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.

What do you give to the client who knows everything?

What do you give to the client who knows everything?

I overheard a consultant say in the office the other day; “went to see the client, and they knew more than me. How can that happen?” Put that one out on my Twitter stream and it caused much laughter. Surely people expect that a customer can go onto the Internet and read up in areas that they will needed to be skilled up in.” Tim Hughes, Social Disruption – Which Industry is Next?

A large part of my work is offering training and mentoring services to start ups in project, business and strategic planning. Many of the people I work with would not regard themselves as typical business people; among my clients I have more than my fair share of artists, academics, people who run community projects or who want to set up social enterprises. They are naturally creative and innovation (both ideation and implementation) comes easily to them. Many of them have had interesting lives and can boast portfolios of varied work experiences, cobbled together as they have bounced back and forwards between ‘love’ jobs that further their vocations but don’t pay well and other project work to pay the actual rent. If they didn’t start off as people who were highly adaptable and resourceful, then this career path (is path the right word? Perhaps ‘wild ramble’ is a better term) has made them acquire these characteristics.

These people are good at learning things and their creative brains enjoy handling new concepts. They have good instincts for realising when their information, or understanding of it, falls short. Their academic, community or arts backgrounds have instilled in them the habits of discipline and candid self-evaluation of their strengths and faults. When embarked on a new strategy or project their instinct is to rush off lickety split to Google to do research and to book themselves into a bunch of workshops. In general, many people nowadays do this, but I think that my little crowd of clients is hard wired to be super responsive to the learning challenge*.

A picture of the lovely people who came to my last workshop - interesting and varied backgrounds and skill sets
A picture of the lovely people who came to my last workshop – interesting and varied backgrounds and skill sets

And there is so much information on the internet nowadays; and plenty of free workshops and talks too if you know where to look. There is enough information out there to help anyone motivated enough to educate themselves as to how to chuck together a rudimentary business plan. But is this information, in the form of a series of online articles, fact sheets and templates, enough? What role do actual human beings like me have to play? I find that my clients may need me to do any of the following during mentoring or training sessions:

  1. Get them started – it is all very well to burble on about how much information a Google search can throw up, but you need to know the right search terms first. People who have worked completely outside of the business sector but who know they need a business plan often ask me what the hell they even have to think about. Coaching them through the rudimentary steps of planning a business can give them ideas as to what information they should be looking out for. Usually after just one session I find people tend to go zooming off to start their research and self-education. They then may come back to…
  2. Map out a context – information yanked off the internet one Google search at a time comes in digestible but piecemeal forms. The searcher will gather an article here, a template there, an online calculator somewhere else. But there is a danger that this could just remain a higgledy piggledy mess of stuff. I can be called upon to help the client map out this information against the context of what they want to do.
  3. Deal with a sense of overwhelm – related to the point above. There is so much information available that it can actually feel disorientating and overwhelming for some poor soul slaving away over a hot Google search. Even highly experienced people benefit from the anchoring effects of working through ideas and information with a mentor.
  4. Assess the value of and make decisions about the efficacy / applicability of information – Clients may indicate that, yes, they understood the information on such and such a website just fine but they didn’t understand how that information could be applied to their particular case, or even if it should. Not all techniques and strategies that can be found on the internet, even the best ones, can be applied to all types of business undertakings.
  5. Deal with different cultures – Because of my background in the arts, tertiary and community sectors I tend to attract other people from these sectors who are not really motivated by making profit, but by making a sustainable income while they do the thing they are passionate about. These guys may find the language, tactics and even ideas of hard-core business websites, and the assumptions and ideologies they suspect inform these things, to be alienating and even dubious. They read articles with titles like ‘The 7 characteristics of successful entrepreneurs’ and read about people who are very different personality types and feel disheartened (I personally think articles like these are nonsense; I like this one). They cavil at mechanisms like branding, associating this word with the most heartless and vacuous type of commodification of one’s values or purpose (author Alison Croggon, not one of my clients, seems to eloquently speak for them in this very good piece). While they do fully understand the necessity of maintaining a healthy cash flow (people who are used to low incomes often do! Funny about that…) it somehow feels limited to talk about profit margins to someone who will measure the usefulness and prosperity of their professional undertakings in terms that may encompass the artistic, the academic and / or the social (why can’t we talk about margins of abundance?). My job, as I see it, is not to change anyone’s mind about any of this. Often I think they are onto something – that their concerns have some merit – and I do share a lot of their values. The approach I take is to strip back the information to its central idea, explain to the client what the person authoring that piece of information was thinking and what the conventional wisdom is. I then suggest that they decide whether they need a similar mechanism in their business to achieve their goals and how they might like to go about this. If they reject it, will there be consequences and do they care about these? As stated above, these people are born innovators – they take ideas, adapt them and try them out. It’s fascinating to watch them take soulless tactics and mash them together into a way of working that achieves practical goals and is a manifestation of a set of values dear to the client.

In my sessions with clients, I could not be less interested in droning on about information that a client can readily find on the internet or via a Meetup group; this strikes me as an exercise in redundancy. I would also feel a bit cheeky to charge money to impart information the client could look up for free. The proliferation of information on the internet is fantastic, the human race (well, those bits of it with access to the internet) has never had the opportunity to be so well, or rapidly, informed. This frees people like me to work with clients on aspects of their work that are unique, creative, values driven and personally meaningful.

I have started up an affordable weekly facilitated conversation around business or project planning for artists, academics, alternative lifestylers and community workers – I wanted something for those people who can’t afford a full consultant’s fee but who are bursting with ideas and need to get started. You can find more information about that here.

I am currently developing a workshop in the area of ideation as part of the innovation process. This will be suitable for people working in the business sector. If you are interested in this then please feel free to contact me via my contact page or leave a comment below.