customer service roles that would pay more like £5-7 in the UK.
So why write for low-paying publications?
Well, for one, it takes a long time for most of us to hone our skills, and develop our knowledge, to the point that well-paid writing jobs are realistic. That's why I would still encourage new writers to blog, work unpaid for local magazines, and send review submissions to the best (yet low-paid) online mags. Writing regularly for an audience, especially when you have a decent editor onboard, is one of the best ways to refine your prose, understand best practice, and get to know editors who may take you with them as their own careers progress.
Secondly, as I mentioned last week, if you're an art writer, you probably want (and need) to get to know the local, national (and international) art scenes, as well as specialising in certain fields. Doing the groundwork of unpaid reporting, interviewing and reviewing means that when the time comes to approach the glossy art mags you'll have contacts, expert knowledge and a sense of how the various art worlds work together.
Finally, for me, doing low-paid writing is a way of reviewing shows that relate to my academic interests - which could boost my chances of getting PhD funding. It also means I have a ton of excellent writing samples to send to prospective clients, as well as my name being super-searchable online, as I'm building a business writing directly for artists and galleries. In that growing situation, I am able name my own price (25 pence per word), which I believe to be a fair reflection of my qualifications, connections, experience and talent.
To trace Rachel's tweets and people's responses, start here. She's right that freelancing may not be a "liveable" option for most people. I hope I can make it work for me this year, but, I admit, the "security blanket" of academic funding back in the UK is looking more and more appealing.
Will make this blog a weekly, Monday thing. I'm working on balancing online life and creative/freelance work, a topic I recently wrote about (unpaid) for jotta.com.
# 4 [3 August 2011]
Quick post today.
My review of Jeff Williams' exhibition There is not anything that returns to nothing (Grizzly Grizzly gallery) is up this morning at Philadelphia's Artblog.
I tried to give a good mix of description and art historical context, without killing myself over it (the piece was unpaid).
Some of my reasons for doing the article:
1. The Artblog is massively read in Philly, so it's a great way to get my name out there, as I'm making contacts in a new city.
2. The press release for the show was sent to me by one of Grizzly Grizzly's artist members after she attended a press release writing workshop I ran in the city. It was brilliant to see she'd taken my advice seriously and written such a fantastic release.
3. The show fitted my ongoing interest in the way that modernist and minimalist practice is being reworked by contemporary artists. I always love a chance to open up those issues.
Some of the headaches it gave me:
1. At this point, I'm really too busy to be doing unpaid work, and spent some of the writing process feeling rather resentful and anxious about neglecting paid work.
2. My health is not great right now. I need to figure out the maze of US medical insurance and get me to the doctors (anemia seems to be getting worse, or perhaps the stress of moving countries is taking it out of me). Doing unpaid projects is a sure way to frazzle myself even more. Must cut back!
3. Trying to find images of Robert Morris' Untitled, 1970, installation at the Whitney is impossible outside of scholarly articles and physical archives. Spent rather a lot of time finding that out. If I'm going to compare contemporary art to obscure postminimalist work, I need to make sure public domain images are available in advance.
Will be back soon with more on rates of pay in the magazine world
Apologies for the delay in posting. I got a little scared by this blog's premise, and how much I will have to give away to make it work.
Many thanks to Charlotte Norwood, a writer in London, for her kind email about this blog giving me the confidence to keep writing it, and to believe that it is needed.
# 3 [19 July 2011]
Reading Emily Speed's last couple of blog posts made me think about why freelance writers are often as broke (and bad with money) as artists.
I agree it's about all of those 5 points that Emily mentions - ignoring money, doing the bare minimum, low rates, bad clients, and spiralling expenses - as well as being about magazines paying peanuts. This confirms that we not only need to get savvy about money, but that we also must communicate more truthfully between ourselves about finances, as artists, writers and creative people. We're all in the same boat here.
I have an additional problem (or challenge, if I'm going to frame it positively) right now. I'm from the UK, but am living for a year in Philadelphia, USA, in order to have a proper relationship (less air travel, more hugs) with my lovely partner, Mike. I'm doing unpaid training at a fantastic gallery on a J-1 visa that prohibits me from working in the conventional "dayjob" sense. I'm lucky in that I'm living here with my American boyfriend, with financial support from his and my family, my writing work, and my massive overdraft. (Let's be honest: partner/family support is the way most freelancers and artists get by to begin with, no? If and when we achieve success, this kindness usually gets edited out of the story of grit, business-sense and buckets of determination.)
