How To Live & Work As An Artist: My Utopia

I’m a proud Brummie, born and raised. Growing up in inner-city Birmingham, I’ve seen deprivation, poverty, riots, homelessness, the lot. But the city has nurtured me and given me so much: a home,  character, friends, mindset, work and more. Even though I’ve been somewhat enticed by the idea of living in mainland Europe, I’m still too in love with Birmingham’s potential to have let it go. 

Our humble-but-mighty city has become known for its world class arts festivals: see Be FestivalInternational Dance FestivalCity of ColoursMoseley Folk Festival and Fierce Festival, to name a few. Even the internationally renowned On The Edge festival by ASSITEJ made its way to Birmingham this year. So throwing myself into theatre land in an attempt at normalcy following the birth of my son 3 months ago, I was elated to engage in conversations with practitioners from Belgium, Spain, Holland, China, Canada and beyond in the foyer of The Birmingham REP. And I loved it. That’s exactly why I love the arts. It’s all encompassing. It has the scope to bring people from all walks of life together. As a collective, we pick things apart, we look at the world and explore meaning. We want to tell stories and provide platforms for narratives of all types. We want to see change and we tinker with this through the arts. And for a city constantly revelling in its diversity, youth and vibrancy, it seems the perfect fit.

I’ve been working as a performing artist in Birmingham and around London from the age of 15. Needless to say, my practice has changed quite significantly over that time, but one thing has been consistent: living and working here as an artist is challenging. And that’s putting it lightly. While I watched many of my peers move to London to try and build sustainable arts careers (many of whom resorting to floors as a better option than sticking in Brum), I saw the gaps in provision as an opportunity and stayed. It’s one of the reasons I started MAIA Creatives - I wanted to help support artists in running sustainable practices by providing commissions and enterprise skills through project management services.

Being an artist and thriving anywhere, whether that's Birmingham, London or LA is tough, but in recent conversations with an actor friend of mine, we examined the theatre landscape and saw how particularly difficult it is to remain in Birmingham. We lack a core pipeline of ongoing work and as such have to tour frequently in order to get paid. If we can get the work. In 2015, I was working on a show in London. With sky high accommodation prices in the capital and an uncertainty on when I was actually going to be paid, I couldn't afford a hotel and I was a little sceptical of some the rooms on airbnb which were in my price range. Add in to this I was 3 months pregnant at the time and the only viable option was slumming it out on my friend’s (very firm) couch. While grateful for the roof over my head, it wasn’t exactly ideal. But irregular pay and unaffordable or unsuitable accommodation and workspace isn’t new. When budgets get tighter and expectations become even more unreasonable, sometimes it costs us to work. This is what it’s like for many of us living and working as artists. 

Yet, statistics show the Creative Industries are growing faster than most other industries, in that it is now generating almost £10m an hour, £84 billion, yes BILLION a year,  for the UK economy and accounting for 1.9m jobs, according to Government figures (DCMS). Jobs in the Creative Industries have increased three times faster than the UK average. In particular, jobs in performance arts are on the up, including dancers and choreographers (up by 41 per cent) and artists (up by 21 per cent). I guarantee the figures will be higher still this time next year. But this amount of growth presents some important questions about how we invest in the infrastructure for these industries and how we help sustain them.

Birmingham, a city bursting with talent, space, creative entrepreneurs and potential as well as a growing international reputation has the opportunity to be a trailblazer in how it supports artists, and creates the opportunities for them to flourish. But we have our problems. The dichotomy between emerging and established artists is vast. Different sectors within the creative industries appear to be served separately, which doesn’t exactly cater to multidisciplinary artists. Some organisations who only partially understand the value of the arts want the talent but are in no hurry to pay for it. Many cite the impact of the arts in relation to its impact on wellbeing and social cohesion but are unwilling to put in the investment with which they will for gym equipment. While this is disparity exists, there is a strong case for the financial and economic advantage of the arts which is not being formally recognised, in addition to the way the arts affect and shape our culture. Sure different types of people are catching on to performance poetry, but how does that help spoken word artists live and work here? How do we encourage our performing arts graduates to stay here? We have a monopoly on properties and land in Digbeth, our creative quarter, because of the likelihood of HS2. As a result, we see buildings and opportunities wasted. And it’s not just Digbeth. Jargon, language differences and “soft” barriers make it difficult for many of those outside of the arts to understand how creatives could benefit them. 

