I have been trying to focus on other things recently, so had said to artist friends that I was done with the begging bowl. Of course though then I saw something interesting and put in a proposal for a residency. A few hours (yes hours) later I got a reply that they were looking for more conceptual artists, and then I was left wondering firstly why I spent days doing a proposal after I had definitely said I was done with this, and secondly why my idea that involved creating a vast oceanic drawing with the left eye I only have 20% vision in due to MS, would not be considered conceptual when looking at public perceptions of disability. I also wondered if having the disability myself means I don’t really count as the public?
I went to a highly conceptual art school, so I have done my time of performance and video things. I even spent the most part of one term pouring glitter down plug holes but I’ve always needed to work for a living, so my website and portfolio probably reflect this more, with a range of public art and illustration jobs I’ve had over the years.
I know that right now you might be reading this and saying ‘get off this site, you’re obviously an illustrator – or beastly commercial artist,’ but I really don’t think that in 2019 it matters all that much. Maybe a bit like publishing being set up to avoid unsavoury commerce situations, leftover feudal snobbery still means that those of use who also have to occasionally touch money are not fit to really be fine artists. Yet that is one of the attitudes I have been trying to address in this blog series about financial sustainability.
I really believe that the model of the artist sojourning in Tuscany while painting plein air, or living in a squat and doing interpretive dance for Special Brew, still needs a big overhaul. If you are really homeless, making art must be a complete nightmare and you probably wouldn’t have access to the digital equipment you need to put in art proposals and run your own website etc. On the other end of the scale are the people who are independently wealthy, and it doesn’t really matter whether they make money from their art or not. In the middle must be the vast majority of people who work in the arts, who are the ones in desperate need of the top-down transparency, honesty and good practice that seems to be in short supply. So that’s my January wish list. I don’t feel that I need to make any resolutions for myself at the moment but believe that people a bit further up the chain actually should, if they really care about their industry and want to still have something left in years to come.
A friend suggested I ask for feedback about the conceptual element of the above rejection because that is what ended up bothering and confusing me. A big part of me thinks that conceptualism wasn’t really the problem and that they just thought my portfolio was rubbish. I’m really fine with that but I want someone to say it. Being honest is so much better than being nice because being honest is helpful.
What I am very happy about, and would like to commend the curator for, is that I got a response to my application, even if it was a confusing one. This puts the whole project higher in my estimation, as it is very common to never hear back. I once submitted a research proposal of over 5000 requested words, references and even had the hour-long interview to never hear back from anyone again. Then there was the three-hour four person interview and portfolio review several years ago where the interviewers perplexingly ended up hiring two people for technical roles who had no experience, and instead of even a brief rejection email made their announcement on Twitter a month later. A colleague over the summer told me that he had not only been interviewed but ‘employed’ for an unpaid test day, and after that never heard from the very well-known institution again. He wasn’t going for a job as a waitress, which might have explained the test shift, but another technical role where his MA would be considered an entry-level qualification.
In terms of my confusion over this current job rejection, my website looks like it belongs to an illustrator, quite on purpose because as mentioned I’m one of those filthy artists who have to earn money on a daily basis. I’ve also recently developed a love of drawing watercolour mushrooms, so I’m waiting for a book cover illustration opening all about chanterelles, and I know I’m hopelessly decorative. I sent some photographs of installations and performance with my application but it’s not too hard to spot a love of storytelling, illustration and paper running through it all. So I am assuming that this is where the unsuitability came from.
My work not being to someone’s taste is something I can’t argue with, and their feelings are never going to stop me drawing Baba Yaga, so all would actually be well on hearing that. Otherwise you’re just left guessing, and that doesn’t nourish anyone in the industry. Artists left guessing can’t improve their offerings and projects won’t improve their input.
What is eternally hard about fine-art briefs is that whether vague or super-specific, you still never actually know what people are looking for. Unlike drawing mushrooms for a book cover about mushrooms, when submitting for a fine-art brief you never know if they actually mean ‘race horse and conceptual theatre’ when they say ‘watercolour champignon.’
The fudge gets worse if you track projects through from the call-out to the finished show, which often seems to have absolutely no relevance to what was on the brief to start with. As a type of sick hobby, I’ve had fun doing this over the last couple of years with things I would never apply for but just downloading the brief then placing myself as an audience member to see what they end up doing. Sometimes the project outcome is so mediocre that it makes you wonder where the fee went, and you know that at least 50 other brilliant proposals must have been rejected off-hand. At other times it’s so suspicious you have a feeling that the curator / project manager just hired their friend from prep school. Either way most things seem to end up being photographs or murals.
