Practical, or poor advice?

Posted by Nicole Canham

Originally published on Feburary 13, 2013.

I read a very interesting post on Don Aitkin’s blog this morning inspired by the National Arts Summit which recently took place in Canberra, Australia. I have a lot of respect for Don, and he offers an interesting perspective on what took place at the summit. You can read Don’s post here.

I wasn’t there myself, but I’ve attended many similar kinds of events in Australia on previous occasions and what Don reported sounded like the usual kind of discussion. I found Don’s post interesting from the perspective of the complex issue of careers for artists. Some ideas, however, seemed to be worth a little more unpacking, hence my own post.

One issue raised at the summit was that of arts expenditure, and that people would like to see greater investment in the arts. Don suggested that doubling the funding would only double the number of disappointed applicants. I’m not sure I agree for three reasons. The first is that applications are peer-assessed, so projects that are not of a suitably high standard are not funded. The second reason I’m inclined to disagree is that a recent Australia Council study found that there is a large amount of unfunded independent talent in Australia – that is, projects that are of a high standard but there aren’t enough funds to go around. The third point to make is that there is a major discrepancy in arts funding in Australia in the way that the existing funding pie is divided.

Most trained artists will not find jobs in major performing arts organisations, but most of the funding for music goes to a small number of large organisations that in general (in the classical music field at least) present standard repertoire in the most costly formats – that is large scale works in major concert halls, with significant management and administrative infrastructure attached. So when an independent artist asks for more funding, or suggests that more funding would make a difference there are huge differences of scale. A relatively small amount of money, say $2000, made available at the right time to an emerging artist, can completely change the direction of their creative life. The same amount, invested in a major company would probably cover tea and coffee supplies for a year. A life-changing investment? I’m not so sure.

Almost all of the innovation/experimentation in the classical/fine music in Australia sector is undertaken by small to medium companies and independent artists. We ignore to our own detriment the value of the work of these artists who are truly at the coal face, encountering the reality of 21st century life in ways that better funded, large institutions can ignore to a certain degree. Independent work merits greater acknowledgement and respect within the current funding framework because independent artists are better placed to deliver the kind of innovation and developments, the “artistic vibrancy” that arts sector reviews often recommend. Discussions about arts funding, given the enormous size of the independent sector, might reflect more serious consideration of lone artists as genuine stakeholders in the Australian cultural conversation.

Another theme Don mentioned was the low standing of the arts in our community and how this impacts the demand for artists. Don hinted at a future in which he thought there would be many more participators than spectators. As such, it was suggested that young artists needed to accept that there was not a need for so many practicing artists, but rather more interest in young artists becoming teachers because that is where they could be of most use. Though that may be the case, in obtaining a degree, many undergraduate performance students hope that their qualification and their hard work will eventually give them access to professional status and performance opportunities. When other industry professionals and leaders express that it would be better for young artists to develop their own creativity in ways that might be employed in fields other than their field of choice – education was the example offered – it is perhaps understandable that some of the younger members of the summit audience might have been disappointed.

This is particularly important in relation to the points made about creativity. Elitist art making and individual creativity are not as separate as Don describes. To begin with, what might drive a young artist to want to become a professional often stems from a powerful early encounter with the arts and one’s own creativity (Jane Davidson’s research on musician identity is illuminating here). If we really mean what we say about the importance of creativity then I’m not sure it’s right to be suggesting to young music students, who have already undertaken the first major steps on the pathway to a creative life, to reconsider the self-interest behind what they are doing quite so easily. I think this leads us to give advice to young artists that is often received as demoralising and unhelpful. I offer this perspective as someone who has both received the advice from others, and also as someone who has been in the position of teaching career skills to tertiary level music students.