This shamefully dependent position gives me a slightly different perspective on unpaid work. If I'm to work at all in this country - to meet people/network, to gain valuable experience, to prove myself, to keep my skills sharp, to pave the way for a future here - I must accept that upfront financial gain won't be part of it. I'm glad that I love teaching workshops, meeting artists, and crafting articles for the sake of it. My teaching and writing skills have opened Philadelphia to me in a way that would have been much more difficult if I wasn't willing to share my abilities. My unpaid activities so far have included lecturing to MFA students at the city's University of the Arts and writing for a local blog run by two very influential women. I understand what a privileged position I'm in for this 12 month period (June 2011-June 2012), but rather than whining about it, I'm going to absolutely make the most of it.
While I'm here, though, my main aim is to grow my writing business in order to regain my independence - both freelance for magazines, and for individual artist and gallery clients. Given all of the unpaid work I'm doing, I don't have a lot of time. I'll focus more on the paid writing side of things next time, but wanted to be truthful about my (not so unusual) current circumstances.
Anyone identify with my position?
# 2 [17 July 2011]
Thought I'd flag up the current Rant on Axis' website.
It's called Critical Distance, and points out that art reviews are often too harsh, poking fun for the sake of it, or conversely too generously flattering, or too fluffy and descriptive. I tried to answer honestly some of ranter Josie Faure Walker's points from my experience as a freelance writer in the article comments section...
In my own art reviewing, I probably err on the side of positivity and generosity (making art is hard, and I admire anyone who doesn't give up) unless I see a big ethical, institutional or art historical error - in which case I will dive in with the judgement. I was, in fact, censored for my negative views on the historically inaccurate curation of Tate Modern's 2007 Louise Bourgeois retrospective, as the new, online magazine that commissioned the piece wanted to attract advertising from said museum. As I was a very fresh, young thing back then, I complied, producing instead a rather inane descriptive piece that at one point used the word "magical" (puke).
Truthfully, I'm not sure what I'd do now if asked to significantly change a magazine piece for purposes of commercial diplomacy. It hasn't happened again, in part because I tend now to accompany any negative comments with an attempt to understand why the show's perceived blunders happened, what the curators or artists were perhaps trying to achieve.
But I do try to stir other people to consider the importance of making room for the negatives when writing on art. i teach (paid and unpaid) workshops on critical writing, where I never fail to tell my censorship tale, following it up with a discussion on how better to frame such criticism so that it survives the editorial cut. i also reassure them with the story that, once, a curator actually asked me to be critical. (Shock, horror!) I had the good fortune of meeting Gavin Delahunty, then curator at mima, Middlesbrough, now working for Tate, Liverpool, for a coffee and a chat about queer studies, Rosalind Krauss and his brilliant curatorial project A Certain Distance, Endless Light. Delahunty used to teach critical writing himself, and bemoaned the lack of meaty, incisive reviews. He cited Krauss (and I agree) as someone who didn't care about pleasing museums and curators, and therefore had the balls intellectually to rip a show to shreds if necessary.
I adored A Certain Distance, Endless Light as it resonated with many of my art historical interests. But - wanting to impress Gavin - I decided to note down negatives where i could. This is perhaps a less intuitive way to flatter a curator, than with generous commentary! I found a few bad points, deeming some of the installation decisions poor, and finding the premise of the umbrella A/V festival rather woolly. It was a great feeling, to have permission to be negative, and the result, I feel, is one of my best pieces of writing.
You can read it here:
# 1 [14 July 2011]
I'm pretty nervous about writing on the topics outlined in my blog intro. But as a young creative, struggling to make a living as a freelance art writer, I know how easy it is to peruse the sparkling, clean-lined sites and portfolios of other arts professionals, becoming more and more anxious about not making the grade.
What I would like to offer here is an alternative to the aspirational - and, sometimes, false - discourse of successful creative self-employment that, in the past, I admit I've contributed to.
I don't yet pay my rent with art writing, but I hope and plan to get there. This blog will document that process, while also tackling issues, such as:
- prevalent low rates of pay in the arts, and where I've found fair pay
- the problems and conflicts I encounter (usually without naming names) as I grow my business
- good and bad contracts, and developing my own system of contracts
- pitches that got turned down, marketing efforts that failed, and an analysis of why
- how long it actually takes to write a piece, how much it costs me to write (financially, mentally), and how much I charge
- the emotional highs and lows of writing and business-running
- networking attempts
It's a scary thought that I'll have to be honest about such things. In the past, I've picked up the idea (from the ether, from the internet?) that one should project an aura of success in order to attract it. Now, I feel, it would be more beneficial, for myself and for you, if I just told the truth about how hard every step really is, and thought critically about whether it's worth it.
Hope you'll be intrigued enough to continue reading...
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