The Creative Careers: April Networking session put the spotlight on the visual arts, aiming to map out opportunities across a landscape that is often tricky to navigate. Curators, artists and professionals from across the art world came together to share their insights and tips for thriving in visual arts careers with Young Barbican members.
Think inside the box
For visual artists at the beginning of their career, there aren’t always the resources to meet the imagination’s requirements.
André Anderson, a designer, educator and author of eight self-published books, hadn’t produced anything for a year, so he decided to set himself the challenge of creating a piece of work in one hour. By giving himself boundaries he came to the realisation that: “You know you’re really creative when you can think inside the box.”
Jordan McKenzie is a performance maker and visual artist who tutors at UAL and mentors the Young Barbican Visual Arts Group. Jordan started his project Lock-Up Performance Art (LUPA) in a lock-up garage where he lives in Bethnal Green as an event for the local residents to access art that is usually confined to the museum or gallery. His advice was to begin with what’s around you.
“One of the most important things is to make your own luck, and if you make your own luck you set the agenda.”
LUPA was an event designed to be inclusive for the residents of the estate the garage was part of, so Jordan started by hand-delivering invitations in the local area. Initially he had to borrow electricity from the shop opposite, and only five or six of his friends came to the first event, but by the end of the project, events were attracting audiences of 200+ from the surrounding estates and the residents’ committee supported Jordan to hold a fête with more than 150 artists. As Jordan put it, “Don’t wait for it to happen; start with what you’ve got.”
Find your people
Often, the most valuable resource a visual artist can make use of is other people, so it’s important that you find collaborators you get along with. Julie Smith, Studio Production Coordinator for Idris Khan and Annie Morris, recommended meeting artists, curators and other arts industry professionals by volunteering at arts fairs alongside attending events like Creative Careers and Young Professionals in the Arts. However, she also highlighted the importance of getting to know your customer; it’s difficult to be commercially viable if you have no idea who will be interested in buying your art. By attending opening nights and private views at galleries (often the night before the official opening date), you can meet potential customers, get to know gallery owners and become familiar with the industry as a whole.
Russell Martin, who co-runs Artquest, a hub for advice, information and opportunities for visual artists, stressed the value of investing in your creative relationships. It’s hard to work with someone you don’t get along with, and Russell reminded everyone that it can be rare to find someone you connect with creatively and personally.
“Once you meet someone that you can work with, keep working with them over and over again. You don’t have to start from scratch all the time.”
Get a mentor
The whole panel agreed that having a mentor can make all the difference, especially when starting out. Abi Wright, now an independent curator, found herself with an accidental mentor in the early stages of her career. After she graduated she found it hard to find work, so she sought out an organisation online, the African and African-Caribbean Design Diaspora (AACDD), and asked to exhibit with them. While in her initial meeting with them her work was heavily critiqued, she used the experience to further interrogate her work and the meeting led to an exhibition. Abi then nurtured a relationship with the woman who set up the AACDD who opened her eyes to international opportunities and raised the options of a career as a curator or a creative director.
“By having that figure around me, she really did mould the early stages of my career.”
Now Abi is a mentor, too, through a programme called Arts Factory at 198 Gallery in Brixton, a creative production hub for young people.
Talk it out
Zara Truss Giles is a performance artist and Studio Manager at Somerset House Studios. Zara has balanced motherhood with her creative and professional practice since the age of 18, so keeping a dialogue open about the difficulties of making performance art has been crucial to her success.
“There are loads of obstacles out there, but the most powerful thing you can do is to keep putting your voice into that performance.”
Performance artist Alexis Blake brought Zara onto her project to overcome difficulties she was having sourcing a group of dancers from a range of backgrounds, ages and abilities for a piece to be shown at the British Museum. Alexis’ main obstacle was “lots of people telling her that you couldn’t find a dancer that’s sixty years old, you can’t find a dancer that’s good enough at fourteen years old, you can’t find disabled dancers who can be a part of your project, and that there aren’t enough black dancers out there”. Within five days of joining the project Zara was able to source the right dancers by talking about the difficulties that might be faced by each dancer in order to find solutions.
“A big part of finding a career in a creative industry and the arts is being really honest about what you need. If you find that you’re struggling with something and there’s a gap there and something isn’t being provided, talk louder about that because you won’t be alone and the more you shout about it the more you’ll find other people are attracted to that.”
Somerset House Studios run a Creative Careers Academy which 85 of their artists in residence are regularly involved in. The London hub of Makerversity, who run education programmes and provide work spaces for young creatives, is also based there.
Value your individuality
André spoke about wanting to tackle several creative outlets at once, and how this shouldn’t be a barrier to your work. Using the vast portfolio of Donald Glover/Childish Gambino as an example, André told everyone at the event to ask themselves, “What is an ‘insert your name here’?”
“The only thing that makes you valuable is that you are able to articulate things in your own specific way.”
Faye Wei Wei, an artist and recent graduate from the Slade School of Fine Art, believes in the power of ‘mythologising’ yourself: turning yourself in to a brand as well as an artist. “If you know what your brand is that can be really interesting to play with, as long as you’re aware of it.” Faye highlighted the power of social media, particularly Instagram, in creating your brand – as long as you only see it as a tool for achieving that.
We don’t all know what our end goal is, but Russell Martin’s advice was to first decide what success looks like to you, so you can work back from there and decide what to do next. For example, to Russell, success is working three days a week so he has time to keep his personal creative practice thriving.
The panel agreed that anyone who has investment in something they care about should have one eye on what’s coming up next: Abi suggested joining Facebook groups and André suggested following Instagram pages like Run the Check to keep ahead of opportunities online. Jordan noted that call-outs for Young Barbican Visual Artist Group open every summer and if you’re signed up to Young Barbican you will be notified via email when applications open. The current cohort will be exhibiting their work in a show called Common Ground on 19th & 20th May and attending events like these is a great way to get a foot in the door and meet the people who can help you take that next step.
Jordan also added that simply keeping at it, although sometimes hard, is vital.
“It’s a bit of an egg and spoon race, and at the end of the day if you keep running with your egg on your spoon, eventually people turn around and say, ‘You’ve been doing that a long time!’ It shows you’ve got, not just stamina, but you’ve got a history.”
Piece written by Jack Beard.
Check out other Creative Careers in the series here.
Header image © Camilla Greenwell
Images © Nicolette Chin