This brings me to my final point about the way in which we approach creative careers and practical realities. If we view things from the perspective of an institutional infrastructure under strain because there are not enough funds to go around, or because it is becoming increasingly expensive for Universities to sustain Conservatorium-style studies, then it makes sense to say that there are simply not enough jobs and that students should consider pursuing other avenues. However, it is also important to look at the problem from the artist’s perspective. Acknowledging the considerable level of personal and financial investment that goes into pursuing an artistic career as the basis for a discussion requires a rethinking of the ways in which we counsel artists to develop their careers. Not preparing students enough about real world challenges is one problem. But it is also just as problematic to advise young artists that they need to think of having a day job AND an artistic career without proper consideration of the long term implications of that idea in the context of building an ongoing artistic practice. There are damaging psychological effects of present approaches to higher education of music students which are evident in recent Australian research. Dawn Bennett’s work is one example. Jane Davidson has also completed some longitudinal studies in the UK in this area as well.

I have no doubt that it would be very convenient for both Universities and funding organisations if less people wanted to be artists, and some of the tone of Don’s blog suggested a pragmatic approach of trying to funnel people into different channels and models of work and creative expression. This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, however, from the perspective of the young artist at the beginning of their career. The research of Creech, Papageorgi et al in the UK and Parkes in the US show ‘reality’ from the point of view of the aspiring artist to be quite different from the advice that seemed to be put forward at the summit.

There is a lot more that I could add here from my own vantage point as someone who has chosen to maintain my artistic practice. I’m very glad that not all my career choices have been realistic. I’m also very glad that there have been many times when I have chosen to ignore well-intentioned advice about being more practical or strategic which would have led me away from my artistic work and into other domains. I have approached my career from many angles over the last 15 or so years and I think if I had been there as a panelist, I would have taken a slightly different approach in the conversation that might go something like this:

The first thing we should be asking young artists is: ‘Given you have invested all this time, what are you hoping to gain? And given that the environment is tough, how do you plan to respect and continue to develop your talent?’ These are questions of an entirely different genre to ‘Have you thought about becoming a music teacher instead?’ or ‘What will your day job be?’. These are the broader philosophical questions that young artists need to be encouraged to take on if we want to improve the standing of the arts in our community, or to increase meaningful participation (or spectating) in the arts. This kind of reflection is better able to provide the tools for young artists to decide their own way forward, and to determine the skills they will need. Being a good professional artist for me involves a very considered view about what you and doing and why, and developing the techniques with which to express that understanding. I think encouraging students to move too quickly into other fields for practical reasons (to ease the demand on arts funding bodies or in order to manage expectations or meet demand elsewhere) carries with it the risk that this essential thinking does not take place – and then we have a generation of young, future leaders working in arts organisations and schools who don’t fully know why they are there except for some vague notion that they somehow ‘failed’. (See Bennett’s thesis for a detailed Australian study, and Huhtanen for her Finnish study).

I felt that the final remark in Don’s post about telling people to follow their dreams, but to have a day job was a bit like advising people to go straight to Plan B. There were obviously a number of experienced leaders present at the summit, but given that the discussion was clearly making the younger artists present unhappy, I wonder: to what degree are we responsible for being honest about the perspective from which we offer our view of ‘reality’, and to what degree do we need to be aware of the bigger picture for artists, including the management of their own motivation? Listening to a group of panelists telling you that your dreams are unlikely to come true would be hard for many enthusiastic and passionate young musicians to hear.

I’m certain that this isn’t the only message young artists should be hearing, though. Despite the real difficulties inherent in creative professions, we still do need artists and not only teachers, or waiter/artists or accountant/artists. To be really excellent in a given field, one needs to be devoted to it, and that takes time. Although I wasn’t present, I felt that some of what was reported seemed to encourage ‘careers of compromise.’ The problem with this approach to building an artistic life is that leaves a major hole in our field because we risk ending up with lots of emerging artists who eventually give up…leaving us with very few mid-career and senior artists because everyone went back to that second job Don refers to. Culturally, that’s a frightening idea for the long term development of artistic activity in Australia and we lose a lot of talented people and great ideas in the process. I had a wonderful harmony teacher during my students days, and one afternoon we were discussing the notion of talent, and how to tell if a student was talented enough to make it. I remember very clearly her response: ‘Who am I to say who is talented enough to make it, and who isn’t?’ Something worth keeping in mind.

Please contact me if you’d like more details on the references given here.

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