• Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email

Matt Tyler suggests that the traditional career path for arts professionals needs to be reviewed.

Image of prison theatre production
A production of ‘Nibelungen’ at Tegel High Security Prison


In an economy that is in the grip of profound change, where all the old assumptions about who we are and the kind of lives that we will lead in the future look shakier by the day, what does it mean to be an arts professional? What are the ethical questions that we should be asking ourselves and where do we go when we just want some straightforward advice on the direction we should be travelling in?

The oldest assumption, and the one that we are still indoctrinating into the younger generation, is that we prepare for life as an arts professional by getting on a particular track, some kind of training. This track will lead to paid work, within what we might loosely define as the mainstream, enabling us to flourish in a chosen area of artistic or arts-enabling activity. However, many people never made the transition from training into paid work, or they made it and then became disillusioned and dropped out of the arts. For most people a career in the arts does not last much beyond their mid-thirties. But the basic assumption is that these tracks should continue to exist and that with the right blend of talent, dedication, networking and luck, one can make one's way through the thorny thickets and into the sunlit uplands of professional employment. Work that is paid well enough to ensure a middle-class life can be established and maintained until a state-supported, reasonably comfortable retirement. This is the model that most arts professionals still adhere to and the one that they pass on to the younger generation, despite increasing concerns about its viability.

For certain arts professionals, those who are seeking to align their artistic and pedagogical interests with a sense of social mission, it was further assumed that it was only right that the opportunities accruing to the traditionally trained arts professionals should also be made available to those that were less well-off. Thus was born the whole socially inclusive arts movement. In an era of economic growth, it is fairly easy to make the argument that everyone, regardless of their economic or social class, should have access to the same progression routes which, though differently constructed, lead to the same place: the mainstream arts.

However, when the entire context in which assumptions about a career in the arts is undergoing irreversible change, is there anybody left who, deep down, really believes that growth is still an option? It is especially incumbent on those artists who are working with people who are most vulnerable, and therefore often the most persuadable, to ask themselves some fairly basic questions about the track that they as an arts practitioner are on, and the tracks that they are helping to construct for their students (be they prisoners, young people at risk, homeless people, mental health care service-users or other disadvantaged people).

a small but increasingly vocal and connected group of artists and arts enablers is beginning to question the 'growth' assumptions on which arts careers are based

The essential question is about the direction of travel that collectively we are heading in. The consciences of those that are working at the social margins are often salved with the thought that they are 'doing good'. But is this the case? If we are working in harmony (collusion?) with the institutions that are hosting and often funding the work that we do, then it is almost axiomatic that our role will be that of meeting institutional ends (we will not be in employment for very long if our practice is antithetical to these institutional ends). Our job is essentially to assist in the rehabilitation of our marginalised fellow citizens so that they can join or rejoin the 'hard-working' workers on the treadmill of growth. Left or right, 'growth' is the cure for all our social ills that all of us should be contributing to.

But what is interesting is that a small but increasingly vocal and connected group of artists and arts enablers is beginning to question the 'growth' assumptions on which arts careers are based, and they are putting those ideas into practice in a space that is 'beyond the margins'. Rather than assisting in the education and training of those people that are defined as 'marginalised', so as to join those paragons of the political classes: members of hard-working families, whose consumer lifestyles are regarded as the engines of growth and therefore 'good', they are developing new models of arts practice. These assume that 'degrowth' is the track we are on, that this is actually the only track that is available, and that the real issues all revolve around what it means to be an arts professional within this new and little understood paradigm.

For some, those already within the mainstream arts, the idea of letting go of the habits of thought and practice on which their careers have been built, is equivalent to professional suicide. 'Letting go' is almost unthinkable. For those that have not yet made the investment in a mainstream career – and for the purposes of this argument working at the margins within institutional settings is considered as essentially mainstream – the idea of there being arts careers beyond the mainstream is probably not something that they have considered. This is largely because within the normative educational and cultural framework these ideas are not even on the radar.

There is a rich world of opportunities for artists to engage in beyond the mainstream: a world that combines the idea of sustainability with the practice of sustainability and that considers degrowth as an opportunity rather than a threat. For an artist that is possibly the most vibrant, challenging and creative space that is out there. It is just a matter of finding it...

Matt Tyler is Conference Producer and Development Director for Cred-Ability.

Media partnership
ArtsProfessional is proud to be the media partner of the Cred-Ability project , find out more about it here. We are kickstarting a debate on issues relating to the arts in prisons. To take part visit our Cred-Ability hub. Cred-Ability will also be co-producing a conference, Play's the Thing, on this theme in the summer of 2014. If you are interested in contributing to the conference please visit the website. www.playsthething.org.uk


Link to Author(s):