Arts manifesto News ways-of-working

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

Chart by Visualizer

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?
Chart by Visualizer
Fig 3. What things did you need to make you feel confident to apply?
Chart by Visualizer

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.

governance News ways-of-working

Pocket guide: environmental responsibility in arts organisations

“In a climate emergency, what is the role of an arts organisation? How can we create an environmental responsibility policy and action plan which is meaningful?”

Towards the end of 2021, we had a workshop-style board meeting*, looking at environmental responsibility and the climate crisis.

(*We’ve changed how we do board meetings to make it easier to get lots of different perspectives in our organisational leadership.)

We gathered (virtually, on Zoom) a group of artists, event organisers, climate specialists and activists alongside our staff and trustees to get our teeth into the topic.

Lots of people emphasised the importance of transparency in that discussion – so we’re sharing ideas and wisdom that came out of the session so that anyone can use any bits that are helpful.

NOTE: at this stage, these are things that people suggested or mentioned in the workshop. We can’t claim that these are all things that we are doing already, or even that we definitely will do. Like everyone, we’re ‘on a journey’ with these changes. We want to go as fast as we can but we’re also conscious of how far we’ve still got to go. We’ll at least try to be open and honest about our progress along the way!

In a hurry? Hate gifs? Download or share this as a 2-page ‘pocket guide’ (Google Docs)

5 ways arts work can directly help with the climate crisis

  1. We support creative work, stage ‘public spectacle’ events and have the marketing skills to reach audiences. Harness these elements of our work directly to the climate cause.
  2. We know and work with brilliant artists – experts in powerfully engaging people’s attention and emotions. Team these creatives up with scientists.
  3. We regularly put on events with hundreds of people in attendance. Use our skills to launch citizens’ assemblies to debate and pressure.
  4. We have ongoing communications with loyal audiences who love what we do and will listen to what we have to say. Work with our audiences to make our voice louder.
  5. We are part of a ‘place infrastructure’ – people travel to our venues and events and we contribute to the shape of our area. Play an active part in making travel environmentally-sustainable where we are based.

9 things we can start doing right now to bring climate policies to life in our day-to-day operations

  1. Put sustainable activities in our Business Plan. Build climate considerations into business planning and KPIs.
  2. Specifically allocate staff resource and time to environmental responsibility.
  3. Audit suppliers and artists we work with to make sure they share our values and commitment to combating the climate crisis.
  4. Pay people more! (Climate justice and economic justice are inextricably linked).
  5. Climate considerations should cut through everything we do: the way we procure, the way we market, the way we do our cleaning… So make sure climate considerations are on every meeting agenda.
  6. Train up our staff on Carbon Literacy. Create a Carbon Literacy Toolkit for the organisation for training purposes.
  7. Calculate our digital carbon impact as well as our physical one.
  8. Keep talking about climate justice. Be public and transparent about our policies and progress (or lack thereof!). Share what’s working and what’s not with other organisations. Share our climate values in communications other than dry, internal policies.
  9. Increase sustainability in physical spaces we control. Plant some bee-friendly plants! Find ways to harvest rainwater!

3 big picture perspectives to keep in mind across everything

  1. The system’s got to change, not just actions. This needs to go beyond small modifications to ‘business as usual’. We should articulate the view that the relentless drive for economic growth and exploitative, colonialist capitalist ‘norms’ are fundamental drivers of the climate problem, and that clear alternatives must be sought.
  2. Resist ‘growth-at-all-costs’. ‘Green growth’ may be a contradiction in terms. Slow everything; reduce quantity of output to allow more space for thinking about the quality of our sustainability.
  3. Vote with our wallet. Be choosy about who we work with: don’t spend our money with companies that deny the climate crisis, or work against it; do develop creative partnerships with companies striving for positive climate action. Support our staff to take dedicated time for sustainability efforts.

4 examples of handy resources/further reading

  1. Big picture: read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics
  2. Practical changes: use Julie’s Bicycle‘s carbon footprint spreadsheet.
  3. Practical changes: use online services like Networked Condition that can help analyse websites and the digital impacts we have on the environment
  4. Harnessing our work to the climate cause: check out I Stand For What I Stand On at COP 26 – a co-created show about the climate crisis

Future board workshops

We’re planning to continue with this format of board workshops. If you’re interested in participating in future sessions, follow us on socials so that you know when the next workshop is coming up!

