Starving in a garret…

Starving in a garret…

Alongside digital sociologist Alexia Maddox and researcher, artist and event designer Romaine Logere, I am currently co-curating and co-facilitating Parallel Fascinations at The Channel, Arts Centre Melbourne, a series of salon type events dedicated to supporting the development of new ideas and research and interdisciplinary conversation.

For our fourth salon, we were lucky to have curator and writer Amelia Winata* talking about the tension between creative practice and arts administration. You can read more about the event on our Parallel Fascinations blog.

Art making versus arts administration

For me, as with others in the room, Amelia’s chosen topic of conversation had a great deal of resonance. I have worked as an arts practitioner myself – in my case I was a performing artist and choreographer. But I have also worked in arts administration and arts management – project management, production management, event management, grant writing and fundraising, stakeholder management, business planning. I enjoyed doing both these things but doing them both at once fatigued me and was one of the factors that lead to eventual burnout.

Another was a strong sense of disillusionment with the way the arts industry is structured, with its tiers of class privilege, convoluted bureaucratic procedures (especially in the areas of grant and contract management), and paucity of funding (even worse now than in my day). There seems to be a disconnect between the more agile responses of artists to creative opportunities and the slow and tedious processes of arts administration. It was interesting that my own feelings of discontent seemed to be mirrored by others in the room.

Starving Poet and Publisher by Thomas Rowlandson, late 18th cent.
Starving Poet and Publisher by Thomas Rowlandson, late 18th cent.

There was some tentative discussion around possible working models that could accommodate both a free flowing creative process and an efficient arts administration process; if the discussion at this point was tentative it was not in mood but because no one, with any certainty, seemed to be able to suggest something that could actually work. The problem as felt by many individual artists or even small collectives is that there are only so many hours in a day, and time spent on filling in paperwork is time stolen from creating work. The other problem is the nature of the thinking you have to do – you use a very different part of your intellect and emotional intelligence to write a grant application than you do to paint or compose; the theft here is one of focus and inspiration.

The Holy Grail

As a freelance performer who had to produce her own shows and then, later, as an arts manager I found that I loved certain aspects of the management process, namely creating strategies and project plans, relationship development, persuasive writing and marketing, and it is these things I bring forward into my current freelance practice as a trainer. These things appealed to my choreographer’s brain – choreography is about arranging things and people in time and space as is business strategy. Clunky and tautological bureaucratic process has always irritated me – it offends the designer in me. I can spot slapdash planning from a mile off, too; there is too much of these in evidence within the arts industry in Australia.

I decided to go into arts management because I was inspired to help other artists and to try to relieve some of the strain I could see they were experiencing in producing their work. My holy grail was to develop an approach to creative producing or project managing an arts show that supported the artists, assuaged the bureaucrats, rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s but that ultimately produced great art. I like to think that, at times, I really did make a positive difference to the artists with which I worked, and I certainly learnt a heck of a lot about managing creative and innovative process, and this is precious to me in the work I’m doing now. But, against a background of ongoing uncertainty in funding, precarious employment, a lack of societal respect for contemporary art, and, at times, an almost tribal approach to protecting turf from others in the arts industry, I ended up feeling destabilised and exhausted.

I am still looking for that holy grail, am still passionate about supporting artists and arts and humanities academics, but, paradoxically, am steering well clear of the arts industry in my quest. And I still have no clear idea as to what that good working model could look like; just a vague notion of some lines of enquiry I could follow.

'Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail' by Franz Stassen (1869-1949)
‘Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail’ by Franz Stassen (1869-1949)

There is a dearly held belief in our society that artists are wankers and flakes – I am getting sick of hearing comments from people to that end. They’re no such thing – good artists are red hot implementers and have a gift for devising practical ways of making the products of their imaginations tangible; this is what makes them working artists instead of daydreamers. But the nature of the bureaucratic work and political lobbying the arts industry asks of them is enough to shut down even the most robust imagination.

*Amelia Winata’s bio: Amelia is an emerging curator and writer. She holds an Honours degree in Art History from the University of Melbourne. Her current projects include a curated exhibition of video art to be presented as part of Channels Festival 2015, and a writing mentorship with Gertrude Contemporary. She is currently Gallery Operations Coordinator at RMIT Gallery.

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