With the arts ecology so dependent on freelancers and a significant growth this year of networks for independents, we asked June Gamble to share her experiences of working collaboratively as a network. Hear her journey from card file systems ‘back in the day’ to creating safe spaces on Zoom.
In October 2020, I celebrated being a self-employed Arts Manager and Consultant for 30 years. As just one person who is part of such a significant freelance workforce, over that time I’ve booked or managed more than 20 national and international tours; delivered over 1000 coaching and mentoring sessions and over 500 training and facilitation days; raised over £3.5 million for dance and theatre projects; lectured and produced; and been the founding member of three Strategic Development Organisations.
However, this year, thanks to COVID-19, my experience of networking and working collaboratively surpassed all previous experiences of networking and working collaboratively.
To put this into context, in the 1990s, I was the first Coordinator of the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora (ADAD) – an artist led consortia. At the time, I had to create a database from scratch (a card file system) and write, print and post regular newsletters to the members of ADAD. We arranged occasional meetings and enabled various projects. After being the Coordinator, I joined the Steering Committee.
In the 2000s, I was a co-founder of the Independent Dance Management Network and over the years was a Coordinator and a member of the Executive Steering Committee. The database was a spreadsheet and newsletters were emailed. Regular meetings and events were organised.
In June 2020, I was sponsored by the Theatre Royal Plymouth to be one of the 160+ members of the Freelance Task Force (FTF). My experience, in truth, was the stuff of dreams and nightmares. Fortunately, the dreams outweighed the nightmares, and I learnt a lot about myself and others from both.
In the first two weeks, I joined 29 others as facilitators, and we endeavoured to set up systems of communication and attempted to enable Zoom meetings to happen. During this time, I met, virtually, a handful of new contacts that went on to become and continue to be intrinsic to the rest of my FTF adventure. Two of these people, I had briefly met before (dancers/choreographers) but never worked with and the other two were strangers and people that I would never probably have met in any other circumstances (a Theatre Designer and a Stage Manager).
Additionally, I started to work with someone who I knew from my work in Plymouth but had not had the opportunity to work with before – a young Theatre practitioner who had been sponsored by the Barbican Theatre. We very quickly joined forces and decided to invite freelancers in Plymouth and Devon to sign up to a database so that we could keep them informed via a weekly emailed newsletter.
We all quickly identified that we are ‘soulmates’ or ‘kindred spirits’, as we rapidly realised that we shared the same language, values and beliefs, whilst having extended video chats, navigating the ups and downs of the FTF.
At the end of the first two weeks, I joined others in the South West FTF (including three of my compadres) and the FTF Dance Group (including two of my compadres). All five of my soulmates and all of the members of the SW FTF and FTFDG agreed that our individual and collective purpose was to act as conduits between the non-FTF freelancers and the sector organisations, collecting data and information and enabling all to be kept informed and updated. As a result, the Plymouth & Devon database was part of a South West web of databases and social media connections, whilst the FTF Dance Group created the first and largest database of freelance dance professionals (400+) and also curated and emailed weekly newsletters, as well as managing Twitter and Facebook accounts.
At the end of the 13-week contract, a series of local, regional and dance specific open Zoom meetings were held to share our work and to consult on future needs.
Alongside these two groups, I joined forces with one of my kindred spirits and we enabled and facilitated a series of FTF Zoom meetings (60+) for those who wished to discuss the 7 FTF Working Points.
POINT 1: The Guiding Principles for a Freelancers Fair Engagement Agreement
POINT 2: Citizen Advice Bureau – Non Union
POINT 3: Anti-discriminatory Inclusivity and Diversity Pledge for Freelancers and Arts organisations.
POINT 4: Freelancers Industry Meetings / Organisational Representation
POINT 5: Pay Structures
POINT 6: National Portfolio Individual / National Portfolio Artist
POINT 7: A creation of a longer lasting network for freelancers
The SW FTF, FTFDG and the 7 Working Points initiative were recognised within and outside of the FTF as being three of the most productive sub-groups of the FTF and my observation is that this was because of the shared purpose, the focus on action, the communication systems and regular contact established and maintained with freelancers inside and outside of the groups.
In addition, the SW FTF and FTFDG consisted of individuals from a range of practices and backgrounds and were diverse in respect of gender, age and ethnicity. In my opinion, both groups had mutual respect, kindness, care, consideration and professionalism at the heart of every online meeting and all email correspondence. Sadly, these values were not necessarily my experience or the experience of others when engaging with the wider FTF which resulted in the nightmares.
These negative experiences ultimately led me to join up with four of my five ‘soulmates’ and after the FTF 13-week contract, we set up The Freelance Network – a hub and spoke model that enables individual and groups of freelancers to meet on a monthly basis to share their work and discuss shared issues. Find this on Facebook @TheFreelanceNetworkUK and Twitter @FreelanceNW.
So, what did I learn about myself?
Technically, I learnt how to use Zoom to facilitate meetings and how to properly use Gmail and Tasks. I already had a grasp of Google Chrome and I became nicknamed the Google Drive Queen! This meant that I set up and managed lots of Google Documents and Spreadsheets and managed the living and archived folders of the various groups that I was involved with. I think it is safe to say that my old-school, general administration skills were revealed to be of a high standard.
On a personal level, I had to realise that on screen, I was perceived as a white middle class, middle aged woman and on occasions, treated with contempt as a result of assumptions being made based on stereotypes (again, the stuff of nightmares). As a result, I found myself re-assessing my own witting and unwitting prejudices and trying to understand how I am perceived as a facilitator by individuals on a Zoom call who have never met or worked with me before. In ‘real’ life, I have a reputation for my honest, direct and transparent approach when facilitating meetings and training sessions, that has resulted in many long term professional relationships with individuals and organisations. However, during my FTF experience, I realised that in this ‘brave new world’ that we now find ourselves in, we need to be even more aware of each other’s sensitivities and the need to create a safe space within the parameters of communicating via a screen.
In conclusion, the dreams were the opportunity and honour of meeting and working with a range of individuals that I would probably never have met in ‘real’ life. The Freelance Network, the Plymouth & Devon FTF, SW FTF and the FTFDG continue to work together and as we do so, the experience gets richer and richer and the outcomes become stronger and more impactful. I am excited about continuing my adventure as part of these networks and have no doubt that our shared purpose will result in us continuing to make a difference to the lives and work of freelancers in the UK.