I know that the art world is hardly the only place where standards for jobseekers are low. Any search online about issues with job title, descriptions, interviewing, transparent decision-making shows that every industry and many countries seem to have this problem. In the UK, the economy has been unhealthy since 2008, and then further decimated by austerity. Whatever the employment figures, it is a fact that we have a huge amount of low quality jobs, underemployment as well as in-work poverty. This, combined with the lack of any established good practice in the fine art world, other than having private wealth before you have the temerity to become an artist has led to a really hard, and sometimes baffling, industry to work in.
While we may not be able to do anything about the current economic climate, as an industry we can adapt to it and protect ourselves. Not just as individuals, but everyone. It helps to have some commitment to this from top down though, and that is where right now everyone needs to do a little soul searching. We cannot carry on with established institutions running on volunteers and underpaid staff, funded projects being run like lotteries and expensive education that gives no clear steps in to work.
Many people already in the established position to hire, did it before things got so hard: before tuition fees, before rocketing housing prices, before blanket zero hours contracts for everything else, before academic tenure was axed, before everything creative in the whole world was freelance, before getting studio space became like hiring a suite at The Ritz, before the gig economy became the prime location for earning sub-minimum wage. We’re now facing the possibility of losing EU funding this year, for a range of often really helpful community-based public art projects, so it is going to be essential to have a healthy industry that nourishes everyone who works in it.
I have been thinking about all of this for a long time, and last summer had a spate of being the hirer. I have to admit to being horrified to getting a deluge of nearly 600 applications for a tiny job. So there I was cursing my silly principles and I knew that if I didn’t do what I considered to be the proper thing, when I actually had the chance to get away with it, then I would be forever ashamed of myself. I spent a gruelling afternoon replying to all the people I rejected, explaining the truth that I’d been inundated and therefore they hadn’t got a position. Luckily bulk emailing is a thing now, although I know that even with this a few people must have fallen through the net. I apologise for that but did as much as I could. In response I got a surprise further deluge of emails saying thank you and that nobody ever gets back to them usually, and that this was so unprecedented they felt moved to write to me to express their gratitude. What a shameful place for our industry to be in, when art often pertains to be so much about social cohesion, ethics, moral frameworks and humanity.
In truth my own hiring decisions were probably iffy as well, as there was no way I was going to be able to thoroughly consider 600 applicants. I ended up choosing the one woman who sent me the most easily readable synopsis, as well as reliable looking experience before I got text blindness. As it turned out she was a great choice, and we’ve worked together again but I know that hiring managers probably have a hard job when it comes to picking what works for them. I know that none of this is easy, but against the backdrop of the economy I don’t see a choice to reforming ourselves unless we want to once and for all haemorrhage all artists to Uber driving and administration. If that day ever comes then all those institutions currently sitting on their laurels over this will find themselves without a place.
So in all of this, what do we do about it? I’d actually like to see a voluntary code of practice that people could sign up for. What do other people think and what would be in it? I will start it off with my one wish.
For jobs that require lengthy written proposals and a large amount of time spent on application, I would like clearer briefs, not just describing the project but also what they are looking for in practitioners and in an outcome. Forget the unicorn fishing and actually give us some idea of what you want. If you just want to see some random artwork and the type of person you are after, then let people apply with only portfolio links and CVs before getting to the part where a written proposal is needed. This will weed out anyone unsuitable for you, and stop everybody else having to waste days of precious freelance time applying. It also might mean fewer applicants to the proposal stages, which in turn means that brief but proper feedback should become an achievable thing for rejections at that stage.
On a positive end note, I’ve worked with some brilliant people and organisations over the last few years, and even had some rejections that I thought were handled extremely well and helped me to learn rather than just feel confused. Good feedback was always a part of that. I feel that I want to list all these good eggs just because they really matter but I will leave it for the moment just because it could be another whole post, as they are all fabulous organisations and people for different reasons.
I’d really love to know what other things people want from fine-art employers? What would make this whole system better? I’ve just put one wish down here but it would be great to get some more, so please post below if you can. Do you think a voluntary code of practice would catch on, or be helpful?