Fancy a creative future? Then look no further than 64 Million Artists, a national campaign that wants to unlock the creativity of everyone in Britain. Throughout January it set short daily creative challenges up to 20 minutes long that were “designed to fit into your day and bring it to life, making you more aware of your surroundings, introducing you to new places and people”.

There’s also the BBC’s Get Creative scheme, which was launched last year through a series of localised debates. An example of its impact is profiled in one person’s year-long experience of trying her hand at everything from ballet to watercolours. Nowt wrong with that.

Such endeavours designed to increase levels of everyday participation in culture of all kinds are to be applauded, particularly when you consider what the Understanding Everyday Participation research project identified: that a lack of proximity to and familiarity with the arts forms major barriers, while involvement in amateur arts networks and evening classes reduce them.

The motives of initiatives such as 64 Million Artists are admirable. They seek to expose the creative potential of everybody, asserting that art is “not just what artists do, but what everyone does”. They also believe, vitally, in the importance and value of professional artists within the overall ecology of culture.

From my experience of teaching in adult art education, I saw how evening class goers moved from cake decorating to coiling pots before gravitating to my printmaking studio. But it was in this arts-specific domain they also got to see first-hand how James Hugonin applied and extended his fine art training, while he spent time printing his trademark minimal editions.

Creativity is informed by a whole host of intellectual, emotional, motivational and moral characteristics. Research shows that the traits people across all creative fields have in common are: an openness to one’s inner life; preference for complexity and ambiguity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray; the ability to extract order from chaos; independence; unconventionality and a willingness to take risks.

Supporting creativity nowadays is as much about understanding how to nurture and enable sparks of ideas to be developed as they ricochet between teams of people (in organisations or across practitioner networks) as it is nurturing individual artists as they consistently work away, struck occasionally by the extreme insight that leads to art world recognition.

Social anthropologist Brian Moeran observed that creativity is much less of a “great leap forward” and more a series of small steps akin to the “pigeon-toed shuffle of a geisha”. Journalist Matthew Syed wrote in his feature on how creativity is helped by failure: “The problem in the world today is that we only see the final product: the amazing movie, the super-efficient vacuum cleaner, the vogue theory. What we don’t see is the deeper story of how these innovations emerge.”

While it’s good to have expectations for creativity more widely interpreted and to acknowledge the variety of processes (ranging from the everyday doing and making to the synthesis that builds into professional excellence) we shouldn’t underestimate the need to invest the time and money it takes to ensure the great artists of the future.

The dwindling public funding pot open to individuals to pursue their creative practice was the focus for a recent discussion (to which I contributed) initiated by London-based Zealous. Keynote commercial investors explained the vital role their money and expertise could play in boosting entrepreneurship within promising creative businesses. Creative United’s head of business lending programmes, Sarah Thirtle, showed how loans and business mentoring can contribute to the longer-term viability of smaller arts organisations.

Sadly, for swathes of artists putting heart, soul and every small penny into pursuing a practice, it’s unclear what may be in train to improve the creative conditions for what another Zealous speaker Richard Dedomenici dubbed as the “submerged artists”.

Perhaps it’s the artists’ fault. Are artists side-lined in arts agendas simply because they haven’t adapted their practices to fit today’s cultural ecology? I’m heartened though by some new RSA research that reveals how self-employment allows people to flourish as creative individuals. It makes me wonder whether the problem lies in arts infrastructures, which – to rephrase a sentence from the research findings – have sought to help institutions become viable as opposed to making self-employed artists’ lives liveable.

First published in The Guardian February 2016



Despite the predominantly female visual arts workforce of the past decade, it’s striking that men continue to be given the top jobs. Evidence of cultural diversity is still hard to find.

Praise then to the Baltic gallery trustees, who have broken a continuous line of male directors with the appointment of Sarah Munro. My own examination of the state of play at the best-funded galleries in the English arts funding portfolio (painstakingly poring over websites and funding spreadsheets) reveals that women at the top are still relatively rare.

The Cultural Value and Inequality report by Kate Oakley and Dave O’Brien, discussing inequality within both the creation and consumption of cultural value, indicates that women make up nearly 70% of the workforce in museums and galleries. But according to my research, within those top galleries getting £1m+ of Arts Council England funding, just 37% of director or CEO roles are held by women. The situation is only a little better in the other UK nations, with women leading in 40% of Scotland’s best-funded galleries and 50% of those in Wales.

I’m also shocked to find that after years of cultural diversity policies and all those Smart business plans required of England’s funded galleries – forcing them to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based, the majority of their leaders are white and male.

According to the recent Warwick Commission report, representation of women and ethnic minorities in the cultural workforce – not to mention people with disabilities – has worsened over the past five years. From his perspective as a cultural analyst and consultant, Mark Robinson argues on his Thinking Practice blog that diversifying the workforce is one of the most urgent challenges facing the cultural sector: “Even us white men of a certain age are getting tired of listening to white men of a certain age and their views.”

