Arts and Sustainability

Why is it that creatives and artists seem to shy away from the word sustainability? From my own experience when you ask many artists or creatives about how their work is sustainable from a business perspective they look very confused, run away or mutter something about having lots of success with funding bids. Yet, these same people choose to do their art form as a profession and as their full time job with the hope that it will be able to put food on their table.
Over the years I have had conversations with all sorts of artists, where they genuinely believe that it is not possible to do their art form full-time or without large amounts of funding. Only this week the Arts Council have published a report that highlights that only a third of visual artist’s income comes from their art, and that the sector is dominated by women who earn less than the men doing the same art form ( Not only does the sector seem to struggle with doing our art forms full-time and making them pay, but the women in the sector also seem to undervalue what they do far more than the men. The gender gap conversation alone would take up another post, so for now, I ask; why do we believe that we can’t make our sector work without needing to do other jobs? Why do we believe that our art forms can’t sustain us?
I’ve been thinking about this in detail this week. Not only have they released the above report, but Arts Council England have also recently announced a new fund around Leadership in the Arts. As someone who has spent my whole career advocating for better leadership, development and sustainability in the sector, I read the guidance with interest. That interest was very quickly followed with relief that the industry is finally being encouraged to think about how we are sustainable and how we function beyond charitable donations or grants. There was also an element of frustration that it has taken this long for an organisation like Arts Council England to recognise and acknowledge this (although late is better than never). There are a small amount of us in the sector who have been shouting about these things from the rooftops for many years, and it can sometimes feel quite frustrating that the rest of the sector seems so behind in their mindset. It’s only now that social enterprise models are beginning to be considered in the arts world, yet for those of us with extensive knowledge in this area, we know that the social enterprise model has been around for well over ten years, and is being successfully used in other sectors across the world (understanding this, was what led me to making my own company a social enterprise and completing a Masters in this area).
So why does it take us so long to catch up on the arts business and leadership side of things when we are supposed to be one of the most innovative countries in developing the art forms themselves? Why do we invest so much in our arts skills but neglect our leadership and business skills? If you’re self-employed are you not working for yourself, does that not make you a business? If you are an arts leader, do you not have a responsibility to those you are leading to be the best leader you can be and invest in your own leadership and development?
There are some very good arts leaders in this country, but I regularly wonder what would happen to the arts in the UK if all funding was taken away. Historically, we’re very good in this sector at working through tough times, and certainly in theatre, it’s where some of the best periods of theatre growth and development came from.
I am sure that there are many companies and galleries that would survive because they have a strong enough focus on the commercial aspect of arts and more importantly, have a sustainable business model. But, for some reason when you speak about arts from a commercial perspective in the community arts world, it becomes dirty and you get labelled ‘a sell-out’. Why is someone a sell out because they have found a way to do what they love and are able to put food on their table? Why do we think making money is dirty? If I didn’t make money, I would not have a company…Yes it’s That simple! And no, the money doesn’t go directly into my pocket. We are a social enterprise, with voluntary directors, which means I have to be accountable to those using our services and the sector as a leader. If we didn’t make money we wouldn’t exist.
Profit is not a dirty word, and it isn’t just the arts sector that suffers from this mindset. It is a very common mindset across the voluntary and third sector as a whole. But I do think we’re a little better at playing the victim card in the arts world than the rest of the voluntary sector. Perhaps that’s because historically artists have always been victims of some sort, whether it was because of their social choices, mental health or just because they were an artist. After all, it’s not like you can make a career from it….
….Wrong! I have done just that!
I have achieved this by not being afraid to diversify when I have needed to, and by not seeing money as dirty or profit as wrong. Although I might have many strings to my bow, I am firm in my ethics and morals, and that is demonstrated in my directing, acting, writing and the way I run my own company and in coaching others in their businesses and careers. It is these ethics and morals that make me unique and enable me to stay firm in valuing my skills, experience and expertise, whilst also valuing and appreciating those creatives that work for and with me. In valuing such things, this means I don’t give things away lightly and I expect someone wanting our services or my time to pay what they are worth. It’s only by doing this that I have managed to build a sustainable company that is valued by those using its services and experiencing our events and performances within our direct community and beyond. It’s not possible to be sustainable, as a company or individual artist, if you don’t value your skills or experience and putting a price on it that reflects this. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when it might be right to give your time or skills away for free or discounted, but the difference is that you choose when this is and you don’t feel pressured to say ‘yes’ for free just because someone else expects you to do so. If you are a professional in the arts and you have the qualifications, training and experience to demonstrate this, you have earned the right to dictate what you charge or to work for a fair wage. You have earned the right to work towards sustainability (whatever that looks like for you). Don’t let anyone take that right away from you just because you’re an artist.
Look beyond funding bids, be prepared to put your creativity into developing yourself or your organisation as a business. We think outside the box all the time in our art forms, but we need to also be thinking outside the box to make sure we can survive and thrive. If we all did this and really started valuing what we do as trained professionals, whether it’s performing, teaching, sharing our art form or working in visual arts, perhaps those looking in to our world will start to value it. Maybe they will really start to understand the power of what we offer. Maybe only then would our professional hard work, skills and education not be taken for granted. Maybe only then will we begin to be sustainable as a sector.

If you want to know how I can help you succeed in your art form get in touch through the contact page to find out more

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