Credit: Ed Rees/Pigfoot Theatre
Arts manifesto governance News ways-of-working

Workshop board session: climate crisis and the arts

“In a climate emergency, what is the role of an arts organisation? How can we create an environmental responsibility policy and action plan which is meaningful?”

🗓 Tuesday 2 November, 1pm
💻 Online (via Zoom)

Our board and staff team are working on our environmental responsibility plan and we want it to be more than just a policy about recycling paper in the office. We’d love to chat to other people about how they’re approaching this kind of work and hear about different, bold or experimental approaches from the arts and from other sectors.

If you have experiences, opinions or ideas you could share with us in the workshop we’d love to hear from you. You might:

  • be an artist or company that has navigated making carbon neutral or net zero work
  • have worked on a project which has done things differently when it comes to environmental responsibility
  • have experience or knowledge of leading an organisation through environmental sustainability or climate justice work

Why workshop sessions? 

Earlier this year, we outlined our new approach to our governance: how decisions are made about how Strike A Light is run, and how we could make sure that more voices were heard in this

Like a lot of arts organisations, Strike A Light is a charity and so our board of trustees meet regularly throughout the year to oversee, advise and support the running of the organisation. We want to open up this process and have written a couple of blogs about why we think change is vital for us and across the sector. 

In short, we will move the primary focus of our governance activity to workshops rather than board meetings – where artists, communities and industry work alongside board members to directly influence and support Strike A Light’s approach. 

Read more about what happened in our first workshop.

Rather than a single, static board who feel they have to drive the strategy and make decisions on every topic, this arrangement provides dynamic support and skills for the governance of Strike A Light.

We’ll be doing a workshop on a different topic every three months and each different workshop will involve quite different groups of people. 

There will be a combination of trustees, freelancers, arts professionals, professionals from other industries, community members and artists.

The size, make-up and dynamics of each group will change to best reflect the workshop topic. 

How does it work?

If you have knowledge, experience or a professional interest in this topic and are interested in being part of the workshop on Tuesday 2 November, then just drop us an email to let us know who you are and why you’re keen and we’ll be in touch with more details about the workshop and so you can ask any questions. 

The workshop in November will take place on Zoom, will be informal discussions and last for 1 hour and 15 mins. 

  • Workshop attendees can be paid for their time. We know there’s an issue with asking freelancers, artists etc to put in unpaid time. After the workshop you can invoice us for £75 towards your time. Alternatively you can choose to donate your time as a trustee would. You don’t need to tell us which you’re opting for – just send us an invoice afterwards, or don’t. 
  • There’s flexibility to the time commitment. You might attend future workshops too if you feel you can contribute to several topics, but equally you might just attend the one workshop that’s your bag. 
  • Workshop formats can vary to suit attendees and topic e.g. we can do one small group discussion or a structured activity with breakout sessions etc. 
  • Options for digital or hybrid meetings give much greater opportunities to work with people from across the country or even internationally. We’re planning this workshop on zoom. If you’re local to Gloucester and would prefer to meet in person for a chat on the topic or would prefer a one to one phone call we can do that too.

We hope these sessions will also give people an opportunity to find out more about how the Strike A Light board works, meet trustees and demystify the governance process.

Arts manifesto News Past Opportunities ways-of-working

OPPORTUNITY: 1 year paid arts leadership placement – Executive Directors of the Future

Listen to an audio transcription of this page

We’re delighted to be partnering with Artistic Directors of the Future to host the second instalment of the Up Next arts leadership programme – a scheme designed to hand over power and resources to visionary people of colour within established theatre organisations.

Under the scheme, one successful applicant will get a 1 year, 4 day/week placement with Strike A Light in the role of Executive Director. This will include mentoring, training and support from Strike A Light and the ADF network. 

This is a paid placement, at a rate of £35,000 per year pro rata.

Candidates must:

  • be from a Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, Native American, Hawaiian, Hispanic/Latinx or Mixed-Race background
  • be an ADF member (free to join)
  • be available to work in the Strike A Light office in Gloucester at least 1 day per week
  • be available to work for Strike A Light 4 days per week from October or November 2021 for 12 months


Key dates:
5 July 2021: Applications open
20 Sep 2021, 9am: Applications close
Week commencing 4October 2021: Interviews
Oct/Nov 2021: Up Next Executive Director 12 month p/t contract

How to apply

  1. You must be a member of ADF to apply. It’s completely free to join.

2. Complete the application documents

3. Email your completed documents to, for the attention of Sandra Thompson-Quartey

About the scheme

Up Next is designed to hand over power and resources to visionary people of colour within established theatre organisations. The initiative is a catalyst for progressive change within organisations that participate in the programme and supports the diversity of their workforce.

