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Arts manifesto News

Let Artists Be Artists

In a nutshell

This summer, we’re contracting 3 artists to work with no ‘targets’, no pre-defined outcome and no pressure for 4 months with 3 different communities in Gloucester. Their brief is simply to work with the community to make people’s lives better through the arts.

We want to rapidly extend this idea of longer-term, deeper-rooted employment for artists to work in and with local communities. So we are reallocating some of our programming budget for 2021. We want to employ artists, full-time, for a year and need other organisations to collaborate with us to make this happen.

We want to run this as a national experiment, to see what difference it would make if more arts organisations were to adopt this artist-and-community-centric model – for it to be part of their ‘new normal’.

How can we restructure our work and re-allocate budgets, to offer artists full-time employment, for 1 year, to simply ‘be’ artists in communities?

To fund these posts, we’ll need others to come on board and are having conversations with organisations around the country to see what happens if they join this experiment.

Over the course of the year, we will share updates and insights on the process with everyone who contributes towards those artists’ salaries. It’s a low-risk way for lots of organisations to test out and see for themselves what this new normal could look like in practice.

What happens when you invest in artists and communities in this way? What was the art that got made? Who participated? What was the impact on the communities involved? Did it reach new audiences? Is it viable? Could it become a regular part of your organisation’s way of working? Would it shake up the current status quo for the better?


Why are we doing this?

We think this moment, where there is no business-as-usual, can be an opportunity to build a new normal for the arts industry. A new normal that gets us closer to the world we want to see – where everyone can access amazing cultural events. Where the systems are:
💥 fair
💥 adventurous and
💥 open to everyone.

It’s also shaped by what we’ve been hearing from artists themselves – both directly in conversation with us, and through things like Louise Blackwell’s fantastic research into independent workers in the creative industries during lockdown.

The new normal: cultural events with artists and communities at their heart

We believe in cultural events that place artists and communities right at their heart. (We’ve got a whole model for this – check out The Strike A Light Recipe for Great Cultural Events).

A growing, proven movement

And we’re not the only ones – there are some fantastic arts organisations who are already working to similar models: the amazing Co-Creating Change Network, that we’re chuffed to be part of; the incredible Slung Low, the excellent Commonwealth, to name just a few.

We’re big believers in this approach to cultural events: putting in the time and care to bring artists and communities together, investing in them, working collaboratively, putting down roots, producing arts events that are made with the people they’re for. (It’s way better -– for artists and communities – than the the one-and-done touring treadmill, for instance.)

But it’s not ‘the norm’ yet

But, even though some people have been working in this way for a long time – even though there are numerous calls for this kind of approach – it is still far from ‘the norm’. We want to change that.


The plan and the proposal

Our plan

We need to value artists in the way we do administrators, producers and general managers. Why not employ them?

That’s why, this summer, we’re contracting 3 artists to work with no ‘targets’, no pre-defined outcome and no pressure for 4 months with 3 different communities in Gloucester. Their brief is simply to work with the community to make people’s lives better through the arts.

The experiment

We want to rapidly extend this idea of longer-term, deeper-rooted employment for artists to work in and with local communities. So we are reallocating some of our programming budget for 2021. We want to employ artists, full-time, for a year and need other organisations to collaborate with us to make this happen.

We want to run this as a national experiment, to see what difference it would make if more arts organisations were to adopt this model – for it to be part of their ‘new normal’.

Your part

To make this experiment happen, we’re inviting arts organisations to work with us. We’re having conversations about how we can do this so it’s meaningful for everyone taking part and we can pool resources. We’re exploring regional and national collaborations. Together, we can make it happen.

We know from initial conversations with organisations that the research and case for funding that comes out of this will be important, as will sharing the learning around co-creating with communities in this way.

An animated GIF. A group of people dance in a community centre while the lights fade through different colours.
People up on their feet dancing at the end of one of our past community-artist collaborative events

1 experiment, 2 ways to get involved

For organisations

Join our pooled experiment. Work with us to develop a model, join the conversation and share resources towards the full-time salary of artists working in and with a community. 

For artists, practitioners etc

Help us spread the word and build momentum for this idea. Work with us to develop the model and tell the organisations, venues and commissioners you know to get on board!

