‘Solopreneurship’, sustainability and system change
Date: December 2017 | Posted by: Mary
Following her work as Paul Hamlyn Foundation ArtWorks initiative Project Director and Advisor (2010-17), Susanne Burns was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to visit the USA and Australia, exploring solutions to support artists working in participatory settings. She reflects on her enquiry, learning through different lenses and where synthesis leads...
I wanted to make connections with key leaders and practitioners engaged in developing and supporting artists with a participatory arts practice. I wanted to explore business models, institutional models of support and other structures from which we in the UK could learn.
My trip started in mid-September in New York: I then travelled to Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. From there I moved on to Australia, visiting Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane before returning to the UK in mid-November. It was an incredible journey and one that will take some time to process and reflect upon. I have visited places and seen sights that will stay with me forever and, most importantly, I have learned a lot about my field, my practice and myself. Across the seven cities, I met a total of 90 people face to face.
Using different lenses to examine the field – artist, institution, educator/ trainer, funder and policy maker – meant the learning was rich. I met some extraordinary people and visited some amazing organisations that are breaking paradigms in so many different ways. I found both similarities and differences. There were issues in common around short term and declining funding, political change, agency and differential power. There were differences in scale and resources, that made my eyes water, and in the value placed on arts in education, funding systems and the cultures of collaboration and partnership working. While the USA and Australian funding systems are totally different from ours, with the former dependent on private philanthropy and the latter with stronger public federal and state support, the similarities in the issues and challenges we in the UK are facing was striking.
As my trip progressed, the field of enquiry widened as I realised I could not separate the needs of artists working in participatory settings from those of all artists – and indeed the institutions with and for which they work. I realised notions of sustainability, system change and ‘solopreneurship’ sat at the heart of the questions I was asking about how we as a field can ensure artists are better supported. Without system change, will we be able to create sustainable programmes, sustainable organisations and sustainable, thriving artists’ careers? Can our sector be sustainable if our organisations are dependent on a pool of self-employed/ freelance/ contract artists whose careers are not sustainable and who are surviving, but not thriving?
As one Australian interviewee put it: ‘Our industry is being propped up by independent artists who are not being properly paid, who have no security, no superannuation plans and whose health and wellbeing are suffering.’
We are living in times when the role of the artist in civil society is perhaps more important than ever before. A recurring theme was the responsibility of the artist in social contexts. This makes it imperative we find ways to render their working lives more sustainable, stable and supported. But, for artists to thrive, we also need our organisations to thrive and be sustainable. It seems to me the key to this will sit in the area of overlap: where the interests of the two coalesce, where organisational and individual motivation focussed on social impact and the needs of the participant align. I believe that long term commitments to programmes that embed artists and organisations within the communities they serve have important lessons to offer. Dreamyard in the Bronx, New York and HOLA in the Ramparts area of LA are great examples of this.
We also need our organisations to take responsibility for the pool of artists on whom they depend, ensuring that duty of care is taken, professional development is available and accessible and, rather than emphasising ‘self-care’, we adopt an approach to ‘shared care’ that is sector wide.
‘Industry impact is key. We need collective conversations about the workforce. Competition is the key mode because of funding but we have to move beyond this. Artists are struggling in Australia and they don’t just work for one organisation but across organisations. We are underfunded and potentially set up to fail because of our dependency as a sector on public subsidy which breeds competition and not collaboration.’
I concluded we need to generate significant system and ‘field’ change. This will require the generation of traction and leverage created through a ‘movement’: bottom up action and field wide partnership working, communality, collaboration and collective action.
The role of tertiary education will be critical; the role of independent artists and those that support them in many different ways will be crucial; and our employers and commissioners, as well as our funders and policy makers, will also have important roles to play.
I found organisations making deep commitments to their artists in supporting training, providing health insurance and part time contracts providing security and retainers, such as Lincoln Centre in New York, Footscray in Melbourne and Metro Arts in Brisbane. I met funders who are questioning established approaches to funding in the sector and academics whose work is located in the field and are seeking to effect the change it needs.
I came across models that were artist-led, where artists have taken solutions into their own hands, working collectively. ‘We are the agents of change that we need and we need to start valuing ourselves more.’
I was stimulated by activists and those engaged in developing movements including the highly successful Teaching Artists movement which has gained great traction and appears to have supported increased value being placed on the work.
Underpinning all this, it is clear that new business models are needed. The ‘not for profit’ company model appears to be broken. Individual entrepreneurial or ‘solopreneurial’ approaches, social enterprises, non-transactional and collaborative developments seem to be the way forward. I found social enterprises that challenged traditional business models in the sector whilst delivering services or social benefit, such as Fractured Atlas and Public Matters Group in LA. I came across ‘loose’ organisations, porous and able to scale up quickly for project delivery.
The wonderful thing about the Fellowship was that it gave me licence to ask questions, take time out, really listen and delve. This was a different kind of questioning and listening – more open ended, with no predetermined output or end result. As a consultant, I am used to framing questions and listening, but such ‘active listening’ is usually directed to a specific purpose. This experience was very different. I took the time to slow down, focus on an area of enquiry, process the inputs, views and perspectives of others, truly absorb, listen – and most importantly hear – patterns, threads and connections.
The journey was fundamentally one of questions and synthesis. Synthesis literally means composition: putting different things together in one place and making something new from them. It may not be about new discoveries, but it is about being open to possibility, seeking the underlying potential in something and remaining open to stories, tensions and themes and then extracting insights to create frameworks.
That is now my challenge. I have a great sense of excitement in taking this learning forward, helping to sustain what is the start of an international community of practice moving into the future.