Work in Culture?

Spotlight

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)

5 Questions to… Eleanor & Rosie, The Brick Box Ladies

5 questions to...

I recently had the great personal and professional pleasure to work with The Brick Box, a Community Interest Company currently working across London and in Bradford but constantly expanding their reach thanks to their determination to spread “art, love and magic” all over the world.

Ruling the roost, the Brick Box Ladies – a.k.a. co-directors Eleanor Barrett and Rosie Freeman – preside over a small army of artists of all denominations and project managers – like myself – who work collaboratively to infuse under-used public spaces with a new lease of life. Their latest projects include the A13 Green in Canning Town (a village green complete with fairy-lit bandstand under a concrete flyover), the Light Fantastic in Thamesmead and the Electric Fireside in Little Germany, Bradford – and most recently the event I contributed to, the Big Draw by the River in Nine Elms. There are tons of photos and videos on their website (they’ve got their marketing priorities nailed down and always employ top-notch photographers and videographers) so I’ve pinched a few to include in between each question and show off their fantastic work.

 

Rosie (centre) and Eleanor (right) at the Toast Temple, Wandsworth Arts Festival 2014. Photo: Hannah Maule-ffinch.

Rosie (centre) and Eleanor (right) at the Toast Temple, Wandsworth Arts Festival 2014. Photo: Hannah Maule-ffinch.

1. Your next event is Light Night Canning Town on 29 November 2014. What’s a typical day right now?

Busy! We’re ramping up marketing and press, trying to get the word out far and wide. We’ve got such a fantastic programme we want to make sure lots of people come and enjoy it. We’re also making daily prayers for good weather!

The Light Fantastic on The Moorings estate in Thamesmead. Photo: Roxanne Grant.

The Light Fantastic on The Moorings estate in Thamesmead. Photo: Roxanne Grant.

2. You’ve been organising events for several years now. What gets easier with time? And what doesn’t?

It’s been 4 and a half years as The Brick Box, far longer in different incarnations. It’s easier to work out budgets, have an idea of what an event might be like, and pack gaffer tape! What doesn’t get easier? Worrying that no one will come!

Half Moon Theatre's Punch and Judy on the Royal Victoria Beach. Photo: Kevin Ricks.

Half Moon Theatre’s Punch and Judy on the Royal Victoria Beach. Photo: Kevin Ricks.

3. Before, during or after an event – what’s your favourite moment, the one that makes it all worth it?

Definitely during an event – it’s great to see people enjoying themselves and taking part in the things we hoped they would.

The Toast Temple on The Moorings estate in Thamesmead. Photo: Roxanne Grant.

The Toast Temple on The Moorings estate in Thamesmead. Photo: Roxanne Grant.

4. What other event(s) would you love to attend as audience member?

Eleanor: Shambala Festival
Rosie: another Bruce Springsteen gig!

10-piece drum and brassband, Old Dirty Brasstards, at the launch of the A13 Green 2014. Photo: Matt Badenoch.

10-piece drum and brassband, Old Dirty Brasstards, at the launch of the A13 Green 2014. Photo: Matt Badenoch.

5. Who would be your dream artist(s) to collaborate with?

Eleanor – Grayson Perry and Mae West
Rosie – William Blake and my friend Lisa!

And finally, hot off the editing bench, here’s a little film of the Big Draw day by Tomo Brody.

First Encounters: Cafe OTO, Vortex, BFI and National Gallery

Spotlight

Discovering a venue is like entering a new universe: if they got it right, their identity – the type of art they programme, the values they carry, the experience they create – is palpable right from the front door. This is how I felt recently about Cafe OTO, an experimental venue in Dalston, East London, where I went in September to see Rodrigo Constanzo (with whom I’m currently working on developing his dfscore project) perform with Distractfold as part of the Kammer Klang series of contemporary chamber music.

Here is Rodrigo performing one of his composition, iminlovewithanothergirl, a solo piece for snare and microphone, right at the end of the set.

The austere feel of the venue – basically a warehouse – creates an edgy focus for the music and makes the listening experience that much more intense. The acoustics are not even that good, there’s a loud fan that comes on between each set, and I can’t describe the seats as comfortable, but the space creates an intimacy not just with the performers but also between audience members: I was on my own, but I could easily strike a conversation with people sitting near me.

