Alistair Gentry: on collaboration

Market Project is an initiative by eight artists and a curator, all based in the east of England and all interested in researching old and new ways for artists to make a more sustainable living from their work than they currently do.

In this post I’m going to say something about the realities of working as a group of artists without a boss or institutional oversight.

The genesis of Market Project was simple; nine out of the ten people on Wysing’s art world economics week liked each other and felt collectively there was much more for us to learn together or discuss amongst ourselves. Despite wildly differing artistic practices, careers and personalities we all knew that we were in some way occupying the same territory. The solidarity that emerged from a fairly arbitrary initial matchmaking was powerful enough to compel regular meetings thereafter. It was even powerful enough to make us voluntarily and of our own free will tackle Arts Council England’s grant application forms. These are much improved from the baffling and vague bureaucracy of old, but they’re still a black hole of time, effort and energy.

A small aside to anyone who thinks that artists gets handed grants or commissions just for falling out of bed in the morning: think again. Making proposals, filling in application forms, keeping yourself visible and pitching work are all full time occupations in their own right, and they rarely get paid back even if you ultimately get a substantial grant or commission.

Happily, though, the aforementioned black hole eventually did regurgitate a sum that would enable us to embark upon a frugal version of a few things we had ambitions for. Even with the money sitting in the bank, though, for the first few months we achieved virtually nothing because we were still approaching the whole endeavour in the typical woolly, unfocused way of artists.

Artists in groups never get anything done because everyone’s bringing their creativity, they gossip and compare notes, they’re behaving as they’ve been taught they “should” practice and comport themselves as artists instead of actually thinking, they go off at tangents, they compete but they simultaneously try to do everything by polite consensus and democracy, from who should have the last biscuit all the way upwards to things that actually matter.

Luckily we had enough self-awareness to realise that for our own good we needed to get real and apply ourselves to making some progress. The first order of business- and I use that word deliberately- was to sort out what I call “too many sailors and not enough captains.” In other words discussion, compromise and consensus are extremely valuable but there comes a point where somebody, a specific person, has to take action. Artists are really good at whinging “this is terrible, someone should do something”. They’re often extremely poor at taking leadership, delegating responsibility or wrestling their own problems into submission. Frankly, we as a group are still not great in these regards and our productivity could be much improved, but we’re trying to do better.

Our solution was to methodically identify jobs that needed doing and fill them from within the group where possible, along with a nominal payment. We’re now advertising for writers and a general manager/advocate with the same ethos; we can’t pay much, but as a matter of principle you as a professional deserve to be remunerated for your work.

Nominal is all we can afford, but our general shared principle is that if you work, you get paid. Arts organisations abandoning that principle and artists buying into the idea they should pay to get a foot in the door are the twin errors leading us to the sorry, intern-exploiting state in which the arts now find themselves.

Thanks to our little revolution against ourselves we’ve had (for example) our group administrated flawlessly and painlessly by one person at a time, instead of us all getting bogged down in it and getting nowhere. Not everybody needs to do everything. We don’t all need to even know the details of what anyone else is doing on their behalf, provided it gets done. We benefit collectively out of all proportion to the small amount of head space we sacrifice to whatever our own task is.

© Alistair Gentry 2012

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