The paucity of “alternative” role models is apparent the deeper you delve. According to my calculations, in England alone, men chair 86% of trustee boards in those “top” galleries. With under 2% of chairs categorised as coming from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, Castlefield Gallery director Kwong Lee’s comments in 2012 on diversity still hold true: “A lot of ethnic minorities still don’t know it’s an option for them to … be a leader within the cultural industries.”

As discussed at a Clore Leadership Programme (CLP) development day: leadership should be an activity, attitude and way of being, rather than a job or title. It’s a notion that calls for the traditional career and leadership structures to be superseded by new roles that are premised on flexible locations and independent working so that they appeal more to those who currently are or feel excluded from the leadership pool.

So what about more artists at the top? Surely the arts need artists to help solve the many challenges they face? Their leadership derives from a flexible and independent approach. They thrive on uncertainty and risk and have what Thomas Homer Dixon calls a prospective mind: “One that aggressively engages with uncertainty and risk, which recognises how little we understand and how we control even less.”

In an interview published by a-n The Artists Information Company, Cornelia Parker, whose work is often about flipping things on their head, joked that she’s more a “redael” – a backwards leader. In the piece she suggested a kind of leadership that is both on the one hand visionary, inspiring, influential and innovative – and at the same time questioning, interrogative, plural and doubting.

While programmes such as CLP are actively pursuing policies to ensure diversity within leadership positions, by drawing from a wider pool to identify and train the next swell of cultural leaders, I’m making a plea here for some positive discrimination for the UK’s independent practitioners and working artists so that the “alternative” leadership talents can flourish.

I looked back to the things that worked for me, and offer some suggestions for how to get some quick wins on the equality and diversity front.

Bring back arts peer panels: Although dismissed by Arts Council England (ACE) on the grounds of cost and the length of time needed for decision-making, peer panels provided a space for the insight of artists (as I was then). It was through ACE and Northern Arts specialist panels that I, with more illustrious artists as my role models, learned how to contribute usefully to such discussions and to make and stand by those difficult arts funding decisions.

Include artists on boards: It wasn’t that long ago that the McMaster’s review recommended that excellence in the arts meant having at least two artists or practitioners on the board of every publicly-funded organisation. It also recommended establishing a knowledge bank of artists and practitioners who could be called on when recruiting for senior arts posts. Do this.

Let artists speak for themselves: Only last week I heard of yet another arts conference at which what artists should do (in this case to support arts fundraising and philanthropy) was the topic, but none of the speakers to the proposition were actually artists.

Don’t just call on the usual suspects: Draw your artists and arts freelancers from all social, cultural and economic backgrounds.

Invest to create the assets of the future: Ring-fence a budget for freelancers’ fees because artists and many arts professionals now are self-employed. If you want to secure cultural, social and economic equality across all aspects of the arts, pay loss of earnings and out-of-pocket expenses (as well as disability access costs) for freelance speakers, consultees and artistic advisers. You’ll be helping to grow tomorrow’s great cultural leaders through your interventions.

First published by The Guardian 24 September 2015



Nowadays there are more than twice as many female students than males on fine art courses, according to data obtained from the HE Statistics Agency. However, many contemporary galleries and exhibitions still need to realise the value of women’s art. New research from Freelands Foundation revealed that the contemporary visual arts world is lagging behind when it comes to enabling artistic equality for today’s up-and-coming female artists.

While at least half of all visual artists are women, female artists are getting just 42% of the shows in London’s non-commercial galleries, or 40% elsewhere across England, Scotland and Wales.

It is progress compared to the situation in 1991, when the May issue of a-n’s (then printed magazine) Artists Newsletter revealed how some established female artists joined forces to “bring the Fanny Adams experience to the art world’s attention” – and their shocking pink poster revealed that 83% of solo shows in London’s commercial galleries were going to men.

More than 30 years ago, a major enquiry named The Economic Status of the Visual Artist noted that 35 was the age at which many women were forced to drop out.

It’s something to which I can relate. My career as a practising artist started to show some successes in my 30s and early 40s through exhibitions and purchases for public collections. But the conflict between maintaining a studio practice, keeping that toehold in the exhibition world and income generation meant my day job as an arts manager crowded the art making out.

This is a problem still faced by many female artists now – and it won’t go away, because there are twice as many women than men graduating from our art schools. The burgeoning careers of many of today’s artists can stall at that pivotal age, when women have to grapple with starting a family, alongside the expectations of the art world that artists be available to undertake commissions and projects wherever they may be (and be visible within national and international networking). When it comes to juggling childcare and art production costs, many of today’s up-and-coming female artists find themselves both time- and cash-poor.

In the subsidised visual arts, where funding compliance is able to secure an acceptable bottom line, gender equality in programming is on the way, mirroring positive achievements made in the visual arts workforce as a whole.

And while female artists have in the past decade been under-represented in selections for the Venice Biennale, we can find a model of good practice instead in Glasgow International’s 2016 programme balance.

Although some might agree with George Baselitz – that female artists will get due attention when their work’s good enough – here are four better ways to create some positive action.

