Art of programming

Arts programmers have the power to champion emerging artists, to create connections and to curate memorable events. But how do you get started, how do you translate ideas into reality and how do you fund events when the money is so hard to come by?

The Barbican recently hosted three professionals who spoke openly and honestly about the challenges and the joys of arts programming, and offered a series of tips to those starting out in the industry.

Look for the gaps

Ivan Blackstock is a dancer and the curator of NSF CRXSS PLATFXRM, a street festival in Peckham.

When he was younger, Ivan found his strengths through dance rather than in school.

“I used my dancing as a vehicle to educate myself and understand the world”

He and his friends would often create together, but there weren’t many spaces where they felt welcome to share their talents. Ivan wanted a place where all of his ideas and friends could come together, in an event which would “feel like it’s us”.

Driven by this frustration, Ivan began creating his street festival. “It’s aim is to make it a space where you feel represented,” Ivan said, “and where you can educate people in new and interesting ways.”

If it feels like you are not represented in arts events, it means there is a gap in the market.

Challenge the status quo

Tas Elias is a cultural engineer for Ace Hotel in east London. With a background in music, he has worked both in the corporate world and as a freelancer.

Looking through the programme of the London Architecture Festival, Tas noticed there was only one woman featured. He asked himself, “what can I do to redress the balance?” Out of that desire for change, he created a symposium of the 19 most influential women in architecture.

“I sensed a gap, an important gap, and tried to fill it”

His programming fuelled a wave of change. Tas had invited representatives from Wikipedia to the event who later asked him to help them complete missing profiles on women in the creative industries.

By asking how you can make a significant impact through your programme, you may create lasting change.

All of the panellists advised to look for what is needed. Ask yourself how you can help solve a problem, fill a gap or challenge the way things are currently being done.

Think about who is allowed in the space

For both artists and audiences, it is important to interrogate who gets to be in the space.

Tobi Kyeremateng is a producer with Apples & Snakes. She works in theatre and spoken word, regularly collaborating with venues, and is a Programme Coordinator for the Sussex festival, Brainchild.

“When a space is set,” Tobi said, “it decides somewhat who can come to that space.” She suggested that by altering the space, you can make people feel more comfortable about being there. “They might feel more welcome and more invited.”

When programming an event, ask questions about who the audience is, who the event is meant for, and how you can bring new people in to explore different forms of art. The use of space can define how your artists and audiences feel, move and interact at an event, so it is an important aspect to consider when programming.

Look after the artist and the audience

Taking care of the performers is an important part of cultivating a good relationship. “It’s about the experience the artists have outside of just performing,” Tobi said.

She gave the example of Brainchild. Rather than being split into a hierarchy of performers and audience, the festival is designed to make everyone feel at ease, so much so that one festival goer came with their mum.

“It’s very inclusive. It’s about the people.”

One of the artists arrived and asked where the VIP area was. “This is it,” she said, “everywhere.” Because of this comfortable atmosphere, the artists often stay for the whole festival rather than just for their set.

Similarly, ensuring the audience feel comfortable at all times is a vital part of creating an event, and can be achieved creatively. Art installations at Brainchild were designed to combine practicality, aesthetic and comfort. This resulted in having sofas dotted around the field, so that ticket holders could interact with the designs while relaxing and bonding with others.

Ivan recommended encouraging honesty from the participants. “Ask the artist what they need, then ask the same of the audience.” Although, as a facilitator he might not be able to provide everything, Ivan said, it helps him be aware of the links and improvements he needs to make in the future. Creating an event that performers want to interact with beyond their specific set can be just as important as the programme itself. It is likely to improve the relationship between yourself and the artist and has the potential to lead to more collaborations as your career develops.

Tobi also recommended always following up with the artists to say thank you, or to apologise if something went wrong.

Create connections

Connections are at the heart of what Ivan, Tobi and Tas do. Their projects are built on collaboration. “I’m always thinking how can connections I make feed into something else,” Tas said. Reach out to people, invite them to events.

