The Autonomous Artist is a dedicated blog detailing activities, thoughts and reflections about my time as 2017/18 Visual Artist Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme. I will exploring the role of the artist in arts leaderships and reflecting on independent, self determining and self sufficient approaches to practice.

Briefer updates will be via twitter

A Q&A about being awarded the fellowship can be read here 

A press release containing details of the whole 2017/18 cohort can be read here 

My thanks to a-n for supporting the The Visual Artist Fellowship on the Clore Leadership programme.


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Lloyds Bank recently bought a double page spread in the Guardian weekend magazine (18.11.17) “Spread your wings with a portfolio career”. This advert, written like a magazine article contains all the usual elements and advice about starting a portfolio career; continue working full time while developing what you really want to do; the importance of networking; communicating with HMRC; having some savings in the bank. All quite useful if a bit predictable and written with a particular demographic in mind. It’s marketed to show how modern a portfolio career is by calling it the ‘new face of millennial work’ (1).

What drew my attention most was the image that accompanied the article. The illustration shows a ‘worker’ levitating surrounded by the accoutrements of work; desk, laptop, lamp, notebook and phone also all levitating. Its style is reminiscent of an early video game, with the potential for the different elements to slot tidily into place. Reflections direct my thoughts to how portfolio working is neither a game nor it is tidy.

In her Research Paper Artists work in 2016, Susan Jones analyses data from the jobs and opp site over 2016. In the paper she details:

“Research by a-n has found that at least half of all visual artists are self employed, and when those with self employment and employed status in parallel are included the figure rises to 81%.” (2).

The paper goes onto to say:

“…visual artists are more likely to be those for whom ‘looking for work’ is a constant and continuous activity…” (3).

It is this continual nature of searching for opportunities and/or developing speculative approaches that is so time consuming and of course unpaid that requires artists to regularly dig deep in order to keep going.  Huge quantities of self belief and motivation are required which, when fellow artists are in the same boat can be difficult to access.

Even when work is secured the ebb and flow of money can be problematic also. Having a fluctuating income may dovetail well in a household where there is more than one income or there is support that comes from elsewhere but if the portfolio working artist is the only or primary wage earner the challenges can mount up quickly. Erratic income streams which are the hallmark of portfolio working have far reaching implications for artists who will be moved onto or need to claim Universal Credit. Combine this with having to have maintain and develop multiple skill sets, deal with lone working, managing multiple projects at different stages simultaneously and having to travel for work, the self employed across a whole range of professions, face a myriad of challenges:

“Isolation, financial pressures, irregular hours and an inability to switch off can have a real impact when not managed properly, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at MBS Manchester University. “For self-employed people, it’s a real problem. It can lead to the common mental health disorders – stress, depression and anxiety.” (4)

For artists to reflect the diversity of the population we need people from all types of backgrounds; single people, collectives, families, single parents, people with health difficulties and people with caring responsibilities, to think about creative practice as a financially viable and fulfilling career aspiration. For this to be the case the portfolio career model would benefit from specific examination, alternatives designed and recommendations across the industry to be implemented. If the current model continues then who will want to and who will be able to be an artist?  The danger is that due to the instability of portfolio working only an increasingly narrow demographic will be able to ride the wave of erratic income and workflow. This has the potential to narrow the diversity of practising artists to such an extent that the artwork being produced, shown and promoted at its best tells a limited range of stories and at worst becomes predominantly non applicable to the wider population.

This question of diversity spreads across the whole art system. Many leadership jobs in the arts are employed roles (so no portfolio working required) but equality of opportunity is an issue here also as Mark Robinson reports in Inside, Outside, Beyond: Artistic Leadership for Contradictory times. His provocation paper, commissioned by Bluecoat discusses the problems of demanding leadership roles for that of artistic director or chief executive, and how the way in which these roles are structured, the sheer quantity of work, travel and flexibility required means that qualified and able people are not applying because they have diverse lives and needs (5).

Artists can’t levitate. For many their feet are firmly anchored to the floor by financial and creative realties as they survey and operate within the complexities of portfolio working. Whether employed or self employed working a portfolio of jobs, roles in the arts would benefit from a radical shake up to ensure the full spectrum of the population can, if they want to, access the industry and thrive within it.  If we want artists to continue to contribute to the Creative industries which is worth almost £10 million an hour to economy then support systems need to be designed that are suited to the diversity of our lives and ambitions.

  1. Lloyds Bank Spread you wings with a portfolio career advertisement in the Guardian Weekend 18.11.17.
  2. Susan Jones Artists Work in 2016 Research Paper p.16
  3. ibid
  4. Sandra Haurant I felt vulnerable’: freelancers on the stress of self-employment  published Thursday 8 December 2016
  5. Mark Robinson – Thinking Practice Inside Outside Beyond: Artistic Leadership for Contradictory Times. A provocation paper for Bluecoat, Liverpool 2017

Further reading / resources 

Rhiannon White Who gets ‘developed’? The diversity question: who is and isn’t able to become a professional artist, and how can we change that?

Scottish Artists’ Union and Artists’ Union England announce joint campaign on Universal Credit

There is information about Universal Credit on the Turn2us website. Turn2us is a national charity that helps people in financial hardship gain access to welfare benefits, charitable grants and support services.


