I first posted this reflection on being a creative on Facebook in November 2020. I was a little blown away by the response.
It seemed to hit a chord. Easily my most liked and commented post of the last few months. Some people told me it had helped them find light amongst the clouds of Covid. I’m glad if it has. I also received a number of private messages asking to share it more widely. So, here it is. With extra detail on the state of the arts sector and a bit more ranting. It’s all about being creative in tough times. Accepting that you are what you are, not the company name on your payslip. If indeed you still have one of those.
I had no idea when I wrote it that I would, very soon after, swap my own Executive Producer title for an equally fancy Regional Lead one. Moving sideways to do something important about employment and skills for young people. Something that could help a new generation step into and sustain enterprising creative careers, but something you might not describe as “in” the cultural sector.
I mean, I’m still tethered to various creative endeavours. I’m on a theme group or two for the North East Culture Partnership. I’m an Associate of Alphabetti Theatre. I’ve been asked to join some arts funding bodies. Is that “in”? Depends what definition you choose, right? There you go.
Whenever I doubt if I’ve lost my creative identity, I hear a particular voice in my head. This is what he said and what it makes me think…no, I’m still not saying who he was. He’s off doing something different himself and, as you can probably tell from the way he berated me, he might not appreciate me exposing his identity.
You’ll just have to keep guessing.
How I annoyed an Artistic Director
I once made the mistake of describing my eclectic CV to a particularly strong minded Artistic Director. I said something like “the problem is I don’t have a traditional arts sector journey”. He went ballistic…
“What the hell does that mean? Traditional? There’s no one path. And artists don’t follow tradition. If that’s what you’re seeking to do then you don’t have an arts journey at all.”that AD, going ballistic
Slightly rocked by the voracity of his response I tied to explain that I meant I’d done a fair few “non-arts” jobs. I hadn’t finished my sentence before…
“It doesn’t matter what order you did it in. If it was fifteen per cent of your time last week, a hundred this week, and goes down to five next. You’ve written things? Stop dancing round it, call yourself a writer. You‘ve made theatre? You’re a theatre maker. You raise money, run projects – you’re a producer.”that AD, going more ballistic
I ventured that I did have things on my CV with those titles. But that I didn’t know if I was credible next to people with more of these professional credits. He’d had enough now…
“I’ve had enough now. I’m sick of people apologising for paying the bills. If creatives were defined by the source of a pay cheque most would be calling themselves barista artists. Forget trying to be an arts ‘professional’. Do whatever you do and practice the art you want. Do you do that?”that AD, having enough
Silence. I thought it over. Yeah, I said, I guess so.
“Then you’re an artist. Own it.”that AD, he’s done now
That’s when it clicked, that I wasn’t being berated. For the first time someone was telling me to value my own creative journey for what it was, not apologise for what it wasn’t.
Coming to terms with creativity in the time of Covid
That conversation keeps repeating in my head as I try to come to terms with the devastation 2020 has caused in the arts. I’m not suggesting simply calling yourself an artist can substitute for paid work.
Watching the Covid19 wrecking ball go to work on the UK creative industries is a tragic experience. According the Office of National Statistics, the gross domestic product of the cultural sector was 46% lower in November 2020 than it was in February. In October, a review of employer notifications to HMRC showed 40% of the salaried culture workforce has been made redundant. That was before even the original end date for the Job Retention Scheme (aka furlough), let alone the extended date in spring 2021.
And don’t get me started on the devastating effect the virus has had on freelance artists, producers, technicians, marketeers, and the like. To get chapter and verse on that, go look up Tyne & Wear Cultural Freelancers and ask it’s founders – Leila and Caroline – what their members are talking about.
Of course, when I say Covid I mean the financial fall out of the pandemic, the snail pace of government response and the damaging messages they’ve sent to the arts sector. You know, like; “Hey you! Arts therapist. Can you support vulnerable people with your creative skills? You! Dancer. You’ve toured schools and care homes with community shows, yes? And you, music promoter and tour manager, entertaining arenas full of people year round. Did you know you’re all part of a sector that contributes £100bn to the country’s economy every year? You did? Lovely. How about retraining as a pipe fitter?”
OK, so, we could get into a lengthy debate about the dominant funding and commercial models of the sector over the last 40years, and if they would ever protect us from a genuine force majeure event of significant scale. We could certainly doff caps to the institutions who built deep reserves, and the leaders and advocates who squeezed a £1.5bn Culture Recovery Fund from DCMS. We could applaud Arts Council England for distributing those hefty sums to struggling cultural employers, saving livelihoods and civic assets in the process. But that’s not really the point of this blog, so maybe I’ll stop ranting and move on.
Let’s just say that the idea the sector, and its people, were “saved” by these interventions is at best half true.
A huge number have had to make the toughest of choices. Some will be lucky and keep getting paid to make the art they have so successfully produced, and sold, before. Others will do other things that are just as important. A good number may struggle to do either. It’s a fucking mess. And it hurts, doesn’t it?
Your talent has not gone away
But – and this is THE point of this blog – this shit we’re living through doesn’t stop you being who you are. It doesn’t expunge talent. Nor creativity. If you make, you’re a maker. Write, you’re a writer. Compose and sing, you’re a musician. If you advise others on their work, you’re an artist mentor. And if you earn your rent money somewhere else, that’s nothing new. It doesn’t stop you being you.
I’ve got a writing degree. A masters in film. I’ve got two books, a load of plays, a festival, radio Producer, Literary Manager and Arts Project Leader on my CV. Yet it took me years to feel it was OK to answer the question “what do you do?” with “I’m a creative”. More accurately; “I’m a creative and I also have this job called….”
That grumpy AD made the difference. He was running a big old institution and he told little old me to believe in who I was. At my core. He probably said it more Mourinho-esque than Klopp-like but that’s ok. It worked for me. Hope it does for you too.
Whatever you have to do to get through, whatever journey you find yourself on, you are always an artist. I just wanted to tell you that.