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 be 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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Pablo Helguera in his book Education for Socially Engaged Practice explores what it means to work in a socially engaged manner, where the variables lie, the questions, experiments and issues. Early in the book he “establishes a tentative taxonomy”1 with which to work out what kind of participation is being offered. This simple set of descriptions (shorted and highlighted in the above image) does much to promote reflective thinking about what a project aiming or claiming to be socially engaged is actually offering. Just exactly what kind of participation is sought, how will participants participate, to what extent and to what desired outcome? Where does capacity of decision making come into the collaborative equation for both artist / arts organisation and participant? Is it even collaborative? What exactly is the ambition and how is success to be measured?

I was fortunate to go to the University of East Anglia in Norwich last week where the New Perspectives in Participatory Arts (part of the AHRC Connecting Communities) was taking place. Wide ranging in its speakers, the programme brought together academics and practitioners in a range of thought provoking presentations which explored methods and policy, telling stories, community music and media, care and the community to name but a few.

Scattered notes taken in haste as speakers spoke and slides were shown, have been reviewed and the following seem to demand further consideration at a date yet to be identified. In no particular order they are:

Collaboration ‘with not for’

Who is being left out and why

Being vigilant about what is missing

The creative class

Porous boundaries

Participation or direction

Social Capital

Redemption narratives

Listening is a creative act in itself

Intrinsic motivation

Instrumental benefits

What can i do to help you feel comfortable?

Absence of a pre-determined plan

We all feel like outsiders on the inside

I am not a neutral person in this space

Culture of over claiming

Are people excluded or do they exclude themselves?

Compendium of contentious terms

Not mimicking  – taking its own form

Protection from the audience gaze

Community arts as a 2nd class arts activity

The relationship between engagement and aesthetics

Elastic boundaries

Lived, explored, reacted and responded creatively

Necessary attributes of resilience

What quality looks like

The audience is really important

Risks and Context

Dialogical practice

All growth requires a degree of loss

I’ve got a particular pallet that I am still happy with

Culture of persistent encounter.

There were a number of papers which focused on measurement and evaluation. Some presenters spoke of  how some existing methods of measurement were inappropriate for some participatory groups. The idea of relying on anecdotal evidence was seen by some as problematic, for others it constituted practiced based research, there were also suggestions for new scales of measurement to be created. It raises the question can we have projects that are creative, inclusive and engaging if we can’t measure their impact? Is anything that is beyond measurement? Probably not but no-one wants evaluation to be a larger part of the budget than the actual event.

Later in his book Helguera talks of  documentation in relationship to authorship.

“Authorship hinges on the existence of a recognisable product. It is hard to claim to be an author of any kind if there is no tangible product to claim as one’s own. Yet that is precisely what lies at the centre of Socially Engaged Practice: the idea that an intangible social interaction between a group of people can constitute an artwork” (2).

The importance of documentation and authorship can be extended to include measurement and evaluation. If it wasn’t documented did it happen, if it wasn’t evaluated did it have impact? Both have consequences for the artist and for participatory arts as a whole.

1Pablo Helguera Education for Socially Engaged Practice: A materials and Techniques Handbook. Jorge Pinto Books, New York 2011 p.14/15

2ibid p73


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Trust: confidence, belief, faith, freedom from suspicion & doubt, sureness, certainty, certitude, assurance, conviction,credence, reliance, responsibility, duty, obligation, safe-keeping, keeping, protection, charge, care, custody; trusteeship, guardianship.

In a recent Life Scientific Jim Al-khalili was in conversation with Allie Macadam, renowned engineer. In the programme Macadam was in part talking about diversity or lack of diversity within the engineering sector and what part unconscious bias plays in recruitment decision making. She went on to say how we need to be aware of our unconscious bias to ensure diversity increases.  Obviously the issues associated with unconscious bias extend far beyond engineering playing out across the whole of society on an everyday basis.

