This month marks 12 months of the latest cohort of Artists Council – a representative group of a-n members acting as a sounding-board on issues faced by artists, with a focus on the development of a-n’s research, advocacy, programme and services.
Artists Clémentine Bedos (Chair) and Jenny Mc Namara (Vice Chair) discuss what has been achieved so far, their personal highlights from their first year, and outline their hopes for the future of a-n and our members.
It’s been one year since the current a-n Artists Council cohort was announced. How have you found your first 12 months?
Clémentine Bedos: It’s been incredibly empowering to be part of this cohort of artists and to learn about each other’s values and practices. Over the course of the year, we’ve had some amazing training on leadership as well as research trips which have been really transformative. The old adage ‘knowledge is power’ is very much true. As artists, it often feels like navigating an industry blindfolded or without having a map, it’s like we’re playing a rigged game! So, through conversation and sharing our experience, we realise we are not alone facing these challenges, it is actually structural, which is both a relief and a pain to consider!
The various council members are spread across the UK, and it is empowering to feel we are part of a support network that exists over a wide geographical area. We feel a lot more connected with the different parts of the country which feels really great!
At the same time, it has been challenging because of the task at hand. As we all feel the daily pressures and material consequences of a culture that devalues and marginalises artists, we feel responsible to make a change, that we owe it to our members! I think we feel there’s just so much to do with not enough means, that we’re working against so many different forces, whether it’s in education or artists really struggling to be paid. The challenge is channeling all these issues into something focused.
Jenny Mc Namara: Thinking back over the last 12 months of working together as the a-n Artist Council, my favourite thing is definitely the people; I love the group of people on the council and I feel so inspired by them. I love hearing about their work, what’s happening in their regions and hearing what they get up to. Sometimes in our meetings we take it in turns to share our own work for 10-15 minutes and I’ve really enjoyed this. I think you get to know someone so much better when you know their work. We’ve only met up once in person in London so far, but that was great to get to know people in a sort of a slower way.
We’ve been taking turns to recommend monthly guest speakers. A couple of months ago artist and community organiser Ellie Harrison delivered a talk for us. I hadn’t come across her work before, but found it really interesting. She’s done some incredible projects, for instance a musical about bringing public transport back into public ownership in Manchester. This paved the way for the mayor’s historic decision in March 2021 to go ahead with re-regulating the region’s bus network, the first UK city region to do so since 1986. The musical clearly explained what was going on, but in a really fun and accessible way. I like the overlap between art/activism, and thought the way that Ellie collects information and shares it visually as an artist and organiser was so inspiring.
I won’t lie, there have been some hard parts of the last 12 months. I find Zoom really difficult to use, especially long 3 hour meetings, and would have preferred meeting in person. Personally, I relate to people and communicate much better offline. I would like for all the Artists Council meetings to be offered as a hybrid, to give everyone the option of how they attend. Making decisions together with 15 people on Zoom who’ve met once in person isn’t easy! But now that we’ve had a year working together as Artist Council, I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other better and things are getting easier. Interesting collaborations are happening both inside and outside the council. Overall, the first 12 months have been positive and I feel so lucky to be working with this group of people.
What do you hope to achieve during your time with a-n?
Clémentine Bedos: When I first joined I had very broad ambitions of how we could make a change on a much larger scale. But now I’m thinking actually, for me, it’s more about strengthening the relationship between the Board and Council. I would like to see the Council really fulfil its mission of advising a-n so that we can really use the Council to its fullest potential. We have 15 incredibly diverse members with a lot of expertise and real, meaningful connections with their local communities. This would undoubtedly benefit a-n.
The different backgrounds of the Council’s members must be seen as a massive strength. I feel like it works best when the Council is given very specific questions to which it then brings its recommendations and expertise to answer them. There is a specific perspective that artists bring, and my ambition is that we, the Artists Council, can truly fulfil its role and mission of advising a-n in the best way – to make our members’ voices through this.
Jenny Mc Namara: I hope to see a-n grow and develop as an organisation. It’s exciting to work with an arts organisation that’s in strong financial health. That’s very unusual! Something I want to see a-n be is ‘useful’. I think they already are really useful to their members, but it’s good to keep questioning how we can take this further. Do you know MIMA in Middlesbrough? Their tagline is ‘the useful museum’ and I think it’s very exciting that they make being practically useful to their community their core mission, I think about that a lot.
a-n already offers useful tools to members, like the legal and tax helpline (which I’ve used myself!), sharing opportunities and their huge archive of online content. The way they influenced government policy during Covid in relation to payments for freelancers was brilliant. But I think there is potential for a-n to be more useful in artist-led spaces, particularly focusing on those who are in their first couple of years out of university or who are self taught. During this time artists are just getting their practice going, and maybe starting to get involved in artists-led projects and spaces. I think this is probably the most important time to find support and solidarity through a creative community. As a new graduate, being part of these informal networks of support helped me to keep motivation and I was comforted to know that other people were finding it hard to start an art career too.
I’m also really interested in alternative funding models and would love to see a-n explore this. I’m from Dublin originally and I’ve been closely watching the UBI for artists trial that’s happening in Ireland. 2,000 artists were randomly selected to receive UBI payments over 3 years. To be eligible you just had to show you’d worked professionally as an artist. Imagine the scenes if you were one of the lucky ones selected! I would have loved to be in Dublin to see someone get that news, how exciting! To me this is the future. Another model I find exciting is the Jerwood 1-1 fund, where following a very short application process the funding was allocated randomly. They’ve shared a short analysis of that process here.
