01: The New Artist Economy - Paula Varjack

 Paula Varjack
Writer, Filmmaker and Performance Artist


I’m British, I grew up in Washington DC, I’ve lived in London most of my life and I’ve had lots of different creative careers. What brought me to the point of making Show Me the Money was a meltdown, of sorts.

Originally, I trained in stage management - I thought that was a smart way to work in theatre and get paid while learning how to direct, which was what I really wanted to do. Being a stage manager made me totally fall out of love with theatre. I then trained in film before working in animation, which worked out well. But I got bored of my job. And then the crisis happened.

Eventually, I decided to train again in performance and somehow, this time, I managed to gain the system. Six months into my Masters, I applied to every single scheme I could imagine and I got really good at applying for things. Six months after graduation, I had this beautiful period going from paid gig to residency.

I found myself at the end of a residency in Madrid, which sounds amazing, until I tell you that I was at the end of my overdraft with no savings, know a little Spanish, definitely no work there and no work in London either. I didn’t want to go back into production, or bartend again and I just felt really stuck. I was also just about to turn 35, which, in the world of “emerging artists”, you might as well say you’re 502.

Sitting in a café with bad WiFi and broken Spanish, I was thinking about what to do when back in London and I remembered this hashtag, #illshowyoumine. It’s still really relevant sadly, because it started over 5 years ago with performance artist Bryony Kimmings writing a blog about the perception of “success” – Edinburgh, sold out shows, etc. – but she was still only just getting by. So, she published her outgoings and what she charged, which was brilliant and depressing, but sparked a conversation about transparency in the UK theatre and performance community. 

I basically read every blog attached to this hashtag. It was brilliant, this whole movement started but I noticed it ended. And it didn’t end because suddenly the UK had figured out how to pay artists properly, it just ran out of steam. Bryony heralding the project led to her raising her rates, organisations treating her differently and organisations she worked with established better practices. But slowly, the frustrations died. But it wasn’t done. I thought there’s a lot more we could do with this, there must be other artists in a similar position I’m in and rather than have a breakdown, I should reach out to them and find out how they were going about surviving.

I decided not to write a paper or start a blog, but to write a show. If I made an entertaining show about the subject, maybe it would be accessible and enjoyable to more people. My work is documentary and research-led so I decided to have a series of 44 interviews around the country with artists of different ages, career stages, disciplines. I looked at the word ‘artist’ quite broadly – everything from visual artists to comedians, who often aren’t considered artists by bodies such as Arts Council. I kept coming back to the question: how do you make a living from your work, or not? What else are you doing to support your work? I wanted to see what I could learn from these conversations. I spoke to a 6-year old who wanted to be a singer; a 50-year old actress who had finally secured a mortgage with her partner but still felt things were super precarious; people who said they were never going to have a day job but were getting by; people who had been living like that until their 40s and now were looking for a job and so on.

The other frustration about being a performance artist is the Edinburgh Fringe. I’d been twice before, I knew that was what you were supposed to do. You make the show, take it to the Edinburgh Fringe, you do a full run… it makes sense, arguably, if you can get up there, because everyone is there – reviewers, programmers, makers from around the world. But the problem is, it takes a lot of money to be there. In an early iteration of Show Me the Money, someone asked me what the secret is to breaking even at Edinburgh. My response: DON’T FUCKING GO!

Making this show and conducting these interviews, it became really clear, the model for working as a theatremaker is really broken. The touring model, the funding model. Everyone in every possible role, they’re in precarious situations, so it’s basically broken at every level.

Before this process, I’d only ever tried to apply for funding from the Arts Council once and I was rejected. My sense of it was “it’s the only way to make the work I want to but it’s totally impossible”. But then something funny happened, I applied for funding to make this show and I got the grant. Ironically, when a few people from ACE did come to see the preview, my video of my ‘Arts Council Fantasy’ went viral around their offices within a week. The positive thing was the literary officer from London office called a meeting with department to discuss the ACE relationship with artists if they don’t feel comfortable to talk to us. So, my call to action is, please reach out to your local officers.

As I was coming to the end of developing the show, one of the many things I do for money/survival is facilitate and mentor other artists. Two of the artists I was working with told me that they would just give up after the training scheme, which was super upsetting to hear so I figured I’d write a manifesto that sums up my main learnings that I thought were helpful. The key things I'll pick out:

·      Transparency is so important. We’re worried to speak about our rates for concern that we’re charging more or less, which is exactly why we need to talk publicly about it. It can only make things better for us as artists and those who are booking us.

·      Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Rather than searching arts job listings – which you should still do – have a cup of tea with people. Most people want to help. Most things I’m doing now have come as a result of that and not making applications.

·      Self-belief is really key. It’s such a long game. The only thing different between the artists in the 40s/50s with those in their early 20s, is the older artists had become more accustomed to the cycle of precariousness. That’s really it. You’re most likely never ever secure in this field, you just get better at recognising patterns and placing cushions. You also don’t judge yourself for taking a day job, which is also TOTALLY OKAY. I felt so angry through this project about the amount of shame people have about not living from their practice, which is also easier for some art forms than others. I’m making research-based performance art, come on. If there’s something you can do that you can bear, that’s great, do that too.

·      Find people who will give you feedback in a way that is useful for you. Treasure them and learn how to give better feedback yourself.

·      Live in a place that feeds you.

·      Speak up when you’re spoken over and left out. If you feel like there aren’t the opportunities you’d like to have, create them.

·      Understand your privilege but also share your privilege!

I’m still so obsessed with this subject, the blog is ongoing, so check it out or let me know if you have anything to contribute.