For many creative arts students approaching graduation, the reality of delving into a competitive workplace can understandably be quite daunting. Bridget Sterling, fine arts professional and Director of Axle Arts, is running ‘Managing a Creative Arts Career’, an employability course for graduates looking for some after-education guidance. I met with Bridget to talk more about what the course entails, and how it could benefit creative graduates.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience
I’m a Bath Spa University graduate, and I did my MFA in Fine Art at Sion Hill. Running the employability course here is of direct interest to me because I’m an alumna, and it will be the first university that we deliver this course to. In terms of my fine art experience, I did my undergraduate degree in London, and I’ve been working in the fine art world for the last 15-20 years of my life. After I completed my MFA in Bath, I got drawn into the commercial art world, which is the world of galleries and such. Whilst I was the Director of Bath Contemporary on Gay Street, I ran a very successful work experience programme for Bath Spa Fine Art students. Sadly, after four years the gallery closed its doors, which led me to setting up an online art gallery instead. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to pursue education, as it is something I’ve always been interested in, and I’ve now developed an employability course for creative arts students. If we see there is a need for it elsewhere, particularly with other arts courses here on Newton Park, such as the film and creative writing students, then we’ll be happy to pick them up too.
What is the purpose of the ‘Managing a Creative Arts Career’ course that you’re running?
The purpose of the course is to better prepare young graduates for a career in the creative arts. A lot of students that graduate from a creative degree don’t necessarily have a job waiting for them at the end of it, as it’s not a vocational degree. You’ve got to find and create it, or most often you’ve got to run your own business or practice, and that’s not easy. Learning how to be creative, think naturally and research a practice is quite different from learning how to run a business in the creative arts. With this course, I’ve considered what I would have benefited from when I graduated from both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. I want to improve upon the areas in which I felt were lacking for me, ones that my friends and colleagues who graduated with me also said they wished they’d had more knowledge in. Over the years, managing a stable of artists and dealing with their difficulties and experiences that they’ve told me about, you begin to wonder, how do we address all of that? Well, it’s a lifetime development and experience that you just have to slowly gather, but I think with this course, we can build a bridge to try and help to facilitate the journey into it.
What made you decide to set this course up for graduates?
I’ve always had an interest in education. To be honest, I originally thought that I would take that interest into formal teaching, but the teaching I wanted to do was higher education, rather than further or secondary. I applied to do a PGCE course at Bath Spa for fine art, but I didn’t get in, as the entry was very tough. So, I thought, I’m not going to let it go because it’s a passion for me, and through this course I have found another way to do it. It’s just a lifelong love of art and creative endeavours, and recognising how important it is for society. Artists do not earn a lot, and the role that they lead in our society is vital; if we didn’t have them, we would be so poor as a culture. So, how do we better support our creatives into business? I want to try and nail that. It is a notoriously secret world, particularly the commercial fine art world. I’ve been asked hundreds of times, how do you approach a gallery? There’s an importance in basic consignment notes, and things like that. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of artists who’ve effectively had work stolen from unscrupulous gallerists. It’s a tough business to be in, there isn’t oodles of money in the work. You don’t swan around in a Mercedes… unless you’re dishonest! [laughter] So, how do we stop people from behaving like that? It’s information. It’s always information.
How can the course benefit creative arts graduates?
It’s going to be an incredibly powerful point of contact for them to start facilitating creative careers, as opposed to leaving it behind. A lot of creative arts graduates tend to filter into other jobs which are very far removed from the arts, from a need to pay rent, and support themselves. How do you follow a creative career whilst still living in the financial world? The world of bills, obligations and responsibilities; even if I can help a graduate to understand the concept of running an allied career. According to a recent survey by the Arts Council England, as an artist, with your main focus being on art, your average earnings are 16 to 17 thousand a year. Nobody can live on that! So the whole idea of the starving artist is a real one, still today, and it shouldn’t be. We have to do something about it. I’m not entirely sure how to address it, but it has to start with small steps, and perhaps this is the first one. I’m delighted that talking about our mental health is becoming less scary, because for an artist, it can be hard to stay buoyant in the light of working alone and under such financial pressure. Quite often, year upon year, as an artist sometimes you may spend time in a shed at the bottom of the garden. As a creative writer, maybe your living room or a small office at home. It’s important to think about how to stay engaged with your society and your culture, and not to start to feel isolated. Dealing with internal struggles, feeling worthless because your work hasn’t been published, or wondering what you’re doing; these are all issues that need to be addressed and spoken about.
Could you explain the sorts of skills that those taking the course will be taught?
The course is largely designed to facilitate thinking, how to network, how to keep yourself buoyant. To facilitate being able to practice creatively, and to not feel like you’re letting yourself down or bailing out if you take an allied career, or 2 or 3 allied careers. Whatever it takes in order to facilitate a creative career as well. If you’re lucky enough, you might find the whole lot may weld together, and you can do it all. It’s about how to move those pieces into place, to enable what you want to do, as well as giving you a few skills on the basic setting up of a business and what to look out for. Stuff like, the systems that you really need to put in, and the data you really need to start capturing. It will cover a whole basis of tools to help facilitate moving into the workplace.
As you were once a fine arts graduate yourself, what helped you during the transition into the workplace?
It was really hard. I stumbled out of my undergraduate degree on La La Land, thinking I would somehow manage to support myself. Also, I was a single mum at the time, and I just expected to support myself and my son off the back of my fine art. I thought somebody would see me at that degree show and would offer to show me, and I’d sell just like that. I suppose the fact that it didn’t happen at the time was a massive shock, and I had the realisation that I had to do something far more strategised and clearly thought out. I started to consider the idea of further study; was an undergraduate degree enough, or did I need a postgraduate degree to facilitate what I’d just studied? I suppose, to a large extent, it was a lot of luck. I just kind of fell into the commerical art world, and I knew once I had fallen into it that it was something I would do well, and I loved doing it. As soon as I found my feet, I thought, hang on a second. I’ve come from a very scary place, so what can I do about all the other people who are still battling? I wanted to help them too. I know that sounds idealistic, but it’s coming from a personal place of wanting to help the person I was back then.
Any advice for those who may feel lost about what path to take after graduating with a creative arts degree?
There’s a lot of advice, but a major piece of advice, is try not to give up. 90% of graduates give it up, and feed into other careers. So what were those 3 years for? Try to be realistic about what it is you need practically alongside what you need emotionally to do what you’re doing. I think creative art is all about emotional engagement, and trying to find a way to reach a balance between the two. All creative arts graduates have got massive transferable skills; often they don’t realise it, but they really have. Thinking about what skills you have is a good place to start. All creative arts graduates are taught the importance of good, solid, extensive research, and that qualifies you for so much, the way you think and gather information. In fact, even with the fine artists who traditionally are sort of messy in their heads, that had a certain system to it, one of organisation of information. So that’s a skill as well. It’s to just maybe start working slowly but surely, noticing what skills you have, beyond just saying I’m an artist, or I’m a writer. There is so much more to you than just that.
The ‘Managing a Creative Arts Career’ course will run over 3 days, between the hours of 10am to 4pm. The course is free to graduates (with a refundable deposit of £20 to secure attendance). Below is a link to the official leaflet for the course, if you’d like to read more about what it has to offer.
The course will run on the following dates: 18 – 20th June (applications by 4th June), 24 – 26th June (applications by 10th June), 27 – 29th June (applications by 13th June). The WEA leaflet linked below has all necessary links to applications, to be sent in before previously stated deadlines.
If you have any further questions about the course, you can contact Bridget via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the WEA on 0300 303 3464.