Lucy Wright, ‘traditions of care’, 2020
Last week, artist and Axis producer, Lucy Wright, attended the conference, ‘Care-fuelled leadership’ at Contact Theatre in Manchester. Here she offers some of her thoughts on the issues raised.
I hadn’t, perhaps, read the conference description carefully enough. Delivered by Clore Leadership as part of their Emerging Futures programme, this exploration of ‘care’ in the arts was aimed squarely at leaders (and emerging or aspirant leaders) in the arts sector. Clore has a specific professional remit which it does very well, but it’s not necessarily one that speaks directly to my own particular patchwork career as a part-time freelancer, part-time producer for an arts charity. I am not a leader in any titled or remunerated sense. When asked to chat with our neighbour about why we had chosen to attend, I expressed my slight discomfort with the term ‘leader’, and the friendly national collection acquisitions manager sitting beside me said, ‘but you lead your own practice’, which I guess is true, theoretically at least. I decided to expand my definition of ‘leading’ for the duration of the event, as someone whose leadership is currently…under a bushel, let’s say.
It was a packed line-up of discussions and workshops. Keynotes from Gaylene Gould, and Natalie Lee of Style Me Sunday began the day, followed by roundtables on leadership ‘hacks’ and ‘cultures of care in practice’. There were some inspiring stories shared, some affirming and empowering rhetoric. In one of the final sessions, ‘This is not a manifesto’, Chloe Osbourne and Mandy Quy-Verlander posed a question: when / where do you feel cared for in your work? I struggled with this for a moment because it wasn’t immediately obvious. I am lucky enough to feel cared for by my friends and family, and I am part of a brilliant team at Axis committed to supporting artists. But sectorally? Societally? Not so much. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. Thirteen years of Conservative governance in Britain has eroded any wider infrastructural care that we previously benefited from, and in recent years, the arts have become an even more rabid scrabble for an ever-tinier piece of the pie. Painful scarcity of funding and opportunities means that we are all in a Hunger Games-type competition, whether we like it or not—and that doesn’t feel very much like care, whichever way you spread it.
I feel cared for by my practice. I reflected on this while sitting in the auditorium: it’s probably the main space in which I experience care, outside of my nearest and dearest (and even then, it sometimes provides more and lasting succour!). When I sit down in my studio—a cramped attic space in our small mineworkers’ terrace—I feel an absolute sense of relief. This is where I get to be the most myself, where I can slough off the obligations, disappointments and frustrations of adult life and just be with myself and my materials. I feel cared for by my brushes and paints (they know just how I like to collaborate), by my sewing machine and bags of clay. I feel cared for by my books, just brimming with knowledge and inspiration to make me feel less alone. I even feel cared for by my computer, which helps me to speed through tasks that would otherwise take me hours and connects me to other likeminded people. (I’m not so sure about my printer though: the printer kind of hates me.)
I feel cared for and held by the growing body of work that I’m amassing, quicker now that I actually have some time and space carved out to make it. And I feel cared for my colleagues and artist friends who are so generous with their time, expertise and love, enfolding me into a community and making me feel seen and valued.
But when I step outside of that protected space…when I leave my studio, and my lovely little bubble ...it’s …brutal. Really, it is. I feel as if the ‘care’ spoken about by leaders in the room at Contact Theatre isn’t reaching the overwhelming majority of artists. That’s not necessarily their fault. Earlier this year, I hosted the wonderful Jade de Montserrat at Axis for her talk ‘Putting care at the centre where carelessness reigns’, where we reflected in detail on the deep systemic inequalities that continue to dog the art world, and the challenges faced by individuals when seeking to resist victimisation, and deviate from the ‘ideal neoliberal worker’ trope that maps so neatly onto late-stage capitalism This stuff is hard to dismantle, and we’ve all been feeling the pinch.
But it also kind of bugged me that, in a conference about care, this wider reality was rarely acknowledged. There was plenty of talk about ‘putting on your own life jacket before helping others’ (which always feels like convenient apologia for self-interest) and the importance of taking care of yourself, making time for rest and replenishment through yoga and email breaks, but almost nothing on the inherent privilege that entails, nor the ultimate futility of such acts if everywhere around you is a burning wreck. I thought back to my commute to the conference venue, where I’d crammed onto a reduced-service train, standing in the aisle with tens of others for the entirety of the one-hour journey. Anyone elderly or disabled, or like me, on Day 1 of my period and feeling like shit, was just left to get on with it. (‘We’re sorry for the inconvenience caused.’) Existing in modern Britain is being continually implicitly told that you don’t matter and nobody cares. Whether it’s achingly poor service on our overpriced transport system or negligent treatment in our under-resourced public hospitals and schools. We. Don’t. Matter. (That’s unless you have the money to pay your way – hard luck, poorer folks, we’ve had perma-recession since 2008 and now there’s a ‘cozzy livs’ crisis too!).
