A little while ago (March 2015 to be exact) I was sat in the research room of UCA Canterbury trying to absorb all I had heard so far that day from the Art and Work Symposium; How can Artists make a living? How can we fight for financial equality? Where should we live and should we work in groups? It got me to thinking…

If being an Artist is so darned hard then why on earth did I decide to be one?
Where the kelp did I, and 53,258 students who were accepted on to creative arts courses in the UK in 2011 – the same year I started university – ever get the idea that art is something you can make a living from?

So I decided to start from the beginning. Using felt tips and doodles…

…and then I realised that up until this point, until actual graduation, for most of us it is ALL felt tips and doodles. At least, it is all personal creative skill development. At no point on this journey are we really taught the necessities needed to translate our creative skills in to jobs. Money. Work. Careers.

Every student has grumbles about their university and the group I graduated with were no different; “What on earth do I do now that’s over?”, “How am I supposed to get a job?”, “Why didn’t they teach me x, y or z?”, “How have I spent so much money and ended up with only one framed print?”, “Oh on, I’m going to have to work at MacDonald’s for ever”.
Some argued they should have been taught Photoshop, InDesign and other creative software skills, others argued they should have had more taught time in the darkroom, the screen-printing lab or the woodworking studios. Most raised concerns about the lack of access to basic information on self-employment, business planning, how to price ones-self and their work, time management, application writing, where to access studio space, how to approach a gallery, how to document work professionally, personal website building… and the list goes on.

The issues it seems is not the universities not wanting to teach students the skills to translate their creative output in to financially rewarded, skilled careers but that there is just so much scope for that creative output in the first place. In one class of 20 BA(Fine Art) students it is not uncommon to have a painter, a sculptor, a sound artist, a performance artist, an illustrator, a print maker and a photographer plus others with a combination of one or more of these and a selection of other primary interests. Not forgetting the inclusion of personal journeys, varied backgrounds, political and environmental views, and varying learning abilities.

Despite this huge variation, Arts and Design courses across the country scored an average of 4.05 out of 5 in student satisfaction surveys in 2015 – the tutors must be doing something right.

So, if universities can’t give us all the answers what do we do with these degrees?(They’re worth as much as everyone else’s and 1,524,225 students were registered on first degrees in the UK in 2015). What’s next?

Well, it seems for a lot of Creatives the answer is to ‘keep asking’:

… /(to be continued)

Bess Martin is a Multidisciplinary Artist, Creative Maker and Researcher. This continuing body of research looks at the Arts and the systems that contain it, asking questions about who artists are, where they work, their employment rights and importance in society as a whole.


Brightly lit and emitting a warm glow from the inside, the gallery space across the road from Bank Park felt inviting as I approached it from an otherwise dark and closed town centre. It was nice to be back in Warrington. Warrington doesn’t “do much” after dark in the town centre – even on Friday nights – so a well lit, glass fronted venue and a flashing neon sign saying ‘open’ in the window really does stand out. Considering the theme of the exhibition this gallery space was an excellent choice. Perhaps all art should be this plucky; “Come over here! You are welcome in! This is for you! We have crisps!”

I met Emma in October of last year at the Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival. Emma, sat on the front desk at Pyramid & Parr Hall, greeted Lydia and I with a big, welcoming smile and helped us with all sorts of things as we took over a space in the centre as Artists is Residence for NORTH as part of the festival.

It wasn’t long at all in to Lydia’s stay (the week before mine) that the two got chatting – Emma revealing that she, too, was an artist. Not that she was hiding the fact, there’s over 100 of her hand-drawn scenes on show in the centre itself!

On our last evening in residence, an evening of open conversation and cake organised by Lydia for artists and artists sympathizers (heh heh) in Warrington, Emma got to asking lots of questions, listening to lots of our ramblings and asked if we would contribute to her exhibition. Gladly, we said yes.

