Sharing Freelance life

Emily Malcolm and Carrie Creamer have been working closely together for the last 5 years. They met as part of Wiltshire Youth Arts Partnership.

Although the business closed its doors a few years back, both have found a way to continue working together. They collaborate wherever possible, sharing roles, be it research and development, project management delivery or collaborative engagement with a number of different providers. 

The year of 2020. A year of changes and new things. Get summer ready. Change everything. Here is how. 

Every year begins like this. We shed. We move more. We talk earnestly with our friends about our new exercise regime or we praise the benefits of a new diet. Some of us shed people, weight, jobs, places and things. 

“We began the year by developing a new project together”

Carrie Creamer 

CC: “Emily and I began working together a number of years back as part of our work with Wiltshire Youth Arts Partnership. It was a complete gift being able to work with someone like Emily. At the time we met, I was spinning a great many plates and it’s no secret that it was at times very difficult both physically and emotionally.”

CC: “I was working full time, working long hours and trying my very best to achieve a lot with often not much at all. Emily bounced into the picture to lead the Dancing back to 1914 Arts and Heritage project. I really enjoyed working with her. She always arrived with a list, with questions and a warm travel drink cup.”

CC: “Our meetings were always productive. We would meander around various topics before getting down to some planning, actions, reactions, budgets and debates. I think we both understand each other’s needs and rather than dig around in the dirt looking at them or moaning, we found a way to support one another. Trust became a big feature of our practice. There was no requirement for micromanaging from either part.”

EM: “I moved to Wiltshire to be with my partner five years ago. Until then I had only been working for organisations as a PAYE member of the team but after applying for a few jobs, attending a couple of interviews and seemingly getting no-where on the new job front, I applied for a freelance project management post with Wiltshire Youth Arts Partnership. I had managed many freelance workers in the past but admit to feeling pretty scared at the prospect. The contract wasn’t full time and it was time limited. What was I going to do when it ended? What happened about holidays, sick pay and a pension? How was I going to find other contracts to make more money? But needs must, I needed work and I got this position.” 

EM: “I also met the lovely Carrie. Carrie and I worked well with each other from the word go. I had a job to do and Carrie expected me to get on with it. She wasn’t standing over my shoulder checking what I was doing at every stage. She trusted in my updates and allowed me the freedom to get the work down.”

CC: “Towards the end of my role working with Wiltshire Youth Arts, I really was beginning to struggle. The balance of work and life had begun to consume me. My daily life would lurch from one unhealthy engagement to the next. Often groaning at the magnitude of emails or correspondence, I joined my colleagues in gazing into my laptop while I spilled my lunch across the desk and into my keyboard. I rarely took breaks. I left my house early and arrived home late. It began to feel like a battle and one that I would not win. As a single parent, this kind of working structure wasn’t going to end well for anyone if I kept at it like this. I noticed that a few colleagues were beginning to become ill with the weight of work and deadlines. I rarely had time to see my daughter, she was nearly 5 years of age at the time. I felt at times quite low in part due to working for a large institution which I make no secret about railing against on a daily basis.”

CC: “I was a Unite union rep and worked hard to ensure that colleagues achieved the best possible outcome when they were faced with redundancy.”

CC: “I watched some really good friends lose their jobs or shift careers or countries. I began to feel the injustice of cuts regularly. The arts are always the first to be cut in times of need. I get that. I even understand and acknowledge that. I made the really difficult decision to take redundancy. I think I slept for nearly a whole month after my last day.”

EM: “For me, becoming freelance was a blessing in disguise for me. My partner and I like to travel and with both of us working for ourselves no one could tell us when we were allowed to travel and for how long. No, you don’t get paid when you aren’t working but if you budget well you will be fine. So, we took a few trips and enjoyed not having to be answerable to anyone about where we were going and when we would be back at work. I also found that I enjoyed freelance work. I like working for different organisations, being more in control of my time and being focused on delivering work rather than on how many hours I am sat in the office.”

EM: “I am a naturally organised person and found ways to track my time, focus on work at home and managing multiple contracts. Like most people I found some days I could work for hours and be really productive. Other days, I would work for a few hours and give up. Being freelance means you can do this. You can work when it suits you and not just because it is office hours. I find this makes my work more productive.” 

