Ellie Rees and Lucy Newman Cleeve: the family problem, or, how the art world should work for artists with children

Our fourth talk from the System Failure series, we look at the specific issues facing artists raising families while trying to earn money to support them.

With Ellie Rees and Lucy Newman Cleeve. Read an edited transcript of the talk here (PDF).

Part of the System Failure talks series, Nov-Dec 2015

Boyle Family is a group of collaborative artists based in London. Mark Boyle and Joan Hills met in Harrogate, Yorkshire in 1957… After a period of working separately on visual art pieces, they incrementally moved into a natural collaboration… Wherever Mark and Joan lived became their studio, so it seemed natural and necessary that friends and family be co-opted to help whenever there was a big show going off or an event to put on. From very early on, Mark and Joan’s children, Sebastian and Georgia, went around the studio, doing bits here and there, gradually getting more deeply involved: going on working trips, expeditions, helping to finalise and hang exhibitions. … Originally the work went under Mark Boyle’s name, largely because Mark and Joan were more concerned with making their work than attempting to fight the stereotype that artists were solo and usually male. Labels never mattered to them – it was the work that was important, not the marketing, image or personal recognition. Taking the view that if the art world wanted to believe in obsessed, lone male artists starving in their studios, they could present their work in a way that would fit. However, as their work became widely known, and at the same time the artistic stereotype began to broaden, they began to exhibit as Mark Boyle and Joan Hills. As adults, Sebastian and Georgia both opted to remain part of the team and since 1985 the four of them have exhibited as Boyle Family.

Text from Boyle Family website.

In searching for an image to illustrate this talk on artists and families – children, or other dependents – two problems seemed to crop up. There are very few artists known particularly for a commitment to family, few who foreground these responsibilities in their career; it can be very challenging for artists with families to continue to make art.

This talk considers families as a problem for the art world, not as a problem for artists. On a local, mundane level, the art world at best ignores and at worst actively discourages family life. The predominant social and professional network of the art world – the evening gallery opening – occurs at the time when young children are being put to bed, effectively barring artist-parents. If the first three years after graduation are vital when chasing an artists career, the first few years after the birth of a child are just as, if not more, difficult.

How much of this is a general issue in society and culture? With developments in paternal leave being rolled back under the current government (and anyway only open to employees, not the freelance workers who make up the majority of ‘new’ jobs in the creative industries), cuts to tax credits, rising in-work poverty, stagnating freelance incomes and a housing market that leaves behind a majority of citizens, what makes artists a special case in this? And how can we help change the art world to combat this inequality?

Many other artist opportunities – residencies, exhibitions and publications – require long periods either of physical absence from home or intense working periods, requiring a flexibility that can be hard to combine with the regular timetable and commitment that younger children need. Recent interviews with artists by Artquest have anecdotally found that some artists consider parenthood as incompatible with an artistic career – leaving a choice to either maintain a career or raise a family.

Other artists embrace family life as not only compatible with, but a celebrated part of, their practice. The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, begun in 2008 and speakers at our For the Love if It conference in 2013, is a family of activists who, ‘as a family, have decided to be naughty.’ Part of their monthly budget is given over to artist sleepover-residencies, with the whole family being involved in this artistic practice. Work and art become a way to live, and a way to rear children, rather than an add-on to be combatted or forced to work.

There are wider societal myths of what an artist is that need to be challenged as well. Typically considered to be male, single and white, representation and equality within the arts continues to be weak despite multiple high-profile publicly funded projects. We, as a society, seem to want our artists to still be a little mad and bad, uncomplicated and entertaining, in lieu of their work being of greater interest.

What policies and practices – formal and informal – can be put in place or become more normal to ensure wider representation of our whole society in the art world? Mary Cassatt(the artist responsible for the painting illustrating this talk) decided early on that being married, and the children and responsibilities this would bring, would be incompatible in the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth centuries for a woman artist. If she were still alive today, what differences would be see in how our society treats artist-parents – and what would be depressingly familiar?

Further links and articles

Biographies

Ellie Rees is an artist and mother living and working in London. She graduated from Central St. Martins (where she was an Associate Lecturer in Fine Art – Moving Image & Popular Culture – at Byam Shaw) and completed a Masters degree at Winchester School of Art. She has also been a visiting tutor at various colleges across the UK. Ellie has exhibited and performed at many international galleries and museums, and has held residencies in the UK, Europe and the United States. She has also worked extensively in community education and opera, and her academic research has been published by The University of the Arts London and The Open University.

Lucy Newman Cleeve is the Director of Man&Eve Projects, formerly a modern and contemporary art gallery and curatorial agency established in 2006, and a mother. Man&Eve represented a portfolio of emerging and established artists through a changing exhibition programme, publications, commissions and creative collaborations. Man&Eve was sited in permanent spaces London, and took part in international art fairs across Europe, Hong Kong, China and the USA. Since 2014, Lucy has continued her curatorial practice as Man&Eve Projects, working with an evolving group of artists in a range of public and commercial settings, most recently at Manchester Contemporary in September 2015.

This talk was originally part of System Failure, a series of in-conversations looking at the systemic failures of the art world in its wider context. Held on Saturday 28 November 2015 at Block 336.

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