“I can’t do my job without hundreds of other people.”

Make funding applications stand out

You’re always going to be tampered by the lack of budget regardless of what you want to do. The key is finding the solutions with the amount you have that give you the best possible outcome.

Tobi suggested asking for small amounts of money rather than going to one person and asking for a large sum.

She also noted that if you can show that you have fundraised, however little, it will make a good impression.

When discussing fundraising applications, Tobi recommended specificity. “If there’s something specific it’s doing or targeting it’s easier to lead with that. Make yourself stand out”. She suggested that the focus should be the impact of who you’re working with and who is coming to the event, rather than the event itself.

This approach has allowed her to write applications that stand out. In a recent application she focused on her own development as a producer.

When you’re early or mid career, it is hard to find funding for large scale events in well known venues. Thinking creatively about stages can not only save money but also lead to dynamic events in unusual places.

Always expect something to go wrong

One piece of advice all three panelists repeated was to ensure you have contingencies. Tas recommended “planning to within an inch of your life” in order to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing, “so you can give everyone peace of mind”.

“Always overestimate and always plan for things to go wrong because they always will.”

Tobi expanded on this, recommending that you plan for mishaps at every stage of planning, rather than planning the event in full and then trying to spot areas that might cause issues. “It’s something I do at every step,” she said, “so things don’t get lost”.

Tas agreed; “it’s much easier to make sure you have a minimum viability. I ordered like 280 salt and pepper grinders for one event. Two turned up.” But it was enough. “It’s about making sure you have a minimum amount- if it’s artists, tech staff or crew, you always need a skeleton crew that are guaranteed to come and you have their mobile number and have ordered a cab for them.”

Be multi-disciplinary

When asked how he manages when so many jobs are unpaid, Ivan’s advice was to “put your fingers in many pies.” The key is to find transferrable skills. “That’s how I found a sustainability,” Ivan said. “The current climate is all about being multi-disciplinary.”

Sometimes it is about who you know

Mobilise the people around you, Tas suggested. When an opportunity comes up they’ll be sure to let you know. “Recommendations are a sincere form of flattery but they’re also a way to make serious money.”

For more expensive artists, be patient. Tas said, “If someone’s not going to perform for you for £50 then wait until you have £55.”

Some partnerships or links will break down and funding might get pulled. When this is the case, Ivan’s advice was to pick up the phone and throw the idea at other people. See what people are looking for and try to find someone or something that will catch their eye.

The panelists also advised persistence. Lots of brands have money they have to spend. “A lot of places say they don’t have budget but they have. Push that they’re going to get value for money and they’ll get return on their investment”, Tas said.

And if in doubt, Tas said, “come and talk to me because I have a budget”.

Legacy

While we all want to make a huge impact, doing little things can also mean you create a meaningful legacy. Tobi mentioned a festival goer who went to Brainchild alone, organically met another visitor and ended up working with them afterwards.

Building relationships between others and encouraging your connections to work together can lead to even more exciting creations.

At the end of the talk Ivan returned to the idea of creativity being born of frustration.

“I feel that the UK is ready for something new.”

As an artist he is constantly thinking about how to build himself and his personal brand, thinking about what he wants his legacy to be. “Every day is a fight for me,” he said. As the main carer for his grandmother, juggling work and social life can be tough. “But going through this journey, I’m seeing what is needed. Why can’t we introduce street culture to people of that age demographic? Hip hop can be a tool to educate people.”

Age doesn’t matter, he said. “It’s about connecting people.” This echoed the theme of the evening, as each snippet of advice from Ivan, Tas and Tobi returned to the aim of creating strong creative connections. The art of programming, they all agreed, is to focus on the people, both on and off-stage.

Find out about upcoming Creative Career sessions here.

Blog post by Kate Wyver

Images © Jordan Billie Hutchinson