Not long after, I was at the Vortex, just round the corner, also for the first time, for what I can only describe as a journey through abstraction and emotion with Electric Biddle, a Jazz Shuttle project (Jazz Shuttle is a creative scheme supporting new Franco-British bands that I’ve recently started to coordinate on the UK side). A team from Paris venue Le Triton was there to film a documentary about the band, and here’s an extract from the first leg of the tour, filmed in France.

My latest encounter with a venue is a double one: I was invited to the BFI to watch the latest documentary by Fred Wiseman, who spend 12 weeks inside the National Gallery. He filmed everything from guided tours to executive meetings and restoration work, and condensed 170 hours of footage into a 3-hour film that celebrate both the art and the institution that hosts it, in all its complexity and contradictions.

I’ve never actually been (yet) to the National Gallery, so this was a formidable virtual encounter. The spotlight is of course on the paintings, but also on people: those who make, buy, care for and admire the art. We’re privy to debates amongst staff over the purpose and limitations of restoration, or on the tension between ‘inclusion’ and ‘excellence’. We also get to eavesdrop on the vast array of education, engagement and participation activities that take place within the National Gallery: from guided school tours to teacher training, a life-drawing class, or a session for visually impaired people observing Pissaro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night through touch and words.

National Gallery is a journey through art and humanity told with a multitude of fragments that continue to resonate and build a meaning long after the film is finished. The most powerful moments are wordless juxtapositions of masterpiece portraits and the people observing them: a mise en abyme that connects past and present, art and life, and artist, sitter, museum-goer and film spectator, in an infinite jeu de miroir of “who’s looking at who?”.  I was also reminded of Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs, a series of large-scale images showing museum-goers engaged in the process of observing paintings at several institutions, including the National Gallery (below).

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

The film is out in the UK in January 2015. Meanwhile, I’ve been back to Cafe OTO for another great night hosted by Kammer Klang, I’m off to the Vortex for the Emile Parisien Quartet in November, if not before, and I’m planning a visit to the National Gallery in the next few weeks. I haven’t said much about my experience at the BFI, but it inspired my to start a weekly film club at the Cat’s Back, the South West London pub I run with my husband, so surely that’s their job done!

In Joy or Sadness…

Programming

In joy or sadness flowers are our constant friends. We eat, drink, sing, dance, and flirt with them. We wed and christen with flowers. We dare not die without them. We have worshipped with the lily, we have meditated with the lotus, we have charged in battle array with the rose and the chrysanthemum. We have even attempted to speak in the language of flowers. How could we live without them?
― Kakuzo Okakura, The Book Of Tea

I’m pretty sure I once signed up for a WordPress reminder in an attempt to keep up with a self-imposed weekly blogging schedule, but it seems to have turned itself off – probably because I failed too many times to publish a new article on time. I have a few projects on the go right now that keep me busy enough, but as I still like to share what I’m doing (and find it really useful to dig deeper and structure my reflection) here’s a quick post based on research I’ve undertaken for an upcoming event.

(I’ve also just started using Tumblr for very quick posts as an experiment  – so far so fun).

 

The spirit of nature: Kathy Klein’s flower mandalas

freesia & euphorbia

Freesia & euphorbia

iris and mimosa at wild rose ranch

Iris and mimosa

protea, coastal geranium, chinese latern flower on chinese singing water bowl

Protea, coastal geranium, chinese latern flower on chinese singing water bowl

danmala553alstroemeria-hydrangea-gerbera-daisy

Alstroemeria, hydrangea, gerbera, daisy

succulents from the cliffside, at 11th street beach during rain at low tide

Succulents from the cliffside, at 11th street beach during rain at low tide

A mandala is a spiritual symbol – usually a geometric pattern in the shape of a circle – that represent a microcosmos of the universe. For a more accurate definition, Wikipedia is probably a good start – and for a modern artistic interpretation, American artist Kathy Klein’s dānmālā practice is a great example.

The name dānmālā comes from the vedic sanskrit words dān: the giver and mālā: garland of flowers. Her website has a huge image gallery of pieces using flowers and other organic materials, but also mandalas created with stones, shells and sweets.

She’s also active on social media, with new designs posted regularly on her Facebook feed and – especially relevant to my purposes – an ever-growing album of in situ creations.

