Culture Change Conference – Cat Harrison’s speech: “Opportunities in Crisis”

Culture Change Conference – Cat Harrison’s speech: “Opportunities in Crisis”
Date: 04/02/11
Author: Clare Cooper

Hi. Hi there.

Sorry I hope you don’t mind if I just take this in a second. It’s not everyday you stand in the National Theatre speaking to you alongside… well… them.

A friend of mine, he said to me, he said to me “don’t worry about the audience, don’t worry about the audience, just say what it is you have to say” Just say what it is I have to say

Ok I am not Ben Okri.* Sorry about that.

In fact I doubt hardly any of you will have heard of my name before Fiona mentioned it.

My name is Cat Harrison. Some of you my have heard of the artist collective I co-founded 2 years ago: non zero one. But I guess most of you will know of the organisation I work for as a Trainee Producer and Advisor: the brilliant Artsadmin.

I am for all intents and purposes a member of the new breed of arts “slashies”. I am an artist/ producer.

And I am emerging.

It’s a brilliant word that isn’t it? Emerging. Its everywhere at the moment – it’s a bit of a buzzword. Emerging. Not emerged or submerged or established. No, I’m on the move: processing, progressing, digressing and exploring. It’s a good place to be. In fact, it terms of crisis, apparently “emerging” means that I’m in a brilliant position. Us emergents, we’re better equipped for coping well – typically we’re very adaptable, we have less responsibilities and are less constrained by the rigidities of time, space and money.

In CS Holling’s 4 Phases of Crisis we’re currently at the end of the third, the Release Phase – reminds me of that visceral image that sinks in everytime I hear the words “economy in freefall”. To quote Lemn Sissay “I jumped off the bungee bridge and I hadn’t measured the rope”. But we will know soon. We will know who has safely bounced, who has skimmed the ground, and who will need to be scraped off it. Whatever happens, we will all need to change. That’s why we then enter Holling’s 4th phase of Crisis, the Reorganisation Phase, what Andrew Taylor refers to as the exploration phase.

Exploration right? It’s tailor made to us emerging arts professionals! We’re built for a crisis. I mean the other argument of course is that emerging arts professionals, well that we don’t really know we’re in a crisis. Not that we don’t watch TV, read newspapers or follow Ed Vaizey speeches on twitter (because we’ve all been doing that right) but that this is normality. We won’t notice the hard times of the recession because it will be what we enter into, we’ll have no easier times to compare it to.

You know it, we’re emerging, we’re optimistic, we’ll share resources, we’ll find our way. Let me tell you now that young people and emerging arts professionals, we will not and cannot pick up the pieces of this recession. I urge you, not to drop everything to put us first, but not to dismiss us and leave us out in the cold. I mean, whose crisis is this anyway? Already unemployment rates of the under 25s have reached its highest ever, with one in 10 signing up to JSA. We are reportedly the first generation to be more likely to earn less than our parents, the generation of which a third of men and a fifth of women will still live with our parents between 20 and 34 years old.

Graduates who currently enter your organizations, enter with an average of £23,000 worth of student debt. In the next 5 years students with the proposed tuition fee increase, graduates are likely to enter your organizations with an average of £42,000 worth of debt. I graduated in 2009, and with both my tuition fees and maintenance loan subsidised by grants, I still have well over £20,000 worth of debt that accumulates interest every year despite working for a charity, despite earning less than £15,000 a year.

In less than 3 months my Traineeship at Artsadmin will end and I will join the thousands of young people looking for a job. For all the impressive Guardian statistics, this recession is much closer to home. I am a typical young person caught in the recession and I suspect many of you will know many more colleagues and family members in similar positions too.

I mean I very nearly contemplated wearing a sandwich board with my CV written on it, had it not have clashed with my ridiculous pink tights. It’s not that I expect you to offer senior positions to emerging artists if you’re looking for someone much more experienced, but if you do have an opening for an initiative or a scheme or a job that could be suitable for emerging arts professionals then please do go for it. I promise you it will be worth it – because we are the keenest, the most committed troopers: we will work hard for your money. Please note the clue in that sentence: “owe work for your money”.

This is a reciprocal relationship.

