The Art Behind The Arts

Art is not all about whose painting is on the wall, or which performer is on stage. Behind each artist is a team of dedicated and talented producers, managers and researchers. They are the nuts and bolts of a project. At the most recent Creative Careers session, four professional practitioners gathered to give an insight into the behind-the-scenes work of some of London’s most prominent arts institutions and organisations.

What does that job title actually mean?

Razia Begum is Associate Producer at the Barbican. As she introduced herself, she clarified her job role. She project manages different public programmes such as talks, events and exhibitions, but at another institution her same job title could involve entirely different roles.

Job titles in the arts, she said, can be confusing.

“There’s not an overarching standard that gives you a signifier of what a job is. There’s no unifying training.”

Demystifying the arts

To demystify these job roles, Rachel Noel, Curator for Young People’s Programmes at Tate, suggested asking the person you admire (but whose job you may not entirely understand) for coffee. “It’ll help you map out the landscape because one organisation is so different from another.”

As a curator, Noel works across multiple disciplines, focusing on “bringing art and culture to the wider public and people who are not currently accessing it.” One of her roles is organising the Tate Late events.

Audrey Aidoo-Davies, Community Engagement Assistant at the Barbican, is a testament to what you can get from asking a simple question. She went to an open day at the Royal Court, got chatting to someone about their job role and was pointed towards a job opening. She applied and got the role. “Making that initial connection is so important.”

What if I don’t have the right experience?

Plug the gaps of your own learning.

David Houston, Learning Producer at the Design Museum and Explainer Developer at the Science Museum, said it’s good to be aware of the gaps in your knowledge. That way, you can work to fill them. It’s never too late.

“I saw a job I wanted but I didn’t have the experience, so I tried to find something extra to take on that would give me that. You are the master of your own CV.”

Ask people you work with for tips. “Find people who can advise you on what you should be saying in a CV, a covering letter or an interview.”

Be careful what you take on for free. As Noel said, “Landlords don’t accept experience.”

Choosing between freelance vs institution

The panel had experience working both as freelance producers and for large organisations. There are pros and cons to both. In a large institution you get to work on a scale unlike any other with people high up in the industry. “I’m trying to think of someone we asked who said no,” Noel said, with regards to the Tate Lates.

But there are downsides too that don’t come with freelancing. “Projects are longer leading, there are more people to consult and they take longer to get off the ground,” Noel said.

In both roles, every day can be different. “You can be in the back of a project and still make a big difference,” David noted.

Moving up

How can you move from admin work to something more project-focused? “Be curious,” Begum said. “Don’t wait for anyone to ask you. Voice your opinion when appropriate. Know when to suggest something that might make their life easier, but also know when to keep quiet.”

Noel added the importance of working with care:

“One thing that gets you noticed is doing your job really well. Being curious and proactive, offering help and thinking of the next steps are really important. But do your job well and you will get you noticed. Have care within that admin role and take it really seriously. Have pride in your work as well as having other things going on on the outside.”

Business skills

Art, Begum said, is a changing landscape. “People are becoming more aware of the apparatus behind the art, but most artists still don’t know how to fill out a funding application because there’s a specific language.”

Working behind the scenes, both Begum and Noel noted the importance of supporting artists with their business skills, to equip them with the tools they need.

Last year Noel did interviews with artists working at Tate from underrepresented backgrounds. “They all wanted career surgeries – advice on doing tax, starting business, workshops with curators, sessions on intellectual property. Because where do you learn these things?”

For those wanting to get to grips with these topics, she suggested ArtQuest. “They do a lot of great resources for finance and all the practical things you don’t get taught in art class.”

Never stop learning

When job searching, follow your gut, Noel advised. She was offered a well-paid job at a creative agency that seemed like the sensible thing to do, so she handed in her notice at Tate. As soon as she had handed in that resignation, she “had the most crushing feeling and retracted it.” Following her instinct led her to the decision that was right for her.

“I told myself: stay here until you stop learning.”

How do you keep on top of everything?

Prioritise your tasks.

Noel explained her list system on a double page spreadsheet. On one side is her to do list per project. On the other is extra bits that aren’t for one specific project, such as a regular catch up or meeting. “I can look at the spread and see what I need to be holding in my brain.” At the start of the day, take a look at what’s coming up and what really needs to happen today.

When you start on a project, think about the whole delivery schedule. “Be best friends with Excel.” Know what needs to be happening when.

Remember to prioritise yourself

“You have to be kind to yourself and look after you own mental health,” Begum reminded. “A lot of the work behind-the-scenes is about being in a compromised position all the time. A lot of it feels firefighty. Sometimes at the end of the day you need to say to yourself: It’s just art projects.”

Noel added, “Sometimes telling yourself things don’t have to happen that day is helpful. Sometimes telling people you need more time or you just can’t make that meeting. Ensure you’re happy with what you’re sending over or you’re in a good place to be meeting.”

Audrey added a key point for those working in offices. “Have lunch! Give yourself a break and get up and walk around. Have a cut-off point. Have working time and your time off.”

Career setbacks

David said that early on in his career he, ‘”didn’t go for the opportunities I should have.” But seeing those in the roles he thought he wanted motivated him. “The thing that pushed me was seeing a replica of Stevenson’s Rocket running in Hyde Park,” he said. “The front of house team were taking peoples tickets. The people in the Learning department were on the rocket.” That inspired him to work his way into the learning team.

Noel added: “The creative career landscape is not linear. You’re not just going to jump up a lovely straight ladder. It doesn’t work like that. You are bound to have these moments at all stages of your career.” When it does happen, she advised again, “you just have to go with your gut.”

Make and maintain relationships

Aldoo-Davies noted the importance of maintaining connections once you make them. “Take time to build links and relationships.” Ask people for coffee, ask them about themselves and not just for advice that helps you. “It’s important to keep it going and not just use them when you need them. They remember you for that.”

Follow the life of an idea

Throughout the evening the panel spoke about long and short-term events, one offs and recurring nights. Throughout it all, conversations and connections seemed key to success behind-the-scenes. In this line of work you might be juggling a lot of projects all at once, so keeping track of the ones you’re excited by can help prevent good ideas from slipping away.

A great idea might stem from one conversation. “Follow it and explore it if you think it has legs,” Noel said. “It can take you to amazing places. Sometimes things won’t work out at the time, but keep a hold of it.” Just as not every application will be successful, not every idea will be right for that particular time. But keep a hold of it and follow it through. “It might work out later on.”

Blog post by Kate Wyver

Find the next session in the Creative Careers series here.