 

Painting with flowers: Red Hong Yi’s petal stories

rooster made from gerberas and leaves

Rooster made from gerberas and leaves

peacock made from butterfly pea flowers, bottlebrush leaves, coconut leaf sticks, alamandas : trumpet flowers

Peacock made from butterfly pea flowers, bottlebrush leaves, coconut leaf sticks, alamandas : trumpet flowers

dodo made from white, pink and orange chrysanthemum flowers

Dodo made from white, pink and orange chrysanthemum flowers

hornbill made of chrysanthemums, germeras and purple shamrocks

Hornbill made of chrysanthemums, germeras and purple shamrocks

northern cardinal made of red gerberas and deep purple chrysanthemums with dill

Northern cardinal made of red gerberas and deep purple chrysanthemums with dill

‘Red’ Hong Yi – the artist who ‘loves to paint, but not with a paintbrush’ – is a Malaysian artist-architect, who started working with everyday materials when she moved to Shanghai, a city her family had left in the early days of the Cultural Revolution.

For the purpose of my research, I’m especially interested in her series of birds made of flowers (above), using a wide palette of petals, leaves and branches. She also has an extensive portfolio of portraits made from mundane objects – chopsticks, melted candles, shuttlecocks, sunflower seeds… – and has created exquisite daily scenes on a white plate only using food ingredients for a 31-day creativity challenge. She’s very active on Instagram, where she publishes her experiments with new themes or materials.

 

Sensory overload: Rebecca Louise Law’s floating fields

‘The Flower Garden Display’d 2014′

‘The Flower Garden Display’d 2014′ – a floating meadow of 4,600 blooms – commissioned by London’s Garden Museum.

OdysseyMain_Crop_second stage

‘The Flower Garden Display’d’ – Second stage, Odyssey Exhibition curated by bo.lee Gallery. This installation was made using the dried flowers from the previous display entwined with 8800 meters of copper wire.

The Hated Flower, 2014 The Coningsby Gallery, London 5,000 Carnations and Chrysanthemums

The Hated Flower, 2014 The Coningsby Gallery, London (5,000 Carnations and Chrysanthemums)

Neither drawing from geometrical patterns nor from figurative representation, Rebecca Louise Law’s large-scale installations create immersive sensory experiences with hundreds of flowers – often upside-down, always strikingly delicate yet powerful.

 

 

No There There?

Spotlight

There is no there there.
— 
Gertrude Stein

This non-there is Oakland, California, where author and art collector Gertrude Stein grew up at the end of the 19th century – and there now is a there where there once was no there: since 2005, an eight-foot high powder-coated steel plate twin sculpture spelling out “HERE” and “THERE”, by artists Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, marks the border between Berkeley and Oakland.

HERE-THERE_2-900 Steve Gillman 2011

HERETHERE by Steve Gillman (Berkeley/Oakland, CA )

According to the commissioning agency, the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission, “the sculptured letters form a poetic message of hello and goodbye and provide a sense of place”.

Maybe not enough for some residents: the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2010 that “renegade knitters … sewed a multi-colored tea cozy onto the letter T”.  The knitters were asked by Berkeley’s civic arts coordinator “to remove their handiwork because modifying public art is against state and federal law”, but instead “resisted and … held a knit-in at the sculpture”.

There yarn

Knit-in at the HERETHERE sculpture – Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

One of the artists expressed his support for the knitters, applauding them for “start(ing) a dialogue where possibly only a monologue had existed before”. Unfortunately his views were not echoed by the civic arts coordinator, who pointed out that “he has a right to his opinion (…). But he doesn’t own (the artwork) anymore.”

While this is almost as gripping as the Tilted Arc controversy, and raises many questions of context, appropriation, ownership and authorship, it also provides an opportunity to revisit the Gertrude Stein statement. Here’s a longer quote to give context to this famous ‘no there there’ (punctuation is sic):

She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.

…but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …

It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.

And that is what makes (good) (public) art important: it (can) create strong, lasting, shared memories. Created for permanence, it’s a link to a place and an anchor in time; a landmark, a there that’s always here. If temporary and diffuse, it’s an experience that becomes a reference, a living memory which meaning expands – or fades – with time. Whether or not the first life of the THERE sculpture did provide that sense of place, of ‘there’, the art hackers gesture – tangible sign of a collective spirit – has contributed to creating a futher memory-to-be.

But what if there is really no there there? In an article for Public Art Review entitled Strategies for Defining the Non-Place with Public Art and Urban Design, Ronald Lee Fleming writes:

Stein’s remark has come to be associated with suburban and fringe development since World War II, which has disfigured, with a banal sameness, the edge of almost every city and town in the country. How can public art and enlightened urban policy transform the non-places that one moves through on the way to the airport?