Want to be part of it?

Artists, practitioners

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FAQs

How can my organisation take part and support?

  1. Email christina@strikealightfestival.org.uk to find out more, or to sign up to participate.
  2. Spread the word! Share this page via your organisation’s social media, talk to colleagues about it, invite us to networking events – it all helps make this happen!

Who will the artists be? How will it work? How will you decide how much they will be paid?
We are intentionally keeping this really simple- what happens if you employ an artist for a year? How does that affect their work, their engagement with communities, their relationships with organisations? The detail of who, what, how, how much etc will be worked out in consultation with artists and the organisations involved and will address all the immediate questions around diversity, accessibility, quality, autonomy etc.

Why this approach?
We have had hundreds of conversations with artists, organisations and communities about the arts – and the same things come up again and again. We all know them:

  • Not enough time
  • a project treadmill
  • things taking place in silos
  • inequality between artists and organisations
  • struggling to reach new audiences
  • who art is made by and who it’s for.

There have been endless zoom meetings and webinars about the new normal and we believe that if we’re all trying to do something different, we can’t do that using the same structures we’ve always used.

So this a deliberately open question. Let’s turn some of those structures on their head and see what happens.

What will Strike A Light’s role be?
We will share the progress and learning throughout the year both online and through events where government guidelines allow, with additional opportunities for the organisations who have supported the project to discuss and benefit from the evaluation. We will be a support for the artists- how this works and what they might need will be worked out in consultation with artists- and this support role could be shared with other organisations. We will undertake the HR administration and on-costs of employing the artists. 

Categories
Arts manifesto Listening to artists News

Artists on lockdown: Viv Gordon

Lockdown obviously has huge consequences for live events and performance. We’re having to drastically change the way we’re doing things – and we really want to listen to artists in that process. We want to make sure that the changes we bring in are guided by what will help artists to keep creating great work.

We had conversations with a couple of theatre-makers (and paid for their time), to get their input. Here’s what Viv Gordon – theatre-maker, survivor activist and arts and mental health campaigner – had to say:


What was your gut reaction when you first heard about lockdown? 

Panic and grief. I was triggered straight away into lots of old feelings around feeling trapped in a house unable to leave, that directly relate back to abuse experiences as a child.

Like many in the arts sector, all of my work was cancelled within a week. The icing on the cake was hearing that Arts Council England (ACE) weren’t going to assess an application we had made for 18 months’ work – my most ambitious to date – that our team had worked really hard to pull together over the previous months and invested financially in.

At this point I found myself screaming in a field. I felt thwarted – and again triggered: as a child, it wasn’t really worth me getting on with anything because I was constantly interrupted by abusers. It wasn’t a pretty time. I was shocked and angry and my well-honed mistrust of authority went into overdrive. 

How has lockdown been for you, and for your work, so far?

After a painful first few weeks, things have come out pretty good for me. I have been lucky my producers – Kate McStraw and Molly Scarborough – as well as you lot at Strike A Light stepped in to offer support, leading to Viv Gordon Company receiving ACE emergency funding. I’ve had other bits of work and the Self-Employed grant so everything is feeling more on track.

My home life is secure and we are all in good health, so I’ve been able to use the time to reflect and incubate new ideas. I’ve enjoyed doing some very silly projects that have made me think about my practice in new ways.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m having ups and downs like we all are, my concentration is quite poor, I’m grieving what could have been and I struggle to think about the future very much. We’re in a global existential crisis so I’m not expecting too much of myself…

If people want to support artists right now, what would be the most appreciated kinds of support?

The bottom line is a lot of artists need money to pay their rent and eat. At the same time, lots of us have new restrictions on our time or challenges directly relating to lockdown – those with caring responsibilities, those who are grieving, those with no financial safety net, mental health needs and other disabilities – meaning we have to review our access needs for a new context.

Anyone commissioning work needs to take that into account, target funds to those most in need, avoid being prescriptive and listen to artists about how they can work best in their current circumstances.

The ACE funding scrum has been pretty divisive and so I think it’s important to recognise a lot of people feel hurt, confused, angry and abandoned right now. Anyone offering support needs to be OK to hear that.