There are currently over 165,000 registered charities in the uk with 700,000 trustees sitting on their boards (1). Charities will have a Chief Executive Officer or equivalent but it is the trustees who direct and hold the charities activities in line with its registered purpose. Trustees are also in charge of the financial stability and proper accounting of the charity in addition to numerous other responsibilities including terms of employment for staff. The trustee role in the charity sector is always unpaid so trustees are effectively volunteers who give up their time to support the aims of a charity they believe in and want to practically support.

Currently two thirds of trustees are male, have an average age between 55 – 64 with only 8% from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds (2). These statistics show how charity boards are unrepresentative of the population as a whole. If board members come from similar educational, class, ethnic and/or professional backgrounds the danger is of ‘groupthink’ referred to in 2017 Arts Council How to Create Diverse Boards – Culture Change Guide.

“A diverse board is able to make decisions more effectively by reducing the risk of ‘groupthink’. Board members are responsible for devising or agreeing strategies through critical appraisal and effective problem solving. A challenge in the decision- making process, within the boardroom, is ‘groupthink’ – the psychological behaviour of minimising conflicts and reaching a consensus decision. Including the contributions of people with different skills, backgrounds and experiences creates solutions to problems from a greater range of perspectives”(3).

So why is the trustee demographic so limited? It is perhaps attributable in part to the historical (but still prevalent) process of ‘recruiting trustees on the basis of existing influence, contacts or wealth which predicates against a more diverse range of trustees’ (4). It may also be due to personal experience; if no-one in a family, friendship or colleague group had ever been a trustee what would prompt an individual to consider or aspire to such a position? Perhaps witnessing the media attention on trustees (who are legally responsible for the charities activities which includes safeguarding) when alleged, serious wrong-doings are highlighted is off putting to prospective candidates. Having spare time to make a regular unpaid commitment to a charity, holding that charity and steering it through both challenging and thriving times proactively is not something everyone can do. Many trustee meetings happen in the evenings when people may have caring responsibilities rendering attendance at meetings difficult. These are all possibilities and yet there is a new agenda promoting diversity on boards, it matters across both charity and corporate sectors as boards are under the microscope.

It was a talk by Prue Skene on the first Clore Leadership residential where she detailed her experience of working on and developing charity boards, that really brought the idea of joining a board to mind. As part of my Clore fellowship development programme I decided to enrol on the Cause4 Trustee Leadership course to provide a solid base on which to develop an understanding of the role of trustee and to hear about experiences of people who are currently trustees. Bearing in mind that seeking a position on an arts based charity might bring about a conflict of interest (trustees can not financially benefit from the charity) I am using the course to learn and think about both what kind of charity I would like to give time to.  More widely I am considering what artists could bring to charity boards of all kinds and what our skill set may be.

It can be difficult to appraise skills when they don’t fit neatly into roles or easily identifiable subjects such as finance, human resources or marketing but artists are multi-skilled professionals. Many artists activities are focused on seeking opportunities, locating grants and and writing applications, managing budgets, working with diverse participants and audiences. Many artists know what it is like to live on low incomes whilst navigating a complex benefits system with the unpredictability of paid work. We may have knowledge and prior experience of working with the charity beneficiaries or may be a former beneficiary ourselves, either way it allows us to bring value insights to boards. Artists lead their own work and to a large extent their own careers, so we regularly question, and critically reflect in order to develop and move forward. For some challenging accepted ways of working and holding those in authority accountable is a vital focus of their practice.  These useful and transferable skills in the artists toolkit could make us very valuable assets to charity boards of all kinds.

And what can we gain? We have the opportunity to contribute to something outside of our own creative practice, making a positive difference in the charty sector.  We gain new skills from training and peer learning, develop a greater understanding of the challenges charities face informing the way we interact with the charities we collaborate with or are contracted by in our paid work. The exchange of time for experience isn’t one that everyone can make but if artists can find their way onto boards our professional reach and influence grows which can only be of benefit to our sector and wider society as we promote new ideas and ways of working informed by creative practice.

