I’m an artist who also works as a producer. I set up and still help run the spoken word organisation Inky Fingers, and I co-direct the live art series ANATOMY. The idea of artists leading artistic production – artists organising nights, festivals, buildings – seems to be taking off at the moment. At the last Buzzcut Festival (an artist-led festival), the organisers worked with the Live Art Development Agency to organise a day blether on artist-led projects around the UK. There was excitement and community and possibility. This is wonderful.
At the same time, there’s a lot of discussion happening about the issue of artists working for free, artists struggling to get paid, artists getting exploited by venues. A lot of the response has been about how artists can work together and by themselves to improve their treatment by producers and venues – like here and here (with a good critique here). This is really important. Solidarity between workers is how change happens. But I’ve also been thinking that, increasingly, artists like me are working not just as artists, but also as producers: event organisers, festival programmers, building managers, scratch night impresarios. So this manifesto is a way to start a conversation about how we can do that part of our work better.
Producers usually have more power than artists. However collaborative, innovative and loving their projects, if you set yourself up as a producer you are giving yourself power – power to access space, media, resources; power over the artists you ask to work for you. This is a manifesto about how to be responsible in that relationship, and how artist-producers – people who find themselves on both sides of the employment equation – can make our arts ecology better.
Best kens I haven’t always done it right. I’ve asked people to work for free without proper reward, and I’ve overworked myself. I’ve done stuff when I’ve been thinking more about my own reputation than making the art happen. While this manifesto does criticise things I’ve seen other artist-producers do, I’ve done most of them myself, so I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou. We all fail and we all learn. This manifesto is not meant as a stick to beat ourselves up with, but a prod in the arse to get us moving in the right direction. It is also not a book of complete and correct answers: it’s a start.
(N.B. This is written as a UK-specific manifesto, because I don’t know other countries’ arts ecologies well enough to comment, and the “we” that occurs throughout is artist-producers in the UK. But I hope other folk might find some use in it too.)
1. Your job is to make great art happen.
Your first duty as an artist-producer is to make great art happen. Every space you create must be a space that grows, cares for and celebrates great art. This can look like a lot of different things. A good open mic is as important as a pro cabaret, because how can artists make great art if they don’t have somewhere important to learn? A good open mic is probably more important than a successful performance night that only books established artists and is only seen by established audiences, because how can a night that replicates the dominant culture create more great art? Great art means change, plurality, surprise, experiment, failure. Making great art happen means growing a healthy ecology of art.
Your first duty is not to enhance your own reputation. You must be behind the art. If you find yourself booking someone because it will enhance your standing and not because you like what they do, then stop what you’re doing right now. If you find yourself putting your name in bigger type on the posters than your artists, then stop what you’re doing right now. If you find yourself taking all the credit for a great night without first crediting your artists, then stop what you’re doing right now. The art comes first. The art needs you. Being an artist-producer who makes great art happen will already enhance your reputation – you will be more likely to get interviews from arts magazines than your artists, your name is consistently linked with the great art, your heart will bloom. So your first duty is to make the great art happen.
2. You do not get paid until the artists get paid.
If you ask people to work for free, you must work for free. If you ask people to work for expenses, you must work for expenses. In this arts ecology, arts administrators and professional producers find it easier to get stable work than artists, and tend to get paid more than artists. That is messed up. If you are an artist-producer, it is easier for you to get paid than for your artists to get paid. So make sure they get paid first.
If you work in a venue that pays its staff, there is no excuse whatever for not paying artists. If you are hiring a venue for a fee, charging the audience entry, and not paying your artists, something has gone wrong. Find a free venue instead. This includes scratch and all other development work. Adjust your budgets accordingly.
3. Free culture is not a free ride.
I believe in free culture. I believe in finding alternative forms of artistic community and artistic production to consumer capitalism. I believe in finding ways to give away art for free and for artists to still be able to survive. This sometimes means running spaces and events that let everyone in for free and don’t pay anyone. Spaces like this are laboratories of the imagination, they are ways we can experiment in doing things differently. Spaces like this are not an excuse to take artists for granted.
If you are experimenting in alternative forms of economy, then do it properly. If your free culture event expects artists to do their own publicity, find their own food, find their own accommodation, and provide their art with no support whatsoever, then your free culture event is bullshit. If you’re not paying people, work out what else you can do for people. Can you arrange a deal with a local eatery to feed them? Can you marshal a list of spare rooms? Can you get all the artists to run a free skill-sharing session? Can you provide supported and curated access to people who might pay the artists later? Whether or not your event is free and whether or not your artists get paid in coin, you have a duty to look after them.
4. Be honest with your artists.
If you programme by open call-out, then your call-out must include all the information about what kind of money and support is available to applicants. If you programme by invitation, your first message to them must contain all this information. If you do not tell people straight up that it is a free gig, you are taking them for a ride. If you tell people it’s profit share without including a realistic projection of profits, you are taking them for a ride. If you are not telling your artists something because you’re embarrassed, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you make artists email you with enquiries about this kind of essential detail, you are wasting the time in which they could be making great art.
If any kind of money is changing hands, your artists and all your staff should know who’s getting what. If open book accounting is at all practical, do it. If it isn’t practical, find out how it could be. Financial transparency strengthens us all, because it helps us all understand the realities of how art’s finance happens, which helps us figure out how to make it better.
