To those working in the arts, the most valuable conversations are the ones that present a new approach to familiar territory. Gathering these approaches together becomes particularly important at a moment like this, when the working conditions of the cultural sector are both under-regulated and highly unstable.
Visual Arts Workers Forum (VAWF) was started in 2011 as a way of opening up such conversations. The forums provide a common ground where anyone involved in the arts can discuss their own working conditions and hear about the circumstances affecting others in the cultural sector. VAWF is not a representative body, nor is it a lobbying group, its principle aim is to give us – as a community – the chance to look into the careers of our colleagues, and better understand both the precariousness and the potential of our own work. VAWF has been primarily co-ordinated by Tessa Giblin and Rachael Gilbourne, with strong leadership from each of the venues that host it, providing the backbone of the discussion topics as well as underwriting the financing for the day.
The first forum took place at Project Arts Centre, Dublin in April 2011, and the second in May 2012 at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, in partnership with National Sculpture Factory, Cork. Each day included presentations, debates, and informal periods for questions, answers and conversations. There was also plenty of time to meet people face-to-face. VAWF includes contributions from those active in every level of the sector: artists, curators and writers are all represented, as are institutional staff, civil servants and those coming from cultural fields outside of the visual arts.
In both years, the first half of the forums were arranged as a series of rapid-fire presentations. The first year, there were four talks in forty minutes; the following year squeezed twelve into an hour. They included contributions from Clíodhna Shaffrey, Vaari Claffey, Ed Krčma, Alex Pentek and others. Mary Conlon described the early gestation of Ormston House, where passers-by saw her painting the gallery and volunteered their help. Jesse Jones staged artists as being caught in a two-part dynamic: the hustle and the rub. In this metaphor, you can get ahead in the art world, but every gain is offset by an equal and opposite consequence.
Throughout these quick descriptions of strategies to parry the sector’s instability, the common refrain was that a climate for successful work pivots on how well arts practitioners can support their peers. It’s an understandably crucial element in the development of a field where we’re all in negotiation with one another, and where so many peoples’ practices depend on working alone. Considering the conditions that are affecting Ireland’s cultural sector right now – the prevalence of unpaid internships, the scarcity of fees and the attenuation of both funding programmes and national cultural bodies – there is a great deal to gain from simply gathering and sharing a set of innovative work practices.
Over the past two years, some discussions