Like most Artists (certainly those that Lydia and I have met over our ongoing years of research) Emma has also struggled to justify her practice, to make sense of why she makes work and to create any clear structure of making. Turning to list writing, procrastination and ultimately letting other tasks and trials take priority, the Artist can quickly become lost; surrounded by reason but no solid work.

What’s Holding Me Back? is Emma’s examination of this – using the issue itself as the backbone for the work.

“Exploring obstacles and struggles faced by freelance Creatives…
In attempt to gain a wider understanding of artistic pressures, Emma has invited nine creative practitioners to give accounts concerning difficulties they face when making work. This new exhibition comprises Emma’s personal visual response to their statements exploring performance, output and status.”


At first the exhibition space seems a little empty. With just five pieces on show the instinct to have a ‘quick nip round the work’ takes all of two minutes and I find myself standing in a corner looking back at the space and realising I have totally missed the point.

The work is a clarity. A clean and crisp artistic translation of her thoughts and research – which are handily and very cleverly written in an exhibition document. Clever in that it is refreshingly honest; the written part of the exhibition doesn’t tell you what to think, how to understand it or “what” the work “is” but instead tells of process and continuing contemplation – you agree and identify with it, not just as an Artist but as a human.

List making, repeating often unnecessary tasks (carefully this time though), balancing time and money, feelings of self-doubt and having handy little thoughts pre-packaged and ready to drop (“other people are much better than you”) – have all been placed in the spotlight at this exhibition:

You may expect – with the themes on display – that the exhibition would emit a feeling of despair and human failure; sending everyone in to a dazed trance with a “what’s the point?” look on their face. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Human nature, after-all, is to empathize, learn and progress. Emma asked for honesty from eight Artists. She naturally empathized with them and used the positivity that comes with learning to create the work on show today which we, in turn, can now view, empathize with and naturally learn from.

She’s cracked a little safe open and gently allowed us a peak in to the well-hidden language behind Art and Artist.

Emma Brown’s solo exhibition ‘What’s Holding Me Back?’ runs from 12th February until 28th March at The Gallery at Bank Quay House, Warrington.


Author: Bess Martin is a Multidisciplinary Artist, Creative Maker and Researcher. This continuing body of research looks at the Arts and the systems that contain it, asking questions about who artists are, where they work, their employment rights and importance in society as a whole.


Since 2014 myself and Lydia Catterall have been developing a research based project initially titled ‘Art/Work’ – looking at the relationships between the arts and the systems that contain it.

Speaking to working artists and freelance professionals, deciphering relevant literature and collating current information we look for the reasons why we often struggle to justify creative practice as a form of employment.

On 26th – 29th March 2014 our small office within the exhibition space atSEIZE: OVERTIME housed all that we had found in that early stage and our thinking. This culminated in a group discussion and decisions about the direction in which this project should be taken.

May 2014 saw us travelling to Barcelona with East Street Arts’ Karen Watson and Jon Wakeman for the annual Tallers Obert (Open Studios), exploring artist studio spaces and meeting working Artists across the city.



On 26th March 2015 our Research Room opened again at UCA Canterbury as part ofWork & Art Symposium : How Artists Make A Living. Here we started new dialogues, re-visited previous topics and explored Art/Work/Life balance alongside a wide selection of key researchers and artists including Caroline Wright (Paying Artists Campaign, AIR Council), Shama Khanna (independent curator and writer), and Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt (Principal Investigator, ‘Evaluating the Relationship between Arts and Cultural Engagement and Long-Term Health’ as part of the Cultural Value Project).

Throughout October 2015 we both took position as Artist in Residence in Warrington responding to the idea of ‘the local’ and exploring the urban and the position of theContemporary Arts Festival in the town itself. Based at the Pyramid and Parr Centrein the Cultural Quarter of Warrington, our space housed or own research, ideas, artist maquettes and installations as well as becoming a temporary base for meetings, conversations and crowd-sourced information. Alongside Culture Warrington andNORTH we explored Art and its place within the town and the north of England as a whole.

Now in 2016 the research continues and I will be using this Blog as a way to document what we have learned to date and our findings as we continue.