Mixed Blessings: the reality of working in the Arts

We asked an artist, a novelist and an art director for their experience of keeping a roof over their heads while working in the arts…

Since launching The Double Negative – and to some extent before that – we have come into contact with countless (hundreds, maybe) of people whose 9-5 is at odds with the thing they love doing the most. We asked three of them about subsidising their passion with a day job.

The Artist: C James Fagan (pictured)

I admit it, I didn’t go to university expecting it to lead directly into a job, especially as I studied Fine Art and there wasn’t a focus on ‘professional practice’. It didn’t seem to matter at the time. For some reason I was sure I would get into exhibitions, after all I already had a piece in a group show in Poland, so things were looking reasonable.

In early 2009 I moved from South Wales back to Liverpool, which at the time was still abuzz from its previous year spent as European Capital of Culture. It appeared to be a better option than Cardiff. Since then I’ve been volunteering with various art organisations including an internship at the Bluecoat; all of which I enjoy, and as the cuts came, it seemed obvious that art organisations would rely on the likes of volunteers more and more. All the time there is an awareness that opportunities for paid work in the arts are shrinking.

What about making a living via my artwork? Well again, at this stage in my ‘career’ it’s a case of being involved in exhibitions more for the hope of exposure then any monetary gain. Though saying that, last year saw me receive my first (and, to date, only) artist fee in my 10 years of practice.

“Can I justify going to an exhibition when I could be uploading CVs and the like?”

How do I support myself? Like millions of others, I claim Jobseekers Allowance, which puts me in a very odd position… especially when you’re faced with headlines about having to ‘work’ for benefits. And for some bureaucratic reason, under these schemes the volunteer work I have been undertaking doesn’t apply. I expect many people reading this know that the experience can lead to a sense of guilt. I mean, can I justify going to an exhibition when I could be uploading CVs and the like?

Though I’m happy to work in voluntary positions, I don’t know how viable that will be in the future. At the moment it feels pretty difficult even to get a basic McJob.

Am I lost in a world of despair, then? No. There are examples of people doing something despite of what’s going on in the world; The Double Negative is one example, which suggests a way of rethinking my approach to working in the arts. I always remain hopeful. While writing this I was offered an internship with the AND Festival, so who knows what’s over the horizon?

The Novelist: Paul Forster (pictured above)

I always knew my career trajectory would be different to those around me, I’m not motivated by money and I abhor so many of the ‘creative’ careers out there, such as advertising and marketing. I’ve been told I’d be great at them, and I would be – my background in sociology and cultural studies as well as my natural critical bent predispose me to it, but I’d have a soul deficiency.

I’ve always wanted to tell stories, write books, novels – whatever you choose to call them, and in my third year of university I started on a novel that would take me 7 years to finish, unedited. It was my respite from the non-jobs I had, from the masters I threw away, and the relationship that failed.

In the past five years I’ve had to adopt a pretty rigorous work/life balance; I was intent on finishing my novel so I pushed myself into it, had less fun than usual and allowed myself to not just be proud but be happy in doing so.

“It’s about not compromising your principles and not feeling guilty for allowing yourself time to express yourself”

I’ve had a hand in the organisation, fundraising and conception of a number of popular DIY queer-feminist events that have taken up a great deal of my time, but they have brought me much joy and helped me understand my strengths and hone skills. I’ve whored my journalistic skills out for free in order to get guest list passes to gigs for years; I’m almost resigned to the fact that my writing won’t garner me any cash anytime soon.

My job, a mid level admin position at The University of Manchester, has afforded me many perks when concerned with my out of work activities, their stationary, photocopying and printing have made organising DIY events much easier. They’ve funded my Open University English Literature MA, which I started as soon as I finished my novel, and has kick-started me in terms of creativity and self belief.

When it’s over I’ll be editing my manuscript and trying to get it published, then I’m planning on starting my next novel. Being a creative person with a full time job does mean that you’re likely to burnout occasionally and means it takes longer to achieve what you want, but it means you don’t starve some days or freak out when a big bill appears on the doormat.

It’s not a race. It’s about not compromising your principles and not feeling guilty for allowing yourself time to express yourself and be comfortable.

The Art Director: Frances Disley (studio pictured above)

I am currently a Director at The Royal Standard and artist lead gallery and studios based in North Liverpool, and I also teach Art and Design to 16-19 year olds at Liverpool Community College.

As I am also a freelance artist and curator I am no stranger to juggling roles. For me it feels as though I need both the structure and parameters of the teaching role as much as I need the freedom that the Directorship affords me. The Royal Standard changes directors every two years and each new set of directors get to start from scratch in terms of programming and how the organisation is run, which is great; we work with a range of different organisations and artists and the role can demand very different things on a day to day basis.

“I need the structure of the teaching role as much as I need the freedom that the Directorship affords me”

Last week we hosted an event from Touring Territories based around U.F.O. sightings in East Anglia, we took part in a symposium organised by Departure Lounge which took place in an IKEA near Manchester, and we hosted a performance by Australian Artist Eric Bridgman where he burnt effigies of One Direction in our car park.

As a lecturer my role is very clearly defined and my students rely on consistency and structure in order for them to fully engage with their subject matter. I enjoy the process of developing a programme of study which I can feed into over a number of years where successes are clearly visible. Although there are obvious differences between the roles, I feel that they complement each other well and being a lecturer helps me operate more efficiently within my directorship. I use the Royal Standard and the research that goes into working there to inform my teaching, so for me at the moment I feel as though I couldn’t have one without the other. It kind of keeps me sane.

I am also curating an exhibition for the Contemporary Art Society in conjunction with the Canal and River Boat Trust which will open in October, and I will be exhibiting my own work at the BBK Gallery Cologne that month, so I have lots of different things to manage at once. I suppose in choosing to be an artist or creative person you are hopefully opting into a less predictable existence, which I think personally is something to be cherished.

Posted on 13/08/2012 by thedoublenegative