This no hand-holding initiative presents a one of a kind opportunity for ADF members to take the keys, take the budgets, take the space and change the game.

Artistic Directors of the Future (ADF) launched this revolutionary leadership programme in 2017, in partnership with Battersea Arts Centre and Bush Theatre and supported by the Arts Council England Sustained Theatre Fund.

The initiative saw five ADF members from culturally diverse backgrounds take up positions of leadership – bringing change to tomorrow’s arts and cultural landscape.

 “I would never have this job if it wasn’t for ADF. There were times when I really couldn’t continue theatre and it was the great community I had through ADF that made me feel there was still a place for me in this industry. I only got this job, partly through my relationship with BAC, and the Up Next programme.”  – Tarek Iskander, Battersea Arts Centre Artistic Director and Up Next 2017 participant

This year, Up Next will offer a one-off opportunity to a candidate who will bring their perspective and lived experience as a person of colour to Strike A Light and share new ideas and strategies to shape the organisation.

The main goal of the placement is that, by the end of the year, the Up Next candidate will have gained valuable experience that can support them to demonstrate the skills, knowledge and confidence to step into a senior leadership role within the cultural sector.

About the placement

The scheme will offer one person a one-year placement with Strike A Light in Gloucester in the role of Executive Director.

The Executive Director is a key part of the Strike A Light team, working alongside the Co-Artistic Directors to lead the organisation. The role is one that holds, shapes, supports and drives the entire organisation.

Primary purpose: with the Artistic Directors, to drive the strategic and creative direction of the organisation, leading on planning, finance and organisational development of Strike A Light.

For this placement, Strike A Light are looking for someone to join the team who is excited about the organisation’s work, who understands the principles underpinning it and who wants to bring new ideas and ways of working to the organisation.

The placement will be best-suited to someone who enjoys being the go-to person in a team, and who has a broad range of experience in different areas and job roles in the arts. 

About Strike A Light

As a small charity, Strike A Light has been punching above its weight in terms of national profile and innovative thinking which is influencing the industry.

We believe that for the arts industry to change, the leadership needs to change – and that artists and communities need to be at the heart of developing cultural programmes. We use 7 Key principles for creating cultural events and these inform the whole organisation and its decision making.

Next steps


Key dates:
5 July 2021: Applications open
20 Sep 2021, 9am: Applications close
Week commencing 4 October 2021: Interviews
Oct/Nov 2021: Up Next Executive Director 12 month p/t contract

How to apply

  1. You must be a member of ADF to apply. It’s completely free to join.

2. Complete the application documents

3. Email your completed documents to, for the attention of Sandra Thompson-Quartey

Deadline for applications extended: Closing Monday 20 September, 9am

Arts manifesto Uncategorized ways-of-working

The Strike A Light Recipe for Great Cultural Events

A recipe learned over time

Since 2013, we’ve been working in Gloucester to create great cultural events: experiences that can bring communities together, make life vibrant and exciting – and change things for the better.

In that time, we’ve learned loads about what works and what doesn’t. We’ve learned it from first-hand experience: from trying things and seeing what actually happens. We’ve learned from successes and from failures; from big ideas that flopped spectacularly and from things we tried that instantly took off…

Our thinking has also been inspired and informed by the practice of others working in a ‘co-created’ way – and there’s quite a lot of overlap with things like Marcus Faustini’s ‘dangerous notes for co-creation’.

7 ingredients

Based on what we’ve learned so far (and are still learning), we tried to identify some key ingredients in a ‘recipe’ for amazing creative experiences that bring artists and communities together.

We’ve seen for ourselves that these ingredients can make for powerful, relevant cultural events. And we believe this way of working will do more to build the fair, adventurous, inclusive world we want to see (rather than perpetuating the current, not-good-enough status quo).

We think that if arts organisations genuinely bake these 7 things into their commissioning and programming processes, it will produce incredible cultural events that are better for artists, better for organisations/venues and better for communities.

We’ll be following this recipe for our Co-Created Programme and our year-long Let Artists Be Artists experiment. And we’d love to talk to others in the arts industry who are thinking about working in a similar way.

1. Work ‘with’, not ‘to’

Change the dynamic between your organisation and the communities it exists to serve. Become co-collaborators, creating together. Not ‘supplier and consumer’ or ‘provider and recipient’. Real, live human beings interacting with each other and making (shaping, developing) cultural events together, side-by-side. Events should happen with your community, not ‘to’ them.