Despite common myth, young and emerging arts professionals cannot run on nothing. The more you can give, the more they can give in return. And I don’t mean to say that we have to get paid, because it isn’t just about money although that is a big part of it. I personally think that internships and apprenticeships can be of incredible value for both employer and employee – though I should mention groups like Carrot Workers are starting campaigns against any sort of unpaid work. I myself did a part-time 4 month unpaid internship with Artsadmin during my second year at university. You can probably guess that I’m a little bit biased as I got a job out of it (and my boss is in the audience), but that internship played a huge role in my life of introducing me to what it’s like to be part of an arts organization, what it is that I could do for a living and what kind of amazing unthinkable arts jobs are out there (I mean who knew you could become an Artists’ Advisor?!) Now that I’ve been working as Trainee that support has increased tenfold – not just because of the stability of payment, but because I have a set amount of training that I have to work towards, areas that I know I need more work on and areas that I feel confident I can manage.

And, talking to other artists and arts professionals, it is that confidence, that acceptance that is priceless to emerging arts professionals, especially emerging artists that might not be following the norm.

The £500 non zero one was granted from the Farnham Maltings No Strings Attached scheme gave us enough money to pay for some of our travel and buy some equipment for a piece we worked on for 7 months. But on top of that amount (which was crucial for us to work as a company with the 6 of us spread across 4 different Arts Council regions) there was that support that Farnham Maltings had invested in us, that our work was worth something. That £500 led us to perform our debut piece at Southwark Playhouse for a few lunchtimes, where a Barbican producer took part in it and commissioned us for 3 weeks as part of their Spring Bite 10 programme. Following the Barbican we performed at Forest Fringe, have become associate artists at the Basement, have our next piece being developed at the NT Studio, a piece that has already been programmed for this year’s Latitude festival. I don’t mean to brag but… that’s not bad for a £500 start-up fee is it?

To put it another way… well to have my name put forward as a potential emerging arts professional, to be given the chance to speak in front of you, alongside them… well in many ways that’s so much more valuable to me than a starting salary of £20,000.

So please, invest in the emerging. In whatever ways you can, whether that be time, space, money, expertise and remember that it is always reciprocal: we are valuable and we can help your organisation – because we’re the best people for coping in a crisis. We’re naturally adaptive and open to change. I mean such changes have already begun to emerge. I mentioned about the being part of the new breeds of arts slashies before – the artist/ producer/ programmer/ director/ education officer – well you get the picture. It seems that leaving higher education with thousands of pounds worth of debt has made its mark.

We may be artists, but we are fully aware that we are businesses also. When you live in a world where success is measured by wealth, where education is apparently measured by wealth, even art is measured by its worth of wealth, well it seems you get a little more pragmatic, you get a little more self-controlled.

From the Andy Fields to the Bryony Kimmings to the Robert Pacittis – all 3 manage being arts programmers and directors, whilst upholding their own artistic practice. All six members of non zero one work part or full-time in the arts as Trainee Producers, Production Assistants, PA’s, Administrators and Education Officers for incredible organisations including Blast Theory, Hide & Seek, The Bush Theatre, Salisbury Playhouse, the RSC and Frantic Assembly. We are incredibly lucky to be working with such fantastic companies – and from my experience such work feeds directly into our artistic practice as much as our artistic practice feeds into our work.

Again, the whole process is completely reciprocal. One funding application here, one meeting with a promoter there. It’s all relative. What will be interesting to see is how organizations such as yours will react to what is currently a relatively individual evolution. For example, issues such as time can cause real problems. How can I continue to work in an office 8 hours a day if I have to run a show everyday for 3 weeks? The answer of course at the moment is through determination, a bit of negotiation and a fair bit of luck, but what are the possibilities of formalized sabbatical periods or unpaid artistic leave?

Will the support that currently exists for slashies remain or will it return to those that can give full, undivided attention to that one particular organization?

I suppose only time will tell.

What I have to say is just: let us give change a chance.

We are all in this together.

We will all be facing the reorganization phase, a certain amount of exploration.

I was told “the crisis is not an affliction on the system, the crisis is the system” and I for one believe that the arts sector should lead the way in showing no adversity to change. We are the arts movement – so let’s keep it moving.

The fact remains that we are all emerging. Not emerged or submerged or established. Not anymore. We are on the move – processing, progressing, digressing and exploring. And I for one am excited to see how that turns out

*NB Ben Okri was originally invited to take this slot which Cat kindly filled at very short notice.

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