5. Opportunity is a dirty word.
Artists don’t need opportunities. Artists make their own opportunities. Artists need material things. Artists need space, time, support, audiences, advice, food, shelter, ideas, community, encouragement, criticism, reviews, pay. Don’t tell your artists you are giving them an opportunity. Tell your artists what it is you’re actually giving them.
6. Diversity is not a catchphrase.
Diversity is not something you do to get funding in. Diversity does not mean making sure you programme artists of colour occasionally. Diversity does not mean putting on one BSL-described performance per year. Diversity is something which takes careful research, organisational overhaul, and material support. Diversity is something you do because you believe in it, because you should believe in it, because it makes us better and it makes the art better. If most of the art you host is by white/british/male/straight/cis/able-bodied people then your project will be boring. If all you do is reproduce dominant culture then art as a whole will suffer. If you do not take active and materially-supported steps to make your project more diverse then you will end up reproducing dominant culture, because that’s how privilege works.
Ask these questions: Who is not performing with you? Who is not coming to your show? Why? What will it take to bring marginalised groups into your project? How might their needs be different and how can you meet them? What audiences do you currently advertise to? Who gets advertising through what routes? Who are you actively excluding and how, even if you didn’t know it? Who might talk with you about how to make things better? What can you offer them?
7. Scratch is not an excuse.
Scratch is a sexy word. Scratch helps venues think they are engaging in artist development. Scratch lets producers ask people to work for free. Scratch is a necessary part of many people’s artistic process which makes it an easy way to exploit artists, like their need for space or love or food can be exploited. Scratch is an easy way to take an audience for granted. Scratch takes the pressure off programmers to make great art happen. Scratch feels like an easy event to start organising, because everyone’s doing it.
Art development is work, and should be rewarded like all other work. Scratch is as important a labour act as performance. Just because you’re running a scratch night, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take every aspect of it seriously. If you’re giving artists the “opportunity” to scratch their work, what happens to them next? If you believe in artist development, you need to support their work after they scratch it. You need to find out what happens to the work next. You need to consider funding that work.
I actually think most artists take part in scratch nights at major venues not for the chance of audience feedback, but because they want their work associated with and watched by staff at that venue. It’s not that difficult for artists to get good critical feedback – though sometimes it is, and that’s why we have scratch nights! But if venue interest is honestly what artists want, you should give them a chance to say so, and you should be finding a way to meet that need, rather than making yourself look sexy and getting free work by running a scratch night.
8. You are in an ecosystem.
Art gets made in an ecology of artists, events, spaces, venues, producers. That ecology is mostly geographically local, but extends its tendrils through communication networks, and sometimes, like fungus, what looks like two separate bloomings may be connected under the soil. If you are planning to make something happen – an event, a festival, a venue, a whatever – it should be because the ecology needs it. If there are loads of open mics, don’t run another open mic. If there are no high quality cabarets, run one of those. If there is no development space, make that happen. Don’t make something happen because it’s the sort of thing you happen to like: make it happen because artists need it, communities need it, the ecology needs it. Ecosystem collapse happens when there is a lack of species diversity, or when dominant species consume all the resources, or when some fucker comes and chops down the tree and the wind blows away the topsoil. You need to learn what ecology you are in and how to be a conscious, valuable, contributing part of it.
9. Be kind to yourself.
You are no use to anyone, least of all yourself, if you crash and burn. Working yourself into the ground, or taking on more projects than you can properly commit the time to, or starting collaborations you can’t finish, is bad for everyone else, bad for the ecosystem, and bad for you. It can also be a way for you to put yourself before other artists: while you ride on the wave of your energy, and become known as an exciting and dynamic person, and leap up from project to higher profile project, other people (often more vulnerable people) may be picking up the pieces. This will probably not make you happy. Be careful with yourself. Be honest about your capacity. Learn to say no to others and to yourself. Only do what you want to do (and what, economically, you have to do), not what you think you should be doing, and especially not what other people think you should be doing. Only take on projects that you think really need to happen, which you really care about, and which you really have the capacity to fulfil. If you do this, you will feel more fulfilled, and you will feel stronger, and so will your community.
10. Have an evil plan.
We live in unfriendly times, and in times which are unfriendly to art. Our lives are a process of constant compromise: what matters is not a puritan ethic of personal perfection, but learning to make compromises which you can live with and learning how to use them to change the times you live in.
You are very unlikely to be able to accomplish all of the demands in this manifesto, and that’s assuming that you want to. You are not superhuman, and the world will put a hundred hurdles in your way. You will be disappointed by yourself and by the world. So don’t try and do it all at once: instead, have an evil plan to take over the world.
It’s hard to get funding for an unproven project. So start out by working for free, and asking artists to give their art in exchange for food and a bed, all the while being clear that you’re doing this to build your capacity to obtain funding (and then share your good fortune with everyone who helped you along the way). It’s hard to build diverse audiences when you can’t afford to print flyers to get people in the door, so start out by bringing in an audience you know how to reach and then use your success to reach more people. It’s hard not to overwork when nobody pays you properly, so surround yourself with supportive collaborators, so you can take care of each other when you fall down. Have a plan, and tell the people you work with what your plan is.
Always be thinking about what comes next for your project. Always be thinking about how you can make it better, for yourself, for everyone else, and for art. Good luck.
Harry Giles is a performance-maker, poet and general doer of things. You can read more about him and his work on his site, where this manifesto first appeared. It is reproduced here with his permission.
Photo from Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.