I had been a freelance arts worker for almost 7 years when I started the MA Global Creative and Cultural Industries programme at SOAS. For some of those years, I didn’t even really know that I was one; I was weaving through fixed contracts and project-based work without much support or guidance, and just about making ends meet through unrelated part-time work. With career paths notoriously unclear in the cultural industries and professional development difficult when you are self-employed, I struggled to find financial stability with work that aligned with my skills, passion, and principles.
This MA programme is therefore part of my ambition to professionalise. I am grateful to have had time to think about my career; I used the module ‘Directed Study in Industry’ to research careers and with a fellow student, Philipp Schütz, I organised a career-related event series which I am here to tell you about today: ‘Putting Theory into Practice: Imagining our Future in Cultural Work’.
Over 3 events we invited cultural industries researchers and practitioners to share their expertise and experiences. Here’s what I learned:
Anamik Saha, Oli Mould & Caspar Melville
Researchers in Race, Urban Geography and Cultural Industries
In my modules, I had been drawn to Anamik’s critiques of the current diversity agenda and Oli’s critique that the very concept of creativity had been co-opted by neoliberal thinking. But the question always lingering in my mind was: how can I, as a professional about to enter the industry, resist these forces and work towards something better?
I concluded that I have to live with contradiction and ambivalence; that there is always good and bad and to some extent I will have to work with and probably within systems that I dislike. But that doesn’t mean I should ‘give up’ or ‘sell out’ on my principles. I should bring them to whatever roles I might find myself in. I can play the system to my advantage and I should see value in even the smallest acts of resistance.
So moving forward, I hope to feel less self-conscious or guilty for taking on commercial work or being the token woman of colour in the room. Maybe they bring opportunities to subvert what is expected of me, channel finance into projects I believe in, or bring alternative thinking into conventional spaces.
Creative Programmer, Cultural Strategist & Relationship Manager for Arts Council England
As part of my research, I attended a job information session in Arts Council England’s Music Department, where Adem works. I felt inspired by the experiences he shared and when I googled him later, he had a fascinating and prestigious portfolio career as a ‘Creative Programmer’ and ‘Cultural Strategist’ – roles that I didn’t even know I could aspire to. I wanted to find out how he had built his career.
I learned that, as a young person, he heavily benefited from The Roundhouse’s programme of professional development opportunities for young creatives. This also explained his approach to cultural strategy which was focused on nurturing local grassroots talent rather than supplanting artists and creative programmes from elsewhere. His career was a balance of individual initiative, good administrative skills, community awareness, and collaboration. He independently identified gaps in the cultural sector, devised creative projects with an understanding of public funding, he built strong community networks around these projects, and went out of his way to cultivate positive relationships with his colleagues.
I felt very encouraged by Adem’s self-starter attitude and ambition. Like my own career, it was comforting that his had also not been completely linear. He also demystified his roles by bringing a lot of humility and honesty to our conversation; he admitted nervousness around large-scale events, revealed his weaknesses as an organiser, and described being turned down for high-profile jobs.
Management Consultant and Co-founder of Addis Fine Art
Addis Fine Art is the first white-cube gallery space for modern and contemporary art in Ethiopia and one of few black-owned art galleries in London. We were excited to ask Rakeb about running a successful international art business and the sudden widespread appreciation for ‘African Art’.
I have been resistant to the commercial art sector, particularly the hyper-financialisation of contemporary fine art but Rakeb really changed my mind. She rightly explained that African art and artists deserve to benefit as much as their Western counterparts from this lucrative market. And how representation in this market was fundamental to becoming part of the international art canon which is frightfully dominated by Western art. Moreover, she described how Addis Fine Art was working towards sustainable infrastructure and business models that nurture an interest and market for Ethiopian art and its history far beyond the current trend in ‘African Art’.
Rakeb showed me how the commercial arts sector can be harnessed towards positive goals. And coming from a business background, she really demonstrated how business-minded planning and organising can bring focus and long-term thinking to cultural projects. I will definitely think twice now before showing disdain for the commercial art sector.
Overall these events gave me hope for finding a meaningful career in the Cultural Industries. Our speakers had found ways of contributing to positive social change in a sector that can sometimes feel ruthless and ingenuine. We were pleased that people attended the events from in and outside SOAS, as well as from a variety of industries and backgrounds. They engaged and asked the speakers relevant and interesting questions showing that the cultural sector clearly has a wide impact. That’s perhaps what makes them so important and attractive to people like me.
Natasha Natarajan is an MA Global Creative and Cultural Industries student at SOAS. She is a freelance creative and has been running her own arts business, Chikaboo Designs, since 2015. Her research interests revolve around the labour politics of freelance cultural workers. Instagram: @chikaboo.designs