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How to change the way we work with artists: lessons from ‘Let Artists Be Artists’

The backstory

For too long, there have been massive inequalities in terms of who benefits from ‘The Arts’ – both as audiences and professionals.

Artists go underpaid, under-heard and under-supported. And the industry is not truly open to everyone. We want to change that.

So we launched a year-long experiment: what would happen if we paid artists to just…be artists?

Now, we’re sharing the lessons from the process as we go – partly in case you want to try and run a similar scheme in your own organisation. But, most importantly, because the artists who helped us shape this project said transparency and ongoing open communication was key.

So that’s what we’re doing: towards the end of last year, we ran a sharing session, updating anyone with an interest in the scheme about some of our lessons learned along the way.

You can also watch a stream of the whole session if you want, or read on for our summary of 3 headline points

Stage 1: applications and recruitment

3 headline takeaways

Here are 3 of the key things we’ve learned, that we would say to anyone looking to emulate this scheme:

1. Listening to artists is central to everything. Do not run a scheme like this without listening to artists!

This idea was borne out of conversations with artists. So many artists are exhausted and restricted by the project treadmill. People talked about “fighting for scraps”, putting their own work on hold all the time and feeling “broken” by the process. Artists and their work, with all its brilliance, don’t seem to feature much in the structures of the arts industry. We wanted to do something.

Conrad Murray said it better than we could

“There’s gotta be a better way to pay artists. Less short-term, less unstable. More like a salary, I guess. I don’t know exactly how it should work but there needs to be more security for artists, so that you can build the thing you’re working on.”

Artists were also involved in every stage of developing this experiment and made it infinitely better. This included paying artists for their time to work with us to:

2. Don’t be scared! The setup’s really not complicated, even if it feels it

When we first started this, we had no idea how it was going to work. Everyone, including us, had so many questions and it felt like it might be overwhelmingly difficult to actually make something happen.

Then we held a planning day with artists and partners to work it all out. It turns out that some aspects of it really just are as simple as they sound: give an artist a year long contract, pay them, and trust them to do their work. And it works.

3. Sit down and take time to DESIGN your application process. It makes a HUGE difference.

We really tried to make sure our recruitment process focused on the experience from an artist point of view. This included: 

  • Centering the artist and their work in the application questions, (rather than making it all about how to fulfil our or anyone else’s brief)
  • Giving options to ask questions and get support over email or online workshops
  • Paying artists for their time at interview
  • Artists leading part of their interview to highlight their work and make the power balance more equal
  • Pairs of artists and staff from partner organisations shortlisting applications

Qualitative feedback

It felt like these things had a real impact: we’ve never worked on a process like this where we’ve had so many ‘thank you’ emails from people who applied.

(In some ways, that was slightly heartbreaking and showed something of the state of the industry, when artists are surprised and hugely grateful even just to get an acknowledgement email confirming we’d received their application.)

People also told us they appreciated the transparency of process (“it didn’t feel like a trick or a guessing game”). Human interaction made a big difference to many artists involved.

It’s not often that people refer to an application process as “a joy from start to finish”, “characterised by compassion and real understanding” or making them feel “happy and grateful”. Of course, we didn’t get it right for everyone, but it felt like lots of these pretty small, simple steps made a big difference to a lot of people.

Quantitative feedback/the stats

When we looked at the monitoring data, there was real diversity across the 392 applications: a huge range of artforms, levels of experience, age, ethnicity and sexuality were represented.

Fig 1: self-selected identity in ‘Let Artists Be Artists’ applications

Sources: LABA monitoring data; Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case (ACE); ONS.

We had worked hard, with the advising artists, to reach people who were not ‘the usual suspects’ – but we were still pleasantly surprised by the response data.

Protected characteristics which are underrepresented in the industry when compared to national population averages were strongly represented in applicant data, well above national averages.

We also wanted to understand what had made people feel confident to apply – what made them think “yes, this is for artists like me”. The responses gave us a toolkit for things to include in future recruitment processes and we hope that other organisations can lift ideas from this too. 

Some aspects, such as feedback and the opportunity to ask questions on email, are easy to offer – and nearly a quarter of applicants said they needed this to feel confident to apply. Yes, it takes some staff resource, but if you were running an application process and 80 people are thinking about applying, you could lose 20 of those applicants without it.

Equally, nearly ⅓ of applicants needed the option to apply via video or audio to feel confident to apply and nearly half felt confident because there was a quick EOI stage first. These are easy to implement and bring you a wider pool of potentially brilliant artists. 

Fig 2. What factors were very important to you when deciding to apply?
Fig 3. What things did you need to make you feel confident to apply?

Lastly, the opportunity for artists to lead their own creative work came through loud and clear as a reason why Let Artists Be Artists stood apart from other opportunities.

This ethos is something we’re trying to build in more strongly across all our work, and hopefully becomes increasingly the standard across the industry.