We need to do more to actively fight against toxic competition in the arts and I think that funding by random allocation is a step in the right direction. One more I love is ‘Let Artists be Artists’ by Strike A Light in Gloucester, a community arts organisation. They brought together 14 funding partners to raise project funding, then put a call out to employ two artists full-time on a PAYE basis for a year with no expected outcomes, with the full works like holiday pay, sick pay, a Christmas party, etc. I liked this because they just trust artists to do good in their community. A little bit of trust can go a long way and there’s not enough of it in the art world. They’ve gone ahead with this now and actually employed three artists so I’m excited to see the outcome of that. In the future I would love to be part of putting together that kind of project/partnership.
Do you feel like you are constantly learning from the other Council members?
Clémentine Bedos: Well, first of all, I’m a Londoner! I’ve been in London for 10 years so it’s been really amazing to broaden my perspective and discover all these brilliant local projects and grassroots organisations spread across the UK. One of the main reasons I joined a-n is because of its inclusivity, I felt represented by the diversity of the people working there. I think it is really important for artists to see themselves in the group that supports them. It is a privilege to represent our 30,000 members and to pick up the baton from Jerome Ince-Mitchell and the previous Artists Council, to be part of this lineage and community of artists and change makers.
Jenny Mc Namara: A huge yes on this one. I’ve really enjoying learning about their practices as artists, but also hearing about what’s happening in their regions. In our first couple of meetings, we talked about the way that we want to work with each other and about what our values are as a group. Something that became clear very quickly was how much this group values love and care. We come back to that time and again; how can we work together with more care and love, and how can we engage the art world more with that mindset. We’ve talked about writing guidelines for working with more care and love in the art world and I hope this is something we do.
Another thing I appreciate about the group is that we share both good and bad practice with each other and celebrate good practice. I got to observe an a-n board meeting last December and that was a real highlight for me so far. Something that we said in the board meeting was ‘we have to keep each other accountable’ and I thought yeah, that’s spot on.
Over the next two years of Artists Council I’m interested to see how our collaborations develop. I don’t have specifics to share yet because things are still in development, but I feel safe in the knowledge that we have so much overlap in our values. A little while ago, Livvy Punnett, an Artists Council member who teaches at Nottingham Trent, brought a bus load of students to BALTIC where I work. We had a coffee together in the cafe and talked through a few ideas we are excited about. The knowledge and experience of other Artists Council members massively enriches my practice as an artist and organiser and also my life.
What have been your personal highlights from the last 12 months?
Clémentine Bedos: I’ve had the amazing opportunity to go to Documenta fifteen in Kassel Germany, which was really fascinating and inspiring to see an alternative model that is unapologetically experimental, non-hierarchical and that centers the global South.
These kind of big art fairs are inherited from Modernity and colonisation. It is the legacy of the Exposition Universelle of 1889 – nationalist and racist – which is pretty bleak really, so Documenta fifteen gave me hope and nurtured my soul. It was about finding a model for sharing resources equally in a way that supports the communities and people who need it most, and I feel that’s what a-n is trying to do. So, it was a really interesting research trip to explore how we can do things differently and take risks. Even though they had lots of backlashes, I felt it was a beautiful example of how artists – with their participatory methodologies and open-ended approach – can make change.
Another highlight was attending the IAA conference in Istanbul. It felt particularly emotional because they had just been through an earthquake, and the theme was ‘Humanity in Exile’. There were refugee women artists from Iran but also from Russia, artists who refused to live in a regime at war with Ukraine and who left everything behind because of their values and their integrity. It was a good reminder of how artists are at risk all around the world and how privileged we are in the UK.
I think both Documenta and the IAA highlighted that international connections are a priority for a-n, to expand our networks of solidarity.
Jenny Mc Namara: a-n supported council members to go on a research trip. Last August I attended a conference in Amsterdam called VSAC (The Visual Science of Art Conference). I’d been trying to go to it for the last few years but it kept getting cancelled because of Covid, so it was exciting to finally be able to go and share some of my research and meet an interesting mix of artists and scientists. That was a highlight for sure.
Another highlight was Katie Chapell doing a live illustration of the Artists Council. She’s based in Berwick, close to the Scottish border and we invited her to join our meeting by Zoom. Ahead of time we sent all Artists Council members the same questions:
1. 3 words to describe yourself
2. 3 words to describe your practice
3. What is your ambition for the Artist Council?
4. In your best, wildest dreams, what role do artists play in society?
During the meeting we talked through our answers while Katie illustrated them and drew us. I’m a visual learner so I loved this. It also gave me an important first insight into the people I’m working with, and it was useful and really encouraging for me to hear what issues are important to them.
More information on a-n Artists Council can be found here: www.a-n.co.uk/about/a-n-artists-council/
Top image: a-n Artists Council cohort 2023. From left to right: Mollie Balshaw, Clémentine Bedos, Exodus Crooks, Simon Lee-Dicker, Freya Dooley, Sarah Francis, Ross Head, Sae Yeoun Hwang, Jannat Hussain, Yva Jung, Jenny Mc Namara, Tom Pope, Olivia Penrose Punnett, Alys Scott-Hawkins, Melanie Wheeler.