2. Put in tiiiiiime

Invest in this process of co-creation – make it a long-term thing. It takes time to build relationships, to put down roots, for work and ideas to grow. You can’t shortcut those things. Expect to think in terms of months or even years, not ‘nights’. And remember that this time with communities isn’t just a means to some single ‘payoff’ at the ‘end’ – the time itself is part of what you’re creating together.

3. Invest in artists

Artists are crucial to our recipe: it’s all about bringing artists and communities together. Artists are the experts in creativity – and in opening other people’s creativity. You can’t do this without them. So value them. Back them. Pay them! Give them the stability and the space to express themselves and their expertise.

4. Amplify underrepresented voices

The creative case for diversity is real – culture is just better the more perspectives are in the mix. But it’s also a point of principle: culture is where our collective stories get told. So it needs to tell all our stories. And, currently, it doesn’t do that equally. So, if you have a platform, use it to help redress this imbalance: find stories that are going untold, voices that are going unheard, perspectives that aren’t adequately represented and amplify those. (This goes for staffing and team composition, too: who are your producers, your directors, your executives? Diversify your workforce!)

5. Do it in unexpected places

Geography matters. Place is a part of community. So celebrate those places; reimagine them; bring them alive in ways that get people talking. Most importantly, go to them. Take it to the streets. Dance on a car park roof. Stand on a bridge. Walk through a farmyard. Run around a housing estate. Go to the places where community is already happening – don’t force people to come to you.

6. Be open, responsive and flexible

Go on a journey with people – don’t insist on the destination before you set off. Remain open to possibility and changes of tack along the way. It’s where the unexpected, the exciting, the adventurous, the unimaginable can happen. And it means that you end up in a place where people want and have chosen to be – and you’ve all been on the walk there together.

7. Share power in the process

This is the last one cos it’s the biggie – it underpins everything else. Sharing power is the way of making sure you’re handling all the other ingredients properly and authentically. You have to genuinely give all the participants in the process power to shape that process. Not sure how to tell if you’re doing that or not? You can use The Agency Scale to literally measure it. We know this one can be scary – so many of us have been conditioned to get hold of and exercise as much power as possible. But real change happens when power is shared – for the good of all – not grasped for ourselves.

If you want to explore implementing this sort of approach in your organisation, get in touch with us. We can provide consultancy and advice based on our experiences working to this recipe.

Arts manifesto ways-of-working

Making the arts better – for artists and communities

20 May 2020

We want to see a world where EVERYONE can access high quality cultural events that are relevant and enriching to them.

A world where the systems are fair, adventurous and open to everyone.

Maybe this pandemic and its aftermath will force all of our hands to do things differently – but maybe that doesn’t need to be a bad thing?

Currently, many artists are underpaid, under-heard and under-supported. We have been inspired by the words of David Jubb in his blog. His vision and suggestions of how wealth and funding could be distributed chime strongly with our thinking. It’s well worth a read.

Update, July 2020

We’ve identified 7 key ingredients for making this ‘new normal’ a reality, and put together a practical proposal to test our recipe: ‘Let Artists Be Artists’.

What happens if you pay an artist to just…be an artist – full-time, for one year, working with the community to make people’s lives better through the arts?

We want to use this moment, where there is no business-as-usual, to think about bigger changes like this. We’re not sure that getting ‘back to normal’ is what should happen – and we’re not the only ones:

“There has been a lot of reflection during the pandemic, not all of it concluding that the arts should pick up exactly where they left off. This may be the moment for structural change. The British arts after the pandemic may need to be rawer, more basic, more plugged into their communities than ever. And that might not be a bad thing.”

Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian

With all of this in mind, we – hopefully along with others – want to build a new normal:

  • where the arts truly is for everyone
  • where there are no barriers to access
  • where artists are supported well
  • where doors are open and the arts are rooted in our communities and not always in buildings that can, for many, feel like the home of privilege and wealth

As time goes on, we will share more about our plans for working alongside communities to come up with amazing events that can happen under social distancing. But right now our primary focus is on supporting artists.

If you work in the arts and you want to see change in the industry too, please scroll down to find the sections that are most relevant to you. How can we work together to make them happen?

Artists are vital

Art doesn’t exist without artists. They’re amazing and unique and important. We think that supporting artists to flourish should be a prime concern of any arts organisation, venue or commissioner.