Do you feel any certainty/clarity at all about the future/post-lockdown/’the return to normal’? How is that certainty, or lack of it, affecting your work and decisions now?

I wish! Parts of my work can only happen live: they are about a very specific interaction with an audience that doesn’t translate online. So some things are just parked for now until hopefully we are able to pick them up again – even if we have to rethink how they are presented: maybe to smaller, socially-distanced audiences or outside.

On the other hand, before all of this we had already identified that survivor audiences face barriers attending live work and had decided all our projects would have live and digital strands to enable people to engage from their safe spaces online. Our current projects are focussing on digital, so in some ways we are just doing stuff in a different order.

What’s been your experience of taking work online so far?

I’m 48, my technical skills are basic at best. This is a barrier for me. It all feels quite alien so I’m doing as little as possible, keeping it simple and learning as I go along (as well as paying my 16 year old to help me!)

How do you feel about the general rush to take everything online?

It’s a mixed bag. Most theatre work just doesn’t translate well – digital is a completely different way of working. The best stuff I’ve seen is using the opportunities digital affords creatively and playing with that form.

My analogy for this time is that it’s like when people go vegan: some people are embracing the tofu and the chickpeas (complete change), others are going all meat substitutes, trying to reproduce the “real thing”. Personally, there’s only so much Quorn I can take…

Do you think this situation has affected everyone more or less equally, or are you feeling aware of some who have benefited or suffered disproportionately?

The arts sector is far from equal and neither is the wider culture. A lot of progress has been made to increase diversity – it feels like this came at time when a lot of diverse artists were starting to thrive and take up leadership – but not enough of us are yet organisations or NPOs eligible for the lion’s share of the ACE emergency funds or other big funders who have focussed their support on those they already fund.

I’m fearful that we will see things go backwards. I wrote a poem early on when I was pretty enraged. I’m sharing it on the understanding that it captures a moment in time and isn’t everything I feel. Hey, it’s all valid!


It Was Harvest Time

It was harvest time
I’d worked hard
Really hard 
And it was starting to flow
Then everything changed overnight from a yes to a no
No – you can’t make your show
No – your application won’t be assessed
No – it doesn’t matter that you’ve clawed your way in from the edges

It was a familiar shock
To be interrupted yet again
To never get to the thriving bit
To always be stuck surviving

I was angry
Angry to have been encouraged as a have not
Only to be dropped when the stakes went high
The failure of those with say so
To put their money where their mouths were
Only weeks before in their shiny new strategy
Diversity Schmiversity
Look – the backslide to a malfunctioning status quo
Look – the shoring-up of privilege in the name of infrastructure
Look – the well-worn schism opens up the same old wound 
We doff our caps
Please, sir – can I have some more?

My practice snatched from my hands
The gate-keeping of resources by ill-informed suits
Nice people
Who don’t know what they don’t know
If survivor-led practice was already part of the bedrock
There would be no need for me to push that particular boulder endlessly uphill

So what do I want now?
What I always wanted:
Trust
Change
Autonomy
The continuation of a long overdue conversation
Access to money on my own terms to make my work 
I do not want to be erased
I want to be asked what matters to me and why
I want to know that when the chips are down I still have allies
I want a future that is different to the past
Where survivors are just as important as ballet dancers
Because our tortured bodies extending along our own unique lines
Are all the more beautiful for the years spent watching from the side.


Massive thanks to Viv for her time, and her insight 🙏

As we’ve mentioned, at Strike A Light we want to use this time of disruption to make some bigger changes to the way the arts industry works. If you’d like to join us in that quest, you can read a whole lot more about the little revolution we’re trying to get started.

Categories
Arts manifesto Listening to artists News

Artists on lockdown: Conrad Murray

Lockdown obviously has huge consequences for live events and performance. We’re having to drastically change the way we’re doing things – and we really want to listen to artists in that process. We want to make sure that the changes we bring in are guided by what will help artists to keep creating great work.

We had conversations with a couple of theatre-makers (and paid for their time), to get their input. Here’s what Conrad Murray – an actor, writer, director, rapper, beatboxer, singer and theatre-maker, who has led the BAC Beatbox Academy since 2008 and made a host of five-star shows, including Frankenstein – had to say.

How has lockdown been for you, and for your work, so far?

