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It's been heart-breaking to see and hear so many working-class colleagues talking about leaving the arts due to this awful pandemic. I was wrestling with this myself, just a matter of months ago – and may well have to do it again very soon. I was quietly made redundant from the publicly funded arts company I helped to set up and run, well before the end of furlough, with a mortgage and bills to pay.
Panic set in. I didn’t know what to do.
Flicking through job adverts on the NHS website, I asked myself whether I could be a Project Manager or retrain to be a Nurse.
Friends told me that I should wait, I should ‘hang fire’ until the right role came up, but no one is daft enough to think a senior role for an arts professional is going to magically appear, in Scarborough – even at the best of times. I’m extremely fortunate to be married to a Teacher, and while the lack of a salary still makes me tight-chested and sleepless, I’m aware that to some, I’m complaining about the size of my diamond shoes - I am fortunate and privileged in lots of ways.
I’ve never really felt a very good fit in the arts... I was brought up in Bridlington from the age of 4, in a ward which is currently in the English top 100 for levels of deprivation. I’m not moaning, I had (and still have), amazing parents and friends. We spent hours on the beach, roamed about rocky cliffs and wandered through woods. We wore the same clothes and spoke in the same voices, dropping our consonants and squashing our vowels. I never considered I had an accent, or that I was ‘disadvantaged’ in any way, until, after working for a year to make some cash, I went to uni.
‘You’ll never get anywhere, talking like that, it makes you sound stupid. You need to try and flatten your Yorkshire accent.’
That was a member of staff, during a 'mentoring session' in my third year.
‘When you use 'like' in sentences, you resemble a teenager, no one will take you seriously.’
I fought back frustrated tears throughout that meeting, which she ignored, but what could I say? A female arts leader tells you can’t succeed unless you change a fundamental part of yourself - what experience did I have to argue?
I did my best. I’d hear myself say certain words; 'artist' (ar’ist), ‘know’ (nerr) and 'don’t' (dernt) and try to round the vowels, making mental notes ‘not to say it like that again’. It’s hard to speak when you’re sure everyone will think you’re an idiot if you open your mouth. If you talk to me now, you’ll realise I never did quite manage…
Of course the arts is full of people who have financial stability. Deemed as a ‘nice to have’ rather than essential, only those who can afford to earn nothing can gain enough experience to start their careers. I volunteered for 2 years after graduating but had to find paid work at the same time and lived with my parents. What if that is not an option?
Growing up, I had no idea that Directors of festivals were a thing. Careers in the arts were not on my radar. I wasn’t allowed to take more than one arts subject at school and creativity happened outside of people’s ‘normal’ jobs. More than one person told me not to bother with my drama degree and to ‘do a proper subject’ instead.
Nowadays, there are certainly brilliant, kind and inspiring leaders, but more has to be done to bring in voices that sound and look like our kids, our neighbours and our communities. The sector needs to start taking risks on people with transferable skills – rather than insisting on specialist knowledge. Demanding everyone has experience in our artform perpetuates the recruitment of people with a certain level of education – and as we all know, education is expensive. It's simply not enough to say 'no one has the skills here' - we have to be willing to take a chance on people, knowing that, sometimes, it might not work out - but imagine if it did.
Diversity means collaborating with those who have different upbringings to yours. Yes, it’s likely they will have contrasting opinions and do things in a different way, and yeah, it might be trickier to work with someone who doesn’t directly ‘speak our language’ but that doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility to try.
I am privileged to have been offered a lifeline by Arts Council England, via a National Lottery project grant application I submitted in August, which supports me to spend some time in Scarborough. I will be completing the setup of ARCADE, alongside the awesome Sophie Drury-Bradey, and learning more about how to make work which includes and engages people. We want to create opportunities and cultural experiences - whatever that might mean - in our hometown, with the people who live here. We want to work with people to develop their creativity, no matter what their background might be.
‘cause, like, everyone is an arr’ist, they maybe just dernt nerr it yet.