Freelancers have a lot to offer arts organisations – and a lot to learn from them too. Carla Kingham considers what is needed for this relationship to work.
A freelance career in the arts sector rarely brings financial security or the promise of a stable daily routine, so following a period of ill health I felt reliable employment was key to my recovery and moved into a full-time role. Having previously worked primarily as a creative, finding myself in an arts administration job and working within an organisation for the first time came as rather a sharp shock to the system.
It seemed likely that experience working in the ‘back end’ of an arts organisation would present an opportunity to develop skills and knowledge that I would not have had access to as a freelancer. But in fact this experience ultimately became instrumental to the way I am shaping the future of my freelance career trajectory. It has also changed my thinking around my personal and professional development.
Experiencing an arts organisation from the inside gave me a better understanding of how they operate. Having engaged freelancers during my full-time post, I experienced first-hand how easy it is to get swept up in the rhythm and culture of the organisation and take those at the receiving end of an email for granted. The best working relationships with freelancers started by them setting out very clearly what they needed from me and when, and articulating how they intended to manage that engagement around their other commitments.
A creative influence
Some people find their way into arts administration and operational roles by settling into organisations for the long-term and forging a path for themselves through the company. Others are simply passing through. Harnessing the different perspectives of these groups could be of huge benefit to organisations. When organisations and freelancers share skills and collaborate with each other, they can create vibrant, diverse and dynamic working environments offering new ways of approaching the challenges that face the sector.
Organisations are the beating hearts forging the future shape of the sector, while freelancers are the risk takers
Before moving into an organisation I had always been slightly reticent to bring together the myriad skills and experience I had accumulated. It felt wrong somehow to consider how my directing work and freelance copywriting could complement one another in a professional context, and I had felt compelled to keep my creative and ‘money’ work separate – a sentiment I know is shared by many others working in the same context.
I now realise that this is both untrue and unnecessary. A freelancer often has to wear many hats and their identity and what they offer as an individual – and as a ‘business’ – is uniquely mercurial. Their breadth of knowledge and fresh perspective is their great strength and something to be embraced by organisations, where hierarchical structures can sometimes stifle creativity and effective collaboration in the workplace.
While working for an organisation I frequently found myself extended beyond the remit of my role, as did other members of the team also from a freelance background. My previous experience in different capacities across the sector was valuable to the company. I was able to share knowledge and insight that was a direct result of my professional path.
The professional development challenge
It’s about more than just experience and knowledge though: working within an organisation requires a very different skill set. Even though freelancers undoubtedly have greater choice over the breadth of their work than those working for organsations, a sole trader can find it very difficult to control the direction and momentum of their professional development. Future career choices can become limited due to the lack of opportunities to develop specific skills and knowledge that would lead to career progression.
For example, if you are a young freelance arts professional with an interest in leadership or working at executive level, how do you get there? You must study the sector, gain a breadth of experience, develop your artistic and business acumen and build networks – all entirely unpaid, self-motivated and managed alongside a plethora of paid engagements, largely working in isolation. This is a challenging and under-acknowledged proposition.
There are very few accessible, formal training opportunities for freelancers. Webinars, conferences and events can be expensive to attend and it’s often hard to justify the outgoing when income is sporadic and you don’t have the capital to absorb those costs. For me, working for an organisation presented the opportunity to take advantage of training and development opportunities which I would most certainly benefit from as a freelancer, and as a professional who may want to work permanently within an organisation one day.
Given the benefits that can accrue to both parties when freelancers work with organisations, there is undoubtedly potential for greater skills swapping and training opportunities to be developed between the two. Organisations are the beating hearts forging the future shape of the sector, while freelancers are the risk takers, the ones filling in the gaps. We need each other.
Much of a freelancer’s worth is in the breadth of their experience, developed off the cuff and on the job. The wealth and diversity of knowledge and skills this offers should be at a premium to arts organisations, In return, the sense of community, shared vision and opportunity for development offered by organisations is deeply enriching for siloed freelancers such as myself.
My advice to organisations would be: use us. There is an army of freelancers with a diverse range of skills and experience ready to help relieve capacity and offer fresh perspectives. Build relationships with us, embrace us and invite us into your community.
And my advice to freelancers? Identify how you can help and also what you need and want to learn in order to do a better job. Subsidised organisations in particular face a unique set of challenges. Together we can share the load.