Real Dreaming: Working in the Arts

In a climate of cuts, routes into the arts are varied. A writer, a creative game developer and an art researcher share their stories

Feature by Lara Williams | 29 Jul 2014
  • Scottish PEN

‘A career in the arts’ is the sort of played-out phrase you lob about having completed your entirely useful BA in Philosophy with Modern Languages, though the reality often seems abstracted. Finding work in a creative field or working as an artist feels largely inaccessible if you haven’t done your 100 hours practice, if you can’t afford to take that requisite unpaid internship.

While funding for the arts continues to dwindle, and with less of a formalised foot-in-the-door, routes into the creative industries have become a little more flexible simply because they’ve had to. Independents and not-for-profits offer short courses, the sort of thing you can do on your night off; distance learning is increasingly more affordable and even postgraduate qualifications have caught on to a little of the old pragmatism – most people gotta make a living. So what are the ways to pursue your heart’s true want while juggling the grind that pays the bills?

Manchester Digital Laboratory, or MadLab, is a self-funded enterprise located in a former shop in the city’s Northern Quarter, offering everything from short courses on developing to mouse taxidermy. The courses are relatively low cost and provide sensible schooling to low number groups in the evenings and weekends, using interactive and workshop formats. Now a senior games developer at CBBC, Dan Hett took two of MadLab's weekend-long courses “mostly out of curiosity”; one in Arduino, a creative electronic application, and another in projection mapping, learning how to project artwork on to buildings. Hett worked in programming for an agency at the time, but while he had the technical nous, he was apprehensive about the creative aspect of the course; nervous to “make art as opposed to sitting in the corner coding.” He found the intensive weekend format the ideal way to learn and the hands-on workshop approach a great way of figuring things out: “It was an entry point to teaching myself.” Hett now oversees the development of games for the CBBC website, and works on projecting visuals and artwork in clubs on the side. Indeed, he has come full circle, and will be delivering a gaming workshop at MadLab in the coming months that will follow the accessible structure of which he was such a fan (and has a working title of the none-too-scary 'Games Development 101').

Kin2Kin in Liverpool is a 'creative community' that offers more informal, broad Continuing Professional Development, with a concentration on marketing yourself and getting to know the industry. Creative entrepreneur David Parish delivers many of the workshops, with a focus on the efficient – he trains creatives to apply their imaginations to business. Though the combination of art and business might make you bristle, product designer and course attendee Ilsa Parry believes otherwise, saying, “business is an opportunity to be grasped by creatives and not to be feared”; and there is certainly something to be said for the de-romanticising and re-professionalising of creative roles, particularly if you’d like to be, you know, paid.

Continuing Professional Development that errs more towards the collegial comprises a host of vocationally minded postgraduate qualifications, with an eye on the prize – the prize being an actual job. Having studied a BA in Linguistics, arts executive and development manager Clare O’Mahoney had ambitions to be an artist but felt pressured to go down the academic route. Volunteering at the Whitworth Art Gallery while studying a BTEC in Art and Design led to an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, and she has since worked as director’s assistant at the Whitworth and managed the Manchester International Festival’s members' scheme. “The MA gave me an exceptional grounding in understanding the role of public funding for art galleries, of the importance of finding new and interesting ways to raise money,” she says. “We can't just continue in the same way.” Fellow alumnus Jenny Oakenfull noted the expectations of institutions in having studied at this level. “Most museums want you to have an MA before considering hiring you,” she says. Oakenfull took a career development loan to support her studies, working around lectures, eventually securing a role with art researchers Morris Hargreaves McIntyre. “It took me a year and a half of applications, two jobs in two cafes, and one in a bar, but I got there. Eventually.”

Much has recently been made of creative writing courses, whether it is Hanif Kureishi getting shirty over whether you can teach writing (while receiving a salary to do just that) or Junot Díaz noting the “unbearable whiteness” of the courses, which is probably fair. Freelance writer/copyeditor Greg Thorpe studied an MA in Novel Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing School. “I had a great idea for a second novel, having already written an unpublished one… I’m good with deadlines so I knew the MA would force me to finish something.” The course blended critiquing contemporary fiction with writing workshops, though was angled towards being a publishing qualification also, which was particularly relevant to Thorpe, who worked full-time in academic publishing.

Despite lectures taking place outside of office hours, balancing work with studying was hard. “I received little support to compensate and eventually the stress and guilt were overwhelming,” he says, advising those considering a CPD to be prepared to get into debt, to be organised, to explain to everyone around them the importance of the commitment, and to seriously work out some stress-management solutions. “In the end the indifference and lack of support from work sealed my determination to leave.” Thorpe eventually quit his job and made good on dreams of going freelance, the MA supplying the requisite editing skills and confidence to make the leap. He now copyedits academic books, works on artists’ installations, writes for a host of arts organisations and exhibition catalogues and is Islington Mill’s writer-in-residence. “The main thing I want is to be admired as a writer,” he says. “That’s the most important thing in the world to me.”