Listen to artists

To make sure we’re supporting artists on their terms, it’s essential to listen to artists. We think that changes to any process that affects artists need to be shaped by artists.

We consulted a range of artists (and paid for their time) to hear their views on lockdown when shaping this plan.

Artists on lockdown: Viv Gordon

A conversation with theatre-maker, survivor activist & arts and mental health campaigner Viv Gordon

Support artists’ immediate needs

The coronavirus crisis is catastrophic for many artists. Some have lost their entire income overnight. So alongside long-term, systemic changes, it seems clear to us that actions also need to be taken to provide short-term support RIGHT NOW.

Donate to an artist support fund

There are a few different options out there. Lots of us on the team here at Strike A Light are donating to #GigAid, run by artist Bryony Kimmings and our friends at Battersea Arts Centre:

Provide support in making bids and finding funding

There is funding out there, including dedicated emergency support, but sometimes it can be hard to find or apply for or even understand! One step we’ve taken is to run special advice sessions to help artists access existing funding.

Introduction to Writing a Funding Bid

Create Gloucestershire are hosting an online course for Gloucestershire based artists, fundraisers and those working with creative groups to get started writing funding bids.

We also send out a regular artist newsletter to keep artists informed about funding, project grants and other opportunities.

Keep commissioning work – at fair rates

The importance of artists’ work hasn’t suddenly diminished because of lockdown. And it isn’t cheaper for an artist to produce a new piece of work, or to adapt an existing one, for a totally different digital format. So it seems clear to us that artists shouldn’t be paid less for their work just because it’s being delivered online.

We will treat any callouts or commissions we launch during lockdown the same way as we would have done under normal circumstances – including rates of pay.

For instance, we’ve recently launched a series of home residencies where we’re paying artists for their time while they’re working at home – at the same rate as we would if they were in a rehearsal room.

Pay artists for their time

Lockdown has had a devastating impact on all kinds of live events. Since it became clear that we would have to cancel our entire spring and summer programme of events and activities, we have:

  1. Committed to carry on paying our freelance youth theatre and dance tutors and offering interactive online sessions for our groups so they can still ‘meet’ with their group (as well as creating some one-off sessions which will be shared more widely and open to anyone)
  2. Provided financial support to artists we were working with who were about to tour, to support the re-development or re-scheduling of their work
  3. Had individual conversations with each artist or company we were due to programme in our upcoming season – to work out the best way we can support them financially and practically, committing at least the fee they would have received for the planned performance
  4. Worked with artists who were due to perform shows as part of our spring season and paid them additionally to create and share new online work
  5. Paid artists for their time as consultants to inform the development of our response and future plans

Because without artists, there are no shows or events or arts industry to hang on to! In our view, this time of emergency should mean more support for artists, not less.

Stop the project treadmill

Instead, pay artists over longer terms to develop work and connections with communities/audiences.

Pretty much what it says on the tin. We don’t think that the ‘project-to-project’ treadmill is good for artists or for audiences.

We’re determined to find, test and model better ways of paying artists to spend time on their craft – starting with how we’re going to create our autumn ‘season’ this year.

We’ve got some exciting plans in the works for this: instead of programming one-night shows, we’ll be employing 6 artists and 3 community producers over 4 months to make amazing events in Gloucester in 2020.

Update, July 2020

We’ve identified 7 key ingredients for making this ‘new normal’ a reality, and put together a practical proposal to test our recipe: ‘Let Artists Be Artists’.

What happens if you pay an artist to just…be an artist – full-time, for one year, working with the community to make people’s lives better through the arts?

Arts manifesto News ways-of-working

Why a programme to empower female arts leaders is so important

Last week I made a list of people to set up meetings with for a project. Because those meetings were with leaders of organisations, *there were more people called Richard on that list than there were women*

It’s time for a new way of working.

In the last few months two things happened.

  1. The Point in Eastleigh were successful in securing funding from Arts Council England for a Transforming Leadership project which will support 16 female arts leaders from diverse backgrounds and we at Strike A Light (SAL) will be supporting two of these women.
  2. I read Mary Portas’ book Work Like A Woman.

Both of these things set my brain whirring and as I lay in bed (ironically enough, at a hen do) I sent myself about 15 emails as I thought of so many things I wanted to do or change or articulate.

The Transforming Leadership project is not only the opportunity to address gender inequalities in leadership on a purely statistical level, it’s an opportunity to question how and why we work the way we do.