CC: “I am now a happy freelance arts producer, writer and researcher. In terms of PAYE and freelance, there really is no point pitting one side against the other as both arrive at the table with their own stories. Both relevant. Both involve people spilling the sandwiches across the keyboard, working long hours and getting by. Both can break you. Both can feel unfair at times. ”

CC: “There are times when the future is fairly unpredictable and at times it be lean and difficult to manage. But its important to find the balance and consider how best to work during those periods . You can also be invisible at times which is something of a super power in my mind. The difference that it has made to my wellbeing is incredible. I get to see my daughter more. I am often at the school gate. I work from home, so it does mean a degree of dedication, sticking to my hours and process so that I get everything completed when required. At times I have less money and at times I am abundant with money.”

CC: “BUT I did learn a little trick. Turns out that if you seek out people to share work with in a freelance way it is amazing.” 

EM: “I was coming to the end of my final project for Wiltshire Youth Arts Partnership when my twins arrived unexpectedly at 29 weeks. Carrie had already been made redundant but, as if I had some sort sixth sense, I had spoken to her about stepping in and helping me finish off the project on a freelance basis. Two days later I messaged her from hospital to explain that my babies had been born and asked her if she would run things on the ground for me while I kept an eye on things from the hospital.”

CC: “After I stepped into help Emily manage the last part of the Dancing back to 1914 project we agreed that we should find a way to continue working with one another. “

CC: “Right now, Emily and I have teamed up to deliver a piece of work for Barnardo’s. A heritage arts project with young people with additional needs. We both have children and require a degree of flexibility for our work. We often spent time lamenting about childcare, managing kids and navigating our way through tasks while one of us is in the car and the other is chasing children around the house. We can both be found typing and emailing after the kids are in bed (like many freelancers and PAYE people). What is different however, is that we share this thinking. One of us may have to put the spinning plates down for a short while the other steps up and takes over their tasks. One of us may be incredibly tired because a child is ill. It’s a kinder way of working. It’s real and brings life into our work.”

CC: “I think it’s the way forward for a lot of my work now. Sharing the load, balancing childcare and helping one another through it. In between it we still manage to do all of our work, support and guide one another and have a laugh at our funny lives.” 

EM: “Our continued partnership has led me to find the work life balance that I want as a parent. I want to be there for my children. I want to be able to take them to school, go to sports day, help with school trips. I like taking them to their music group, meeting up with friends and taking them out to museums and the theatre. I also like my work. It is a real balance being able to be the sort of parent I want to be and still produce work that I can be proud of. Having people like Carrie to work with is how I am going to find that balance.”

EM: “Having someone who understands that when my children are ill, they are my priority is really important. Being able to offer support back when Carrie needs to drop her daughter off at her swimming club or help out on a school trip is important. I hope we can build up a team of people around us who can support us and who we can support in return. People who want to work hard, who want to produce amazing work but also realise that sometimes family, your own wellbeing and life goals are more important.”

CC: “So, for both of us a flexible routine has become our friend. We set a tone and work hard to agree when things happen, where and when. We both do a fair bit of mapping out of our time and we make time to think about money, development and progress. Connecting with people has made a real difference to both of us. Sharing contracts, pitching together and sharing the load is the way forward. It frees you up in the long run to take other work.”

We are both strong advocates of social media, it is a life source for many of us. 

Do something that makes you happy and thrive. Don’t leave PAYE work to feel the same in the freelance world. Connect, grow and develop. 

We will be updating you and sharing information about our freelance life and the work it involves. We are very excited to share some of the work that we have been involved in.

Stay tuned and please share your tips and thoughts about life in the arts sector.

Approaching the silence

We travelled the sharp and bending curves of the road until we reached our final stop. A secluded meadow with a glorious backdrop nestled within the Wales countryside sits a Gypsy wagon. Our home for a few days courtesy of some true and brilliant friends. After setting down our things and placing our belongings around our new home, we talked about living a nomadic life. Us two, treading soft footed through villages and fields as we lived the simplest of lives. A simple and wholehearted life. Imagine that.  

In contrast, like many of you my normal life is different. I sit in my worn out armchair, writing and researching “stuff “. Papers spread all around me. I dip in and out of words trying to finish plans and reports. I drink far too much tea and coffee. I am never finished and always on catch up. I spin a long line of plates. I face challenges daily. 