It’s hard, honestly. All the projects I’ve been working on – all those deadlines have gone, overnight. And being an artist but with no projects and in a national emergency – it makes me feel like ‘what do you even do now?’ Like, what is my purpose?

I’ve been trying to create for its own sake, just trying to find stuff to do that is meaningful. And that’s why it’s nice to get invited to take part in some new, online events – it gives you something to work towards. But it’s also tough, because there’s all these things you’ve been working on for a long time, and you get deep into a certain practice with those, and then that’s suddenly all taken away.

It’s quite depressing, y’know? Like, “What am I doing? FUUUUCK!”

A couple of venues have checked in, just asked how I’m doing – that’s been good. And I’ve had some students – some of them from years back – just call out of the blue, tell me what’s happening for them or asking for advice. And I love that! It’s nice to feel needed…

That’s why one thing I think is really important is for artists to get money to do things. Obviously, people really need monetary support at the moment, and that is massive. But purpose is important, too – like, I wanna be getting paid, to make artistic work. I’ve worked so hard, for years and years – I’m always working – and now that I don’t have an immediate thing to work on, you can get into this kind of crisis of “Who am I?”

Is that part of why you’ve been looking at ways to do things online? How has that felt, is it different?

Yeah, really different. Not so much cos it’s online, but just because you’re having to start something totally new. In some ways, it gives you ‘total freedom’ – but actually that’s weird. Normally, you have all these different ways to get input – but now there’s no interaction with other people, or the inspiration that can come from that.

And theatre is very ‘of the time’, but at the moment everyone’s in the same ‘time’: how much ‘corona content’ can there be?!

Ha, yeah – what do you think about that general ‘lockdown rush’ to take work online?

Like I say, it’s good to see people doing things like scratch nights and stuff; it’s nice to try and have things to work towards. But overall, I think it’s really hard for artists. Like, who’s your competition now? Suddenly, I’m supposed to compete with Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber!

So actually, even though anyone can put something out there, it’s worse for most artists, because everyone is in the same space. How can you get an audience when you’re up against these global superstars who are starting out with 10 million followers?

Plus, the fees being offered for digital work and shows online are, like, 25% of normal, if that. It’s hard to take that on. And it can all feel like you’re just devaluing yourself.

Yep, that’s really not great. And actually that’s something we want to do with this time: to see if we can use the disruption to bring some bigger, lasting improvements in the arts industry – to things like artist pay. So, on that: what would be high up your list of changes you’d like to see?

Pay is definitely a big one. 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.

Just overall, there’s this fixation on novelty – a flash-in-the-pan mindset, producers obsessed with crowbarring in the latest gimmick, even if it doesn’t make any sense in the work… That’s not how you build things, not how you invest in them.

Theatres have become like a factory for neoliberal capitalism. Crank out the next thing, make the money off it, chuck it away… When you make a show, you give over the entire IP to the venue! And then, when the run’s ended, that’s it – the whole thing’s gone, like it never existed.

These places all say they want ‘more diverse voices and audiences’ – but it takes time to put down roots in communities. You’ve gotta build those connections. And you can’t do that if it’s always just ‘make a one-off show to get a one-off grant’.

I know of artists – really talented, amazing artists – who have gone from ‘upcoming star’ to Job Seeker’s Allowance. Literally, to JSA. That’s messed up.

You’re right – and, sadly, it’s the sort of thing we hear a lot. On that, just quickly, lastly, is there anything else you’d want to say to organisations like us? I mean, we’re only small, but we can still make choices about how we commissioned, book and pay artists…

Just, ‘help me to be great at what I do’. Like, I know I don’t know how to do the admin, the funding, the logistics, whatever – so I want help from people who are experts at that stuff. But I am expert at what I do – so leave me to do my thing; allow me to use that expertise! I wouldn’t tell the admin person how to do admin – in fact, I want them to show me how it’s done! So give us the same courtesy: let artists be artists, and support us to build work.

Massive thanks to Conrad for his time, and his insight 🙏

As we’ve mentioned, at Strike A Light we want to use this time of disruption to make some bigger changes to the way the arts industry works. If you’d like to join us in that quest, you can read a whole lot more (soon, real soon!) about the little revolution we’re trying to get started.