Most of my brain-whirring was about what the wise Mary calls “broader ambition”. There’s a myth about women being ‘less ambitious’ as a reason for them not applying for leadership roles. There are many systemic barriers that exist which could account for this imbalance – but, equally, women are not less ambitious if they are rejecting the existing baggage that comes with our current view of what leadership is: isolation, stress, long hours, a dictatorial approach.

If women want things for their personal life or family life too, they are just ambitious in a wider way, for their whole lives, which includes the workplace but isn’t defined by it.

In a previous job, I worked for an arts organisation where putting in long hours was a sign of commitment to your job. The word slacker was used a lot as a ‘joke’ if people left on time or worked part time. As someone without children I’d never considered why that might be a problem and how damaging my perceptions were. 

Since I first joined Strike A Light it has been led by two inspiring women – women who have challenged a lot of the things I held dear about workplace culture and my own value within it. I think that SAL has a working culture which is influenced by this approach and it’s one which I am excited to examine, try and articulate more clearly and share regionally and nationally through the Transforming Leadership project and to the new leaders we will be working with. 

Because that’s the thing about diversity in the workplace. It’s not about quotas or tick-boxes. It’s about the fact that things are genuinely better if more, different voices are heard at leadership level. Better creatively and better in terms of workplace equality. If something doesn’t affect you (childcare costs, the physical accessibility of a building, only seeing white faces in marketing materials) then you’re less likely to think about it or do anything to make it better. More varied experiences in staff teams means more people making things better and fairer for everyone. 

At SAL, our flexible working policy opens with: “we accept that the 9-5 structure was invented for a society when the men went to work and the women stayed at home. That society no longer exists.” 9-5 does not work for most people for a huge range of reasons and in our industry and with the magic of the internet is there’s no reason to demand it. 

When we consider other people’s needs, it makes the work environment better for everyone. Childcare might be a driving factor in moves towards flexible working but, for example, in the SAL office that flexibility also means that one staff member can do regular exercise classes which help her manage her migraines and another can cut their commute in half by avoiding rush hour. (Fun fact, while I type this it’s 7pm and I’m over 100 miles from our office, having spent the day playing with my nephew.)

But theoretically these ideas could be implemented by anyone. So: a scheme to support women leaders. Is it needed? After all, us women have got the vote, what more could we possibly want?! And when’s International Men’s Day, eh??! (It’s ‘19 November’ or ‘every day’, depending on why you’re asking the question).

Theoretically yes, legally, women should be treated equally so why the need for positive discrimination? Why not just ‘the best person for the job’?

Because of humans’ unconscious bias towards people who are similar to us, we usually think the ‘best person for the job’ is the one who is most like us. The status quo bias means that difference is seen as risky. If there’s only one woman or one person of colour shortlisted for a role, their chance of being hired is statistically zero.

Also, when shortlisting, the best person for the job on paper will be the person who has already been given the most opportunities and so has the most experience. So the same narrow pool is hired over and over and nothing changes.

Women are under-represented in leadership in almost every industry, even those where the workforce is female dominated. They’re underrepresented in board rooms and in leadership roles in large Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations. When married women retire, on average they will be five times worse off financially than their husbands because the current work structures are stacked against women progressing in their careers, earning more or managing childcare without detriment to their income.

Last week I made a list of people to set up meetings with for a project, and because those meetings were with leaders of organisations there were more people called Richard on that list than there were women.

Diversity brings in new ideas, new voices, different ways of looking at old problems. In the UK we work the longest hours in Europe and are experiencing a mental health crisis. The current structures aren’t ideal for anyone. It’s time for a new way of working.

At SAL we are trying to do things differently. This includes collaborative working. Everyone’s workload has peaks and troughs – if someone is drowning under too much work that week we will sit down and go through their list and either get rid of what’s not important or dish out tasks between the rest of the team. That’s better for the organisation in terms of getting things done well but also for that individual. This is something which the standard view of leadership, the competitive model of individual success and ambition, does not allow for.

I am inspired by the way we work and I never want to go back to working for a large organisation that creaks under its own weight and struggles to turn. I have also banned myself from using the word bossy. We use it to refer to girls, and only girls, who are being in charge, taking up space or talking loudly and giving instructions. We are saying that they are displaying the behaviour of a boss, a leader, and this is addressed as a criticism. 

I am proud of being a leader and I want to work for an organisation and on projects that encourage other women to do the same.

To find out more about the South West Women Leaders project as part of Transforming Leadership, check out the application information in our current Opportunities.