There was also lots of talk about ‘burnout’ and its inevitability or otherwise, when giving so much care to our arts jobs and leadership roles. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt for a second that many salaried people in the arts are stressed out and tired—we’re continually being asked to make more happen with less. But I also worry that this reads as art-sector exceptionalism, failing to acknowledge that many others are also caring and struggling, not least the unsalaried freelancers who actually make the art, and—yup—people whose jobs are actually in social care. My mum was a care worker for the entirety of her career. The sole breadwinner throughout my childhood, she worked minimum-wage jobs in a string of residential homes and care facilities. Long hours, shifts spent constantly on her feet, patiently tending to some of the most vulnerable people in our depressed northern town she is a little baffled by my reports of the arts sector’s current enchantment with ideas about ‘care’. Let’s not kid ourselves: if ‘making a difference’ is really what matters most to us, our labour might be better lent to another career where, in spite of the burnout, the effects of our care would at least be more concrete and direct.
Perhaps I was feeling especially grumpy because—with my freelancer’s hat on—I’ve just received a slew of rejections for my latest project, meted out by the leaders in our field. Rejection, often unceremonious and thoughtlessly delivered, feels like the opposite of care, and yet it’s a massive part of almost all artists’ lives. My most hurtful rejection to date—which still smarts because of its urgency and lasting ramifications—was my double-failure in Arts Council England’s DYCP programme. Although I’d received (and paid for!) professional bid-writing support both times, and in spite of my own success helping others to secure theirs, I wasn’t one of the lucky 20% whose development projects were picked to receive funding. ACE currently has a ‘two strikes, you’re out’ policy, which means I’m not permitted to try again until 2025.
And, if you’ll forgive a bit of trumpet-blowing here for a sec, this SUCKS, because I’m quite good at what I do, and I work BLOODY hard. As far as I know, I’m one of the people that the Arts Council claims to want to support. I come from a part of the country identified as having ‘low engagement’ in the arts, and although my working-class parents encouraged me in my creative hobbies, they didn’t feel able to support me to pursue art at university because they worried that I wouldn’t be able to make a living. When you come from a low-income background, that matters: my parents had always struggled to pay the bills, and they wanted my life to be different. And so, believing what we’d all been told about a degree being a passport to a better life, I acquiesced. I’m the first, and still the only member of my family to go to university, and I followed that path right through a PhD scholarship, even undertaking several years of post-doctoral work in the field that is now the focus of my artistic practice. One of my old colleagues recently called my work ‘ground-breaking’.
All the time that I was working full-time to pay the rent and support others, I was also making art and undertaking residencies and projects in whatever spare time I had, so my CV for those years actually doesn’t look too shabby, even though it meant going without time off and—as has been my choice—not having kids. Since 2021, when the last of my short-term academic contracts came close to destroying my mental health, I have been part-time self-employed, for the first time in my life, and this has enabled me to really drive my art practice forwards. I’ve finally had time to create for whole days at a time and to apply for the many opportunities and exhibitions that are necessary for building a public profile. Amongst other things, I’ve had two solo shows, undertaken commissions and consultancy for some established arts institutions, and published articles and talks about my art and research. Whatever small opportunity I am given, I grab with both hands, investing time, energy and often a stack of my own hard-earned cash so that I can overdeliver, to prove that I am worthy. I work ALL THE TIME. And nobody in leadership notices. Or cares. I am failing.
Art is the centre of my life and I am failing. I’m smart but I’m failing. I go the extra mile but I’m failing. I’m privileged enough to be white and able-bodied and I’m still failing. I can’t mitigate for the fundamental paucity of opportunities, or my lack of professional connections, or the spiralling costs that are NEVER met by a project’s budget (if I’m lucky enough to be offered a budget at all). When I finished my BA, I half-bankrupted myself to do an internship at a fancy arts institution in London, believing that it was a necessary step to getting my foot in the door. Fifteen years later and I’m still working for nothing more often than not.
Is that care? It doesn’t feel like it.
And I get it. It’s a choice for me to live this way. I could, presumably, find more stable, well-paid work elsewhere—maybe? But also, it shouldn’t be this hard. I shouldn’t have to do five post-docs and amass years’ worth of self-funded, change-making social projects only to be rejected by the only organisation in the country that has the money to support my development. And if it’s hard for me, it can only be harder for hundreds and thousands of others. I hate it.
So, a conference about care in the arts felt—for me as an artist—a tiny bit like a sticking plaster on a sliced artery; well-meaning but not enough. Our sector can’t afford to care for everyone, and so it is failing thousands.
We need to keep saying that—and modelling alternatives—until it isn’t true anymore.