This claim – which takes Stein’s quote out of its eminently personal context and conveniently distorts its meaning to forsake anything outside the centre – is supported by some rather strange statements throughout the article (“Banal places are often full of very average people”, “People in modest neighborhoods are often fascinated by craft”). The underlying assumption is that the North American sprawling suburbs are nothing more that a ‘non-place’ (defined by ethnologist Marc Augé as places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”, generally the by-product of ‘supermodernity’ and acceleration, places where people don’t meet and where they can’t build collective references) – and that public art can inject meaning in these semiotic deserts – in Fleming’s words, “artists can help redefine the meaning of a site no matter how boring it may appear”.

Here again, ‘non-place’ is taken a little too literally: Augé emphasises, throughout his essay, the many ways people ‘invent’ the everyday and create trails of memories and stories in the most unlikely and clinical places, from airports to budget hotel chains and supermarkets.

Fleming continues with further invoking the need for enlightenment for average people in these boring places:

What is needed is an enlightened artist constituency who can move beyond signature works of ego to serve a restive public that wants more meaning embedded in the infrastructure of the banal sites where they live. People want to experience well-crafted elements that often require a team of artisans as well as the conceptualizing artist. This is not the coterie of city sophisticates who value abstraction and the shock of the new.

So average people deserve average public art, something simple, “well-crafted”, that helps them to feel just that little bit less bored. One wonders if they deserve art at all, given the challenge that their abject banality presents for artists:

Working with these contours of meaning can be a challenge for an artist with a big ego—and let’s face it, a big ego is often necessary just to prevail as an artist and to justify the amount of energy that it takes to do public work.

At a time when placemaking is hailed as a remedy to urban ills – be them new and shiny developments or old and crumbly neighbourhoods, places with not enough or too much ‘identity’  -, is there a consensus about the practice at large, its methods and especially its ethos? The term is now widely used by public commissioners, artists and arts organisations, community interest companies, property developers and commercial agencies alike, and as a result seem to range from condescending opinions such as Fleming’s to thinly disguised PR campaigns for property developers (via a whole host of interesting long-term, artist- and community-led projects).

Quality frameworks are currently being developed for participatory arts – such as this paper by Toby Lowe from Helix Arts – and art & health – such as this contribution by Creative Health CIC to the West Midlands commissioning practice. What would a framework for placemaking look like? Has a consensus been reached yet on the term itself? Can a variety of approaches be evaluated against the same standards? Here are three examples in three different countries that exemplify this range of methods and angles, but also a common aspiration for ethical guidelines and for sharing their process and experience.

– – –

The public space activists: PPS (USA)

Project for Public Spaces have been developing a conceptual and practical framework for placemaking since 1975, such as the 11 Principles of Placemaking (starting with “The community is the expert”) and the Power of 10 (“the idea that any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there”). They are firmly positioned as a civic militant organisation, quoting Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte as inspiration and mentors, and are currently sharing their approach with over 600 international practitioners through the newly-formed Placemaking Leadership Council, which, amongst other goals, aims to “clearly frame the value and “language” of Placemaking” and “develop a common set of standards and indicators”.

pps.org
@PPS_Placemaking

 

The cultural pioneers: Artscape (Canada)

Toronto-based Artscape have also developed a Creative Placemaking Toolbox, based on their experience of opening and running arts centres and artist studios. It’s a very practical resource, with video seminars (such as this conversation with PPS), tip sheets on how to conduct community consultations and work with an architect, an exhaustive series of guides – from funding sources to feasibility studies, planning charrettes and the role of the project manager – templates and examples. There’s also a glossary of urban planning, legal and property management terms, a series of case studies as well as the Artscape Archive documenting 25 years of creative placemaking.

torontoartscape.org
artscapediy.org
@Artscape

 

The community champions: Mend (UK)

Mend is a social enterprise specialising in responsible procurement, planning and placemaking. With an ethos of “Community as Client”, they are not just delivering consultation and strategic services, but also acting as a convenor of ideas by running networking events for different groups. As part of the “Lab”, they look after three networks, each with a different focus, that feed back into their own practice: Urbanistas, “a network for women who love cities, crowdsourcing support for their project or idea” – Planning in the Pub (“the agenda is simple, let’s talk about planning and cities, whilst in the pub”) – and the soon-to-be-launched Source RP, “Responsible Procurement network for the built environment, with a focus on building social value”.

Roman-Road-Mend

Roman Road Vacant Units Project

mendlondon.org.uk
@lianemendsacity
@urbanistasuk
@planninginpubs
@source_rp