I read hardship stories of pain and despair in the news. I have my own. I see and hear starkness. Dark gloomy nights hang over all of us. Turbulent times. Angy times of opposition. Opposing paths. Miscommunication. Lost friends and lost family. Opposing truths. At times despair. Some of us are sick with rage. Moments of huge contrast. Overwhelming kindness housed beside unkind words and doings. 

It’s become exhausting trying to stay connected in a way that is good for us all.  

The fabric of engagement and connection is a complex and layered one. It has its own itinerary about how we enter into its dance and connect. My work takes me down the path of connection through weaving and shaping layers of matrix systems, thinking, discussions and debates. At times, I have wondered why on earth I do this work. 

We know that history plays a huge part in how we engage and interact. Who I am, my story, our experiences as well as our collective relationship to the thing, the place the purpose and everything. A delicate and fragile history will resurface if we don’t respect it, understand it, hold it with love and care and acknowledge it. The Good Friday agreement is one very good example. History has forgotten already. You would think that we don’t need reminding about it but we clearly do. We have stories. Some of us have memories etched and printed on us across generations. Yet, here we are. Change brings with it a casual dismissive regard for the past. It doesn’t fit the new story. 

Yet, history itself tells us that we always pay the price for that thinking. Once we disregard the past as irrelevant or inconvenient we are destined to make new often fatal errors. It is a horror to watch. 

Yet, I hear cries across social media.

“Why do people always bring up the past. It’s so unnecessary”.

Our collective archive of history. The very thing for learning, understanding and growth.  

One of my first ever arts development programmes involved teaming up with a small group of like minded people to research and develop our thinking. One evening, while we collated and gathered paperwork, my colleague turned to me and said:

“See, this is what it is all about Carrie. Life is a series of letters and notes passed from me to you and from you to me and onto someone else. Passing information from one to another, back and forth. Over and over. Forever.”

I laughed politely but felt its sting. Is that it ? A bunch of notes between us all. Information and sharing more information. Data and more data. Back and forth. Registering information over and over in different formats. Telling each other stuff. 

Our notes gives shape to our plans. We do need the research and thinking in order to know what’s missing and why. To ask big questions. To find out THE question. To confirm if its wanted and needed. We need it so that we can ask. 

We question and re-question our language. 

“Let’s all be authentic.” 

“That’s authentic, that there. Look, see how authentic it is.” 

“I don’t think that it’s authentic enough.” 

“How can we measure whether its authentic or not ?” 

“What do we mean by authentic ?`’

Suddenly, authentic is not the word. It will be a new word to communicate and pass notes back and forth with. We will use new words that replace the old words. The new words are better, more current and more responsive to change and how things are right now. The old words are irrelevant. Sometimes for good. 

So, with that in mind, where in our thinking or passing of notes and data do we make space for love and honesty. Where in our weird systems thinking or energy mapping and community growth do we make room for critical awareness, self empathy, connection and emotional health. Do we make time for this in our project planning or reporting. Self kindness, common humanity and the struggle of everyone. What is the point of any of it if we don’t bring that to the table. 

On the way to a meeting the other day, I listened to this. A great listen on the BBC “Only Artists” to Julie Hesmondhagh and Tony Walsh. The two talk and compare experiences of growing up in working class Britain. A wonderful dance of a conversation. Both entered the space with a whole hearted love of the arts. It was great to hear their stories which really resonate with my own experience. Sometimes, its one teacher, a parent, a family member/mentor who notices and encourages you. That connection and paying attention. Acknowledging and respecting who you are and your history. Just offering choice, connection and a chance to examine the earth in a different way. 

Perhaps, its bringing back the whole hearted approach to our working and passing of notes to one another. Put the love back in because we need it more than ever. 

Over to you. 

Civil Society and the arts

“Beware those men, the jokers and the tricksters and the clowns. They will laugh us into hell”.

Russell T Davies character Muriel stated in the final episode of Years and Years.

O gosh, an amazing drama which shows us a stark and terrifying picture of the world as it falls into a hell of our own making.

So, I want to talk about Civil Society.

