I have been invited to talk about what I do for a living at a primary school’s Careers Day by a friend who volunteers there as a reader. He works in catastrophe insurance, so he is planning to bring wooden blocks to demonstrate earthquakes. I am wondering, of course, how I will manage to present what I do to a bunch of 7-year-old kids when I can barely explain it to anyone beyond my immediate circle of colleagues; but also whether there is any point in trying to convince anyone to follow in my footsteps when work in the cultural sector is only getting more precarious and discriminatory by the day.
Should I talk about the cost and length of training? A degree in any discipline is now £9,000 a year, and I’m not sure what you get to do these days without a Masters (I have two and am not especially overwhelmed with job offers). Then there’s the cost of Continuing Professional Development, to finally get to learn what they don’t teach you at school, keep up-to-date with the latest trends and do some crucial networking – all the conferences, courses and seminars that employers don’t necessarily put you forward to attend and are difficult to afford as a freelancer. And then there’s the ever-increasing sector precarity – zero-hour contracts becoming the norms in museums and venues, artist fees not quite a given, short-term and freelance contracts replacing secure jobs in organisations of all sizes. Not to mention the bullying, socio-economic and ethnic discrimination, unpaid internships…
Maybe I should just stick to the brief: what I do, how I got there, what I like about it and what kind of skills I need to do my job, a few simple points to be covered in 5-10 minutes.
Maybe I should also remember that it’s not just about convincing kids that my job is the best. There’s a huge opportunity to make them realise that if working in arts & culture is a serious occupation, alongside all the other professions represented that day – people working in health, sport, law, IT and insurance – it’s because it’s important in everyone’s everyday life. Art is for life, not just for school, as this Guardian Teacher Network blogger eloquently puts it: even in the few schools that still offer arts subjects, young people are stigmatised for choosing them, even though the transferable skills and increased self-confidence alone should be reasons enough to encourage them.
As early as primary school, dance, art and drama were offered in clubs because they aren’t the “real subjects” that we need for “big school”… There’s this stigma with the arts that only “unintelligent” students take those subjects. I still struggle to be taken seriously for taking arts subjects… But more than a year later, I’m reminded daily that taking GCSE dance was the best decision I ever made. While everyone complains about the subjects their parents forced them into, I am in the dance studio every lunchtime. Dance gets me into school. Dance gives me something to pour my head and heart into. It gives me a feeling of belonging, creativity, security and freedom… The skills that I get from the arts also help me hugely with work across the curriculum, from improving my analytical skills to making me more self-confident.
So, to answer the questions:
What does a Festival & Arts Coordinator do?
I organise festivals with music, art, theatre, food… and also smaller events, like writing workshops, one-off concerts and guided walks across the city.
I work with artists, venues and schools to create these events, then with designers and journalists to make sure that the event looks good and that people know about it.
Some festivals last 10 days and can take 1 or 2 years and a huge team to prepare. On the day of the event, I make sure that everything goes according to plan – there’s always something that goes wrong, from the weather to the main artist being stuck in a traffic jam, but it’s part of the job to fix all these problems, and usually no one even knows about what happens backstage!
How do you become a Festival & Arts Coordinator?
There are many ways – but you really need to love art and music, enjoy working with lots of people, be very organised and also happy to do things that are quite unusual or unexpected – it’s never the same every day!
I studied Humanities – English, French, German, Philosophy, History, Art… and Business Management, then I started working on a tourism conference. My first festival job was with the Manchester Jazz Festival, which was perfect for me because I love music – I played the piano, violin and guitar when I was younger, now I’m learning the cello.
There are a lot of different festivals – it could be about sport, food, theatre, film – it can also be a bit of everything at once. The best way to get experience and see if you like it is to volunteer for a festival: it’s fun, you’ll meet lots of people and you’ll get to see how it works from the inside.
What are the best things about being a Festival & Arts Coordinator?
- It’s fun – I meet lots of people, I listen to a lot of live music, sometimes I also get travel to other festivals.
- It’s very varied – one day I could be choosing the image for the brochure cover, another day visiting a venue with an artist to check that their band will fit on the stage, or training a team of volunteers.
- It makes people happy – that’s really the best part of the job and it’s worth all the hard work.
What did you like at primary school that led to you becoming a Festival & Arts Coordinator?
Every year my primary school would put on a School Fair, a whole day of games, food, music to celebrate the end of the year. The children worked all year on a performance for the Fair – it could be theatre, dance or singing… I really loved the whole day – all the parents and children would be there, and older children who used to be at my school would come back just for that day because it was so much fun. I loved that we prepared for it all year – the children doing a show, the parents preparing food to sell at the stalls or making up games, like sack race, egg in spoon race, coconut shy … and then on the day everything and everyone would come together.
(image: Josef Franz, from an exhibition I saw recently at MAK Vienna)