Galleries should exhibit overlooked artists

Acknowledging the contribution made by many who have been previously overlooked, Tate Modern’s expansion and its commitment to showing the real history of art (beyond the European and North American canon) means that director Frances Morris has pledged more space for women’s art. In May, seminal works by Margaret Harrison – a co-founder of the first Women’s Liberation Art group in 1971 – provide a focus for examination of the environment for feminist art then and now.

Recognise lesser-known female talent with awards

Who can fault Freelands Foundation’s new award, aimed specifically at female artists who have not yet achieved the acclaim and public recognition their works deserve. The foundation’s founder, Elisabeth Murdoch, wants the award to be about pushing boundaries and helping artists and arts organisations fulfil their potential. Worth £100,000 and selected from nominations, it will enable a mid-career female artist to make new work for exhibition in collaboration with a regional arts organisation.

Champion residencies for those excluded by personal circumstances

On a micro-scale, artist and mother Nicola Smith (for whom I’m a mentor) has become a champion of family-friendly artists’ residencies. Responding to the many programmes that have unrealistic expectations and artists who said it was money and family commitments that prevented them from pursuing their practice through residencies, she’s launched a new micro-research residency We Are Resident. Supported by Finland’s Tampere Artists’ Association, it’s aimed specifically at an artist (male or female) in north-west England whose family or personal circumstances limit participation in normal residency opportunities.

Support your peers

Mothers Who Make is an London initiative generated by artist Matilda Leyser. It acts as a peer support group for actors, dancers, writers, painters and film-makers who are mothers, to share the particular wonders and struggles of being a mother and maker. Find it popping up in other places such as Manchester – or start your own.

First published The Guardian 6 May 2016



It is just as important to nurture individuals and micro arts groups as it is to protect big bricks and mortar institutions

In recent months, and in the run-up to this month’s spending round, arts lobbying network What Next? has been urging us to play our part in giving out positive messages about the value of the arts (#Arts4Britain).

The arts are, as the body’s spending round political engagement document says, “central to public life and drive growth, innovation and regeneration.” The impact of the arts tends to be described as economic, such as when Turner Contemporary generates a 30% increase in rail passengers to Margate. According to Arts Council England’s toolkit, government subsidy to the arts is worth it because the buildings attract tourists, who spend money. And to quote CEBR data, public subsidy to the arts is vital because your house will be worth more if it’s near an arts venue.

At September’s No Boundaries symposium, which brought the arts industry together to debate new solutions to arts development in this unfriendly political climate, consultant John Knell – who a few years back was urging a holistic approach to fostering the health of the whole arts and cultural ecology; not just particular bits – set out a different stall. Small arts organisations, he asserted, would have to go to the wall because they don’t have the (business) skills and capability needed for resilience. They’re just too small to succeed.

Maria Balshaw, director of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, continued this theme. She asked, perhaps rhetorically: when had the prioritising of arts funding to new and bigger venues, such as Manchester’s multimillion-pound Factory development, ever been to the detriment of the smaller-scale?

Surely I’m not the only one to question this assertion. In my own patch of Newcastle-Gateshead, the creation of Baltic may have created a flagship organisation with international status, but it’s had the side effect of pushing important smaller players such as Globe Gallery, Isis Arts and AmberSide to the margins. The Waygood Gallery and Studios, which had grown from regional arts policies that valued the artist-led as much as the arts institution, is now a distant memory.

At No Boundaries and elsewhere, the talk was about forming clusters of like-structured organisations, saving money by sharing staff and having jointly used systems, as this will ensure the arts’ survival in a harsh climate. But this is only a viable long-term strategy if the resulting ecology is in tune with the behaviours and aspirations of its users and audiences – and if it provides the seed beds, testing grounds and ladders for development for the artists and performers of the future.

Tacita Dean, who is now an internationally known artist, has argued for the value of very small organisations – many of which are now under-resourced – in building artists’ careers: “My first cutting room was at Four Corners in London. There I would work, with an intensity I can recall vividly … I cannot know what I would be doing now had I not cemented my process, as I did there.”

Having recently become a doctoral student in a university among 32,000 others, I’ve got a personal interest in how much the customer (aka student) is driving his or her own education. Speaking at No Boundaries, educational researcher Sugata Mitra regretted that in the education systems of today, schools still act as if the internet doesn’t exist. As one of my own guiding principles is to accept that creativity is messy, I warmed to the description of his School in the Cloud as being “purposefully chaotic”.

This is definitely not remotely like my university’s library, where the Dewey categorisation system still reigns supreme. Mitra’s school is a new creative online space where children worldwide come together to answer big questions, share knowledge and benefit from guidance from online educators.

In the pursuit of demonstrating social impact and organisational resilience to secure political support for the arts, I’d argue that we should actively embrace this messiness and pay more attention to supporting the nitty-gritty of the processes by taking care of the needs and ambitions of the thousands of individuals who comprise the creative industries. Securing their resilience is just as important as the bricks-and-mortar.

I like this advice from the US-based Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center:

“A community that is working to strengthen itself is, without realising it, preparing for a disaster. Because you don’t get ready for a disaster the day before. We must keep sharpening our tools.”

First published The Guardian 2 November 2015