Endnotes

  1. Cause4 Trustee Leadership Course 15 Feb 2018
  2. Taken on Trust The awareness and effectiveness of charity trustees in England and Wales November 2017
  3. How to create diverse boards – Culture Change Guide 2017 p.2
  4. ibid

 

Resources

Charity Commission – Trustee Role and Board

Trustee Bank – details of trustee vacancies 

@TrusteeLeaders 

 


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The Clore Fellowship is made up of a number of elements. There are mandatory aspects such as the two residential courses at the beginning and end of the fellowship, some core training which we will do as a group in February and writing a provocation paper. All fellows also have access to support from a coach, mentor and there is a secondment. The secondment or placement is about working in a context very different from anything we have have done previously whilst remaining in the cultural sector. We have the opportunity to select from a list of secondments opportunities or come up with our own ideas. There is a similar process for putting forward a choice for a mentor who will support each fellow over the duration of the fellowship programme. Members of the Clore team then make approaches to both secondment and mentor choices. In deciding on my list for both secondment and mentor I thought about how I best learn and develop. Working with cross discipline collaboration is a main focus on my visual art practice and I have worked with architects, engineers, archivists and museum collections and more recently an ergonomist and so this knowledge guided my choices.

What I enjoy and find enormously productive about working in contexts very different to my own is the conversation that comes from a place of not knowing. This in turn fosters a sense of humility which is the companion of open exploration. When I worked with engineers at Hethel Engineering Centre I was not surprised to find the many similarities between terms used and methods of production but there were thought provoking discussions about the differences between exploration of ideas and problem solving. When working with the Parliamentary Archives and the Norfolk Record Office it was the title of a talk ‘Administrative Processes + Events = Documents’ given by Susan Maddock (the then principle archivists in Norfolk) that provoked lots of thinking about how archive documents can be connected to create a bigger picture which was the whole premise of the commission. I went on, with permission, to use the explanatory phrase as the title for the artwork I produced as it fitted so neatly and explained so concisely the process of the commission but also the nature of the archives I was working with.

When working in what could be described as ‘non arts’ environments I often imagine people or the disciplines they work within sitting around a circular table. When I work with a discipline unfamiliar to me I may image them sitting opposite me / the visual arts; I cant fully imagine what the view is like from that side of the table so I use a collaborative residency process in order to find out. By looking at the ways in which someone else works, asking questions and listening keenly I gain valuable information and fresh perspectives. I can think about what I already know and where the common ground may be and work with it. Establishing common ground and connections that spring from it invigorates and takes my practice in directions I could not alone manage. Sometimes disciplines which initially feel far away in fact, after a period of investigation sit closer around the table than I first imagined. Examples of cross discipline working is widespread and when collaborating with Dr Valerie Woods on Postures of Making she drew my attention to a study where the University Hospital Wales in Cardiff observed the Formula 1 Williams Pitt Stop Team, learning about equipment layout and team dynamics. “Both scenarios require a team of people to work seamlessly in a time critical and space-limited environment said Williams” (1).

For my Clore secondment and my mentor choice I am looking to work with a discipline I have never before explored; Dance. I know very little about Dance in terms of process, method or production. I have never seen a professional dance performance and although I have taken some classes these were many years ago. Rather than feel embarrassed by my lack of knowledge I will be taking my ignorance as a productive place to start, adopting the position of a curious outsider, similar to how I work in many of my residency situations, accepting and welcoming being a beginner in a new field. I will also review what knowledge or experience I do have that I could draw upon and be thinking about how the conversations I will be having and activities I will be undertaking can help me to develop my leadership skills and thinking about where i am next heading.

  1. Wales hospital uses F1 pit stop tactics for newborn resuscitation https://www.ft.com/content/35f34152-1695-11e6-9d98-00386a18e39d Accessed December 2017

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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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