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Fixed: fastened, secure, fast, firm, stable; rooted, riveted, moored, anchored, permanent

Variable: changeable, changing, varying, shifting, fluctuating, irregular, wavering, vacillating, inconstant, inconsistent, fluid, floating, unsteady, uneven, unstable, unsettled, movable, mutable, protean, chameleonic, unfixed, fitful, capricious, temperamental, fickle, kaleidoscopic, volatile, unpredictable, undependable, unreliable.

Within the wide range of artists commissions there are held within the brief a range of fixed and variable conditions. Fixed conditions can include non negotiable items like budget and timescale, engagement requirements and details prohibiting the creation of works which may be likely to offend. The more fixed conditions or guidelines there are the more anchored the project with be to the ideals and ideas of the commissioner. Commissions funded by public money or trusts may also have requirements attached that shape the way the commission is written, managed and delivered.

Establishing a clear understanding of the fixed and variable points within a commission brief can be an important process for artists. Within commissions with many fixed points the artist has the opportunity to learn how to manoeuvre within a defined boundary or boundaries. This can be a safer more stable way of work and useful when seeking to develop experience and practice based knowledge (for both artist and commissioner). Too many fixed points and the creative process is stifled and the artist has a limited opportunity to bring themselves into the project which in turn may limit the project itself.

In seeking to understand a commission is it useful to ask who has written the brief; how much experience have they of working with artists; what types of activities have they undertaken which involve risk? If the commissioner is risk averse or the guiding principles of the funder are very specific this can render the artist a person who implements or delivers, undervaluing and underutilising the contribution they have to offer as professionals and specialists in their own field.

There are also commissions which are by their very nature more variable at the outset, these include working within a specific context or with a particular group of people with the resulting artwork expected to be a response to these stimulus. The artist has the opportunity to bring in ideas and working processes the commissioner may be unaware of and practise with a greater sense of autonomy. With this more ‘open brief’ approach the artist may also need to contend with and manage a range of unpredictable elements in a pro-active manner and feel confident in doing so.

When the Artist Placement Group (APG) negotiated placements for artists within companies, institutions and government departments they did so with the clear ambition that the artist would have the opportunity to work with an open brief. This situated the artist as an autonomous person within the host setting and able to respond to the context in any way they should so choose. This open brief requirement was a corner stone of APG which together with their guiding principle that Context is Half the Work led to the creation of works which were received in a variety of ways.

Context is Half the Work guides my to approach to working with non artists and non visual arts organisations through self initiated projects and commissions. My starting point is based on a specific interest, a connection with something that can be found within that context. Ultimately I work from a place of not knowing or being inexpert and through dialogue, exchange, technical demonstrations, asking questions and listening I seek to find out, to connect with the experts specialist knowledge which I then use to establish common ground. These projects work best when there is an regular dialogue which helps to build a mutual interest and respect alongside the visual art aims.

The model I prefer for both self initiated projects and commissions contains a combination of fixed and variable conditions but essentially the artist is placed or places themselves on a level playing field with the commissioner or host organisation. There is a positive regard for both the artist’s voice and for the organisation’s ability to host a placement or facilitate a new commission.

As professional ambitions and priorities change taking time to regularly ask questions about what kind of artist we are, how do we like to work and what aspects are intrinsic to our practice can be a very valuable process. If we further know where the areas of compromise may be, and know what we need in order to do / make / facilitate our best work and be our best professional selves the easier it is to communicate this to the people we will be working with.

*These reflections are informed by discussions, workshops and presentations that took place on the the #Clore14 residential in Sept / Oct 2017.


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Value: appreciate, rate (highly), esteem, hold in high esteem, hold in high regard, hold dear, have a high opinion of, think highly of, think much of, set (great) store by, attach importance to, respect, admire, prize, cherish, treasure.

Values: principles, moral principles, ethics, moral code, morals, moral values, standards, moral standards, code of behaviour, rules of conduct, standards of behaviour.

In preparation for the first Clore residential which starts on Monday each member of the cohort was asked to write up to 300 words under the heading what matters to me with the responses being circulated to this years Clore cohort and the Clore staff. Choosing to complete the exercise as a list, complied over a couple of days I started to think about the relationship between my what matters to me list and my values.

Values are intrinsic in helping us to identify what our direction of travel will be and indeed how we will travel. It helps us to focus and informs how we will approach all manner of domestic and work situations, personal and professional relationships. We all have values and far from being fixed entities it is entirely natural that values will form and reform as we ourselves grow and develop and the world around us changes. Some artists choose to share their values though their work, some overtly, some covertly, some are communicated through aesthetics, other through process or context. The distinctly personal nature of values means some may feel contradictory, others complimentary, some we feel at ease sharing others perhaps less so.

Could values have more of a role to play in art practice and particularly in the selection of artists for specific advertised opportunities? Values may be implicit in CV’s, artists statements and project proposals but what if there was a clear request for our Top 10 Values that we draw out from a exercise similar to what matters? If both artist and commissioner are clear about their values from the outset this would lead to more fulfilling work and better working relationships.

During the Fellowship interview I spoke to the panel about the importance of autonomy for artists. More recently I have been considering how as professionals when we have the opportunity to develop ideas free from over-stipulated project boundaries we are able to bring our value set into play alongside our skills, knowledge and experience. It could take more time to work in this way but relationships between artists and arts organisations / commissioners would be strengthened through having more honest and therefore more productive conversations resulting in work with more integrity.


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