When I was younger, I took weekly life drawing classes as part of my arts course. There were some fairly vocal people in the group, regularly talking and chatting to our tutor. They worked hard to connect with one another by sharing ideas, laughter and ways of working. Our tutor was a confident man, he was tall, enigmatic and spoke with authority.
A smaller group of us lacked the confidence to engage across the room. Each week, I would park myself into the same seat and ready myself for a new life class. I concentrated, listened to our tutor when he spoke and applied his advice to all of my work. Yet, I struggled to be noticed and to connect with people and with my tutor. I felt invisible. I felt irrelevant. I felt unnoticed. Each week, I would arrive into the class with a different strategy. Some weeks I worked hard to chat with people around me, people I knew and some that I didn’t. Other weeks, I would attempt to join in the chatter to no avail. Then, I simply decided to just get on with things as they were.
At the end of our first term, we were requested to bring together all of our drawings and submit ourselves for a course mark with the tutor. We formed an orderly queue and waited for our ten minute meeting. As I entered the room, the tutor was sat busying himself with some paperwork. He stopped to check my name and reconfirmed my details. My heart sank a little. I opened my portfolio and layout out my coursework in date order.
He looked through each drawing, lifting them up and turning them over. He shot me a sharp look, “You are in my tutor group right ?” “Yes,” I replied. He nodded. I nodded. Silence. We sat in our uncomfortable silent space for a few long minutes. I chewed the inside of my cheek. Eventually, he took a deep intake of breath. He placed his hands on top of my work and looked over to me. “I am really sorry” He said. “I haven’t spoken to you for the entire term. I haven’t seen any of your drawings. I don’t remember you.”
I nodded and chewed the inside of my cheek more vigorously. I could feel my eyes burning. DON’T CRY. DON’T CRY.
The truth is at times we all feel irrelevant, I knew I wasn’t invisible. I knew that I was valued. I knew that. But occasionally, we enter a space where we feel unnoticed, lost and at times irrelevant. Nothing we do helps it change until someone notices, steps back and pays attention.
In arts leadership, what do we do about this? I haven’t always taken the time to consider who isn’t here and why. How often do we stand back and look at things through a different lense, consider other people who are different to us for any number of reasons. Like most people, I have taken part in supervision, regular meetings, engagement, conversations, reviews and very very open evaluation. Those are all good and valued elements of management and are designed to ensure that we pay attention, be honest and connect with our peers. Yet this still happens and for a number of reasons. Difference isn’t always reflected in our teams and the people we work with, so how can we say we know how people who are different are feeling?
A start would be to keep a diary, reflect, stop talking, stop interrupting, debate, dicuss, challenge, regularly take part in training to take notice, recruit different people, engage. Maybe we might notice someone else that needs a chance to be heard. Maybe, we could think about doing things different with different people. After all, we can’t say that we represent everyone if everyone isn’t represented within our teams and structures. Take Notice.