We’ve seen the public investment arts festivals have brought into the city by way of cultural tourists and participants en masse. Press coverage goes bananas when hundreds, even thousands flock to festival locations. Birmingham wears the festival badge of honour with pride but do we know what costs are being paid at the expense of the artists who create this PR dream? What would it look like if our city invested in the infrastructure behind festivals in the same way? What if we didn’t have to slum it out because support doesn't extend to accommodation or workspace? How much more collective impact could we make? How much more cultural and financial investment could we generate if we were truly seen as an inviting, amenable, inclusive city? How much simpler would it be to live and work as artists? We no longer want to sleep on our friend’s couches in order to work.

Now that I'm a mom (mom not mum where I'm from), living and working sustainably as an artist is even more crucial. Babies are expensive. I can’t afford to take much time off as maternity allowance doesn’t cover the expenses my family need to LIVE. Imagine. I’m paid on a project-to-project basis so need to line things up for myself as soon as possible just to stay afloat. For self-employed, ‘erratic’ workers like myself, this is the norm. But having an extra mouth to feed makes the need for solutions even more urgent.

I think it's time for something different from the city I love: something that will take true collaboration, support, investment and real community spirit. It will take artists, citizens, organisations, partners, venues, local council and real people power.

We’re building a hotel. An artist led hotel right here in Birmingham. Inspired by Green Rooms London it will be one that combines accommodation for touring artists and cultural visitors with work & rehearsal space and a community hub, plus an incubator for innovative emerging and multidisciplinary artists. One that will differ, largely in its flexibility and multipurpose use from traditional venues and artist live/work spaces. One that will reinvest back into the local community. One that will have its own community garden, with which we could grow our own produce and provide a food programme for the homeless and those in need. One that will provide training for marginalised young people in hospitality, business management, arts and construction. One that many could call a home from home.

This might not sound like a revolution but this is just the start. This is the line in the sand when Birmingham as a city stands up and starts supporting the artists which enrich our lives in so many, intangible ways.

There are countless other things I want to change about the arts, but I am passionate in the belief that this step to support touring artists, to create a space for local artists to grow and to become a centre point for those interested and excited by the role arts can play in the city will be fundamental. Once we nail this, we can start the conversations with greater force which pressure commissioners to pay their artists EVERY time on time, with a deposit paid in advance. We can start talking about how childcare, mortgages, pensions and so many other facets of modern life are completely out of step with life as an artist. We can start discussing why the arts is still too insular and start presenting opportunities for all to engage, work, train and benefit from the arts, including young people, the homeless and marginalised, underrepresented communities without diversity being a buzzword or a tick box on an evaluation form.

As artists we are used to surviving in difficult environments; our creativity by nature means we are able to adapt and change and find opportunities. But what sort of city would we be if we created the conditions for artists to not just survive but to actually thrive? What are the long term health and social implications of a city where art is truly recognised as force for good? These are the questions we need to ask of ourselves, of our commissioners, of our sponsors and of the audiences we entertain.

I’m about to tour a play around the country shortly, whilst also working on another: kids are expensive, remember. It’s going to be extra special since I have the pleasure of bringing my son along with me this time. By the time I’m back, we’ll be shoulders deep in all things ‘art hotel’ and I want to be able to start telling fellow artists from Belgium, Spain, Holland, China or Canada that the next time they are in Birmingham, we have the perfect place for them to stay. One which doesn't involve sleeping on a floor or a couch.