It involves all of us. It is where “we come together” as a community for a purpose or maybe something useful… Maybe it’s the street parties, community groups, arts, events, community litter pick ups, connecting through good things, taking part in resistance -we are civil society. Right now we need it more than ever. The world and the community we live in is a divided one. Our democracy is questionable at best. Many of us feel threatened or scared, vulnerable or angry. Some of the voices in our community have turned to anger and division. There are also growing tensions between different communities often inflamed by the media. Politicians are at best creative with facts and often rail against community desire and voice. We are tired, we are scared and we are desperately seeking change.  

From rural to city, from rich to poor, from old to young power, powerlessness is a growing feeling that unites many of us. To add to our woes, austerity and an unequal society has created wider and deeper divisions within this place we call home and how we connect and work together for the better.

Ok. Stay with me. It’s going to be OK.

I recently attended a Civil society futures conference with Julia Unwin. The event held a lens up to the social tensions, stories and challenges we are all facing in our daily lives.

“We gonna leave” a good friend told me recently. “As soon as our passports are through. We have had enough of this country. It isn’t safe for the kids. This country has gone to hell. I don’t recognise it anymore”.

It is a depressing and recurring statement that I have heard and engaged with since Brexit began. I even entered into it myself for a short as I flirted with the possibility of moving back to Ireland with my family. That is until I realised how hard a move that would be for me and my family. 

But, the conference shared stories of civil society and communities bringing about change and coming together and that is what keeps me here. We were reminded of stories about how communities have forged partnerships to strengthen society through difficult times.

From the people who left their homes in the early hours with armfulls of food, clothing and gifts to those left homeless at Grenfell Tower to the small groups of people who stood picketing in the pouring rain for days to protect their beloved local libraries from closure. Or the people wrestling with the changing tide of freak weather reports to help a neighbour with comfort and support as they scoured through the rubble for precious ornaments and family treasures. Maybe you are one of the growing numbers of people who peacefully protest about climate change by making small and large gestures of resistance to raise awareness and bring about change. These moments occur despite everything that is happening around us. These moments occur with difference and sometimes because of it. These moments. 

As a community of people we want and need to have agency over things that matter and mean something to us and our families. What the civil society future report finds is that a deep connection and trust for everyone involved remains a key thread to our future. There is still desire for a sense of place, connection, collaboration and coming together.

Yes of course, the political landscape feels more and more out of reach for many of us. One person at the conference said “This change will have to come despite the government. We cannot rely on them anymore, that’s finished”.

“Yes but people have been saying that for years” said my neighbour. “Nothing new there”. Yes, that is true. Hear we are now in our call to rise up. 

However, what really struck a chord for me in the report was the notion of kindness. A call for a different language. A different language of engagement and questioning. Time for us to become more emotionally articulate with our interactions and intentions with one another. How our engagement and decisions have far greater depth and impact than we realise. To change for the future, requires all of us to consider kindness, courage and commitment as our anchor. It should be our anthem.

It made me think of a local authority that I once visited. It had placed its housing team in amongst the open space atrium. It was more cost effective. An atrium where families, individuals and staff mingled in amongst the clatter of coffee cups and the chatter of a public space.

In contrast to all of this, someone would occasionally hear that their housing has been denied or changed. The person waiting impatiently for someone to appear with good or bad news. In public. In full view. The meeting would involve the positioning and repositioning of chairs as everyone involved took their seats. I imagined the housing officer staring in silence, willing their case number to comply with change. The housing officer poised and waiting to offer alternatives and a paper sheet of numbers and contacts. Then empty seats as the chairs are abandoned.

Yet, this was the now preferred method. It may have made perfect financial sense to move the more accessible service to an open space but it now felt like a service that was unkind and publically witnessed. It had the potential to place the most vulnerable in full view. How would they rate that service ? Kind. Tick box 5, Unkind. Tick box 1. Humiliated. Tick box 1. 

If our future involves all manner of discoveries involving technology and the very way we work and engage with one another, then how are we proceed without kindness.

Imagine this:

The rush of language and definition for different social groups. “What shall we call those people?” “I know, let’s call them “hard to reach”. It is in the end, no way kind.

I dipped into twitter today to read the news. It could really do with some generous acts of kinds in language and behaviour. How do some of these interactions contribute to a kind, courageous and committed society. I leave feeling as though the divisions and gaps in society are like two huge husks colliding with one another in slow dry battle.

So, if it is our behaviours and practices that can and will shape the future how can we proceed ?

People are asking more questions. This is good. People are disruptive. This is good. People are provocating. Also good. Do I need to ready my Irish passport to abandon this country. Not just yet. For the artistic community, who isn’t here and why ? Do I need permission to be here and if so WHY? There are lots of organisations and individuals who are showing us a commitment to question and do things differently. Do they provide the solutions for society ? If you are involved in local arts and health could your progression be the answer ? Do we need to balance the power out of buildings and into open spaces and into smaller unknown spaces ? Where do local authorities fit in and how can they support us better ?

Additionally, I think the challenge we are seeking is both external and internal for the arts sector. I have witnessed small organisations bringing radical and innovative change precisely because they are the small organisation. The impact and the ripple effect they are having can be far reaching. So, we do have power. If very small organisations are pushing forward then we can make a huge difference in civil society. However, we can move forward exhibiting, modelling kindness in our own community as well as the wider world.

Here is the PACT from civil society futures aspirations:

  • Power – sharing power and using power to help everyone play a full part in the things that matter to them
  • Accountability – being accountable to the people and communities we serve
  • Connection – broadening and deepening our connections with people and communities
  • Trust – staying true to our values and investing the time and resources in activities that will help build trust in the sector

Extend and Make Room

The final residential for the Extend programme took place a few weeks ago in Leeds. It was a chance for the cohort of 2019 to come together one last time. As a group we shared stories about our lives as well as the progress of our group enquiries. We debated, talked openly and reflected on our journeys and connected with one another again.

It felt familiar, warm and supportive. As always, Extend drew into focus artists and organisations who provocated our thinking about what we do and why we do it. Extend do something very special. The team work exceptionally well to curate presentations and work which offers us all the chance to consider not only our leadership but our values, who we are, what we are doing and why we do it. It is a chance to challenge ourselves and take and make what we will of the process. Their own gentle, inclusive style of leadership really shows a brave approach to a new way of thinking. Leadership doesn’t have to exhibit loudness or forthright language. It can be about noticing, communicating, being brave, taking on difficult conversations and connecting with people. I applaud those at Engage Extend for the chance to take part this year. Thank you all. 

Challenging conversations was a theme for our last day with Extend. It raised some personal and professional questions about how we collectively and individually develop our thinking around difficult conversations. Our deep rooted thoughts about ourselves and others. From early childhood to adulthood notions about our values, our teaching and who we are take more centre stage. It struck me that for many of us, leadership presents conversations that we collectively avoid. We actively seek out irrational situations to avoid confrontation, interruption or question. We are adverse to upsetting feedback and thinking. We all know that this is massively counter productive to both our professional and personal lives but yet so often we tread this quite often hilarious terrain of distractions in order to avoid difficult situations or uncomfortable conversations.

One colleague of mine from years ago had a boss who insisted that their entire team go running together twice a week as a team. At the time it was felt that this would encourage team activity and productivity. Some people were good at running and some people were not. Slowly and surely over time, people were actively avoiding the days that the run occured. It became so consistent that for some of the month, team members had started to work from home or book out very early morning meetings to avoid attendance. Not one person wanted to explain to the boss person why it wasn’t ok to insist on people running twice a week. For many it was about choice, personal experience, ability or quite frankly desire. There had been no conversation or exchange about choice. The boss took the lack of enthusiasm for running personally and got very angry about what they considered to be a lazy team who they thought didn’t want to be a team. This went on for over a year. It snowballed into a culture of mistrust on both parts…for the longest time… with both camps thinking that the other ‘didn’t get it”…until finally the boss left the company and the conversation. Both parties hurt and angry. Both parties with their own version of the events. Yet a conversation at the start, a debate or exchange about wants and needs would have sorted it all out. The boss could have noticed. The team could have said. Yet, noone wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings or expose their own. What a bunch of weirdos we are. 

Then, all too quickly our residential collective gathering was finished and our last moments were filled with emotional goodbyes and hugs. We packed away our things and carried our bags to the station.

I travelled back to Somerset with my good friend Fran Bossom where we shared our often hilarious and complex lives over the last remaining drops of our coffee. Whilst we busied ourselves with insulting one another (one of our favourite past times), we both reflected on the unending struggle to balance everything in our lives through a whirlwind of plate spinning. Twirling and whirling through the minor and the major as we slice up sandwiches for small folk whilst contemplating the health, wealth and wellbeing of all the people around us including ourselves. Worries. All the time.

Time and the urgency of finishing things, completing tasks, making time, creating time, spending time, quality time. Time to watch my daughters legs get longer. Time to cut her fingernails. Time to connect. Time to read. Time for fun. Time to remember who the hell we are in all of this. Time to be creative, to make art. 

So, what now that I have completed Extend ? It’s all finished isn’t it ? Some of us may have tidied away our files and notes of the past year with Extend, my notes are still lying scattered across my desk with arrows and circles sketched across my paperwork signalling something developing….

So, what am I working on. Disruptive and questioning I don’t mind if I do.

I have been working in London over the last month drawing brains and collecting stories from like minded folk as part of a piece of work. Years ago I collected lists and photos/prints of people’s hands Lets see about the brain works. Drawing things that no longer exist anymore from people, places, animals and objects. Don’t ask, actually do. Maybe. Much of my focus of late has been centred on Arts and Health and the curiosity of learning through arts as practice to raise our game, opportunity and progression for ourselves as artists but also our communities. 

There have been some great write ups lately about the importance of arts engagement, its value and impact. Have a read.

Me, I am off to draw a passsenger pigeon and another Dodo.

Read about:

Arts as Practice- by Robin Nelson


Natives Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala.

Openair arts practicing well

How do artistic creative activities regulate our emotions? 

We need arts premium in schools

Creativity and vulnerability

I turned 50 a few weeks ago. I marked the occasion without too much fuss or fanfare, no big party, no big event but instead surrounded myself with family and a few close friends. For me, it was a time to sit and reflect, consider and take stock.  After all, I have managed to stick around for 50 years, which is quite a big deal considering a few friends didn’t make it this far and they would have loved to have had the chance to celebrate their 50th Birthday at some point. 

My social media feed has been awash with comments from my peers (also turning 50) reflecting on memories, stories and thoughts about their half a century birthdays.

“I remember cycling to university like it was last week, I can’t quite believe it” one of my friends stated with shock at turning 50 this year. People tell you that time seems to speed up as you age and it certainly feels that way to me. It seems endless when you are young but now the days and weeks seem to flutter past with increased regularity. Age and aging plays on my mind more. Watching my child grow, marking out small moments of independence as I step further and further back to loosen the reins and watch her lead her way.

I want to embrace this older version of myself. A new chapter if you like. I am still here and there is much to do. I have a list. Lists are good. Fifty things to do for 50. It’s a chance to connect, reconnect and challenge myself.

A more considered work/life balance has become a prominent feature as I have aged. Ensuring that I look after myself and my family has become key to my every day. But a more common feature is maintaining my health and wellbeing. I am ever mindful of the friends and family that do not have the luxury of good health. So, I am grateful for the way things are for me. I have started to walk more, turn off my phone more, ensuring that I don’t work late into the evening or weekends, eat better, spend quality time with friends and family. Make memories and challenge myself. Less worry time or at least more manageable worry time. There is so much more to do. 

However, far to many of us that work in the creative arts world often place our health and wellbeing as the last task on our long list of things to do. We often work long hours, experience professional isolation, have less money and work under repeated deadlines, funding and uncertainty. We aren’t alone in this practice.

Recently, I have been working with Arts on Prescription, (more on that in another post!) with a keen eye on the Social prescribing model which has had increasing involvement in the everyday. Social prescribing, sometimes referred to as a community referral, is a means of enabling GPs, nurses and other primary care professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services. It’s not for everyone but as our health and wellbeing becomes a standing feature as we age, social prescribing seeks to address people’s needs in a holistic way which supports improved wellbeing. It works to offer individuals the opportunity to take greater control of their own health as part of enabling communities. 

It can involve a variety of activities including volunteering, arts, gardening, befriending, cooking and sports to name a few. But does it work ? Yes it does! There is a growing body of evidence that social prescribing can lead to a range of positive health outcomes. We all want a better quality of life and whatever works, works well for some people. I know older people who have been referred to a social prescribing model, meeting it at times with challenge and reluctance but it did add a wider network of support and improved their long-term health which they value greatly.  It essentially works to connect, learn, grow, give and be active.  It’s not an easy fit and does not support everyone yet but its a start and that is a good thing. 

Thinking about my Engage Extend leadership course, where I have been researching and interviewing arts leaders, I have also been reading Brené Brown (a researcher professor who has spent the past two decades studying and researching shame, courage, vulnerability and empathy) who talks about “the challenge in leading in a culture of never enough” in her book “Daring Greatly”. She talks about the notion that leadership doesn’t have anything to do with positions of power or status but more so it is about leaders who hold themselves accountable for finding the potential in people and process.

“Vulnerability is at the heart of the feedback process” states Brown. But it also plays a major part in how we lead, our voice, being truthful to who we are and our values as well as being kind to ourselves and others. So, how do we ensure that we as artists lead with a degree of vulnerability in ways that also maintains our own health and wellbeing. How do I lead in a way that looks after me as well as others ?

Leadership in any arena can be hard and especially difficult when things don’t go as planned or at times are unpredictable. However, staying close to our values and who we are and want to be, appears to be the key. We do have to take risks, challenge and be vulnerable to uncertainty but we also need to connect, be active, take notice, learn and give. In principle that could be taking notice of your friends, yourself, your health. It could be ensuring that we go for a swim or a walk or just moving more regularly or volunteering, helping and connecting with yourself and others. 

So back to vulnerability which so often defines our little or big moments of fear, sorrow, joy, disappointment, shame, creativity and so on. It is nakedness and exposing. I know that I am not a fan of it myself but without it we don’t get to enrich our work, our connection, relationships and our creativity.

How does any of this connect ?

In my opinion, we cannot have good leadership without vulnerability. Vulnerability is strength, it is daring. It is having difficult and challenging conversations which can be exposing and uncomfortable at times for all involved. It can be about learning difficult truths about ourselves and others but still managing to show kindness.

In order to work at a deeper level with communities do we need to be more courageous about ourselves and where we are placed within the conversation?

We often work to enrich people, empower communities to grow, improve and develop both independently and collectively but how much of that are we modelling ? How about we start looking after ourselves more ? We are also part of those communities as well. We are individuals who need to enrich our lives with better health and wellbeing outcomes.

From interviewing artists as part of my Extend Leadership programme, I have noticed a few things. One is the importance of kindness in your practice. Kindness to others and ourselves even when it is at its most challenging but also the importance of self-care, of peer support and connection and finally the chance to connect with one another. Put our computers down, turn our phones off and pick up the phone or meet up in person and talk. Relationships are key to everything that we do in this sector so its vital that we maintain that peer support and connection with one another.

In the next year, I am seeking out more conversation, to interview and collect more stories from artists and communities about their journeys. It will be a chance to share, connect and grow. I want to understand everyone’s journey and find a way to share these stories.

For now, stay healthy people. Stay connected and build relationships.

Extend Alumni event January 2019

Last week I went to the Extend Alumni event at the Southbank centre in London. A chance to connect and reconnect with people. A great opportunity to hear about other people’s work, stories and reflections against the magnificent backdrop of a London sky.

So, while the River Thames swirled around us and the sun dabbled the river with bright sparks of light we talked about language, stories and being kind. Sharing stories is as old as time but hearing people’s experiences is something very special.

The afternoon was spent listening to the inspiring life journeys of Priya Khanchandani a writer, curator and founder of Museum Detox and Titilola Dawudu, a producer and writer who like me enjoys story telling (Hear me now).

I love a good yarn especially if told well. Maybe it is a thing about the Irish. Sitting in a room with my family and friends listening to them tell and retell stories has always warmed my heart. I can hear the same story over and over. In Ireland, the Seanchaí (shan-a-key) were traditional Irish storytellers of history for centuries. They could be found reciting ancient tales for learning and wisdom, a necessity which brought with it learning and reflection for people.

So, on the 24th January 2019, we sat and shared stories of our work, our thoughts and questions for the future. I learnt a lot by listening and taking note. Hearing about kindness, where you place yourself in the conversation, language, the gentleness of working with communities, braving things, fearlessness and being in our own true self.

Again, The Extend Leadership programme skillfully delivers taking notice and place the conversation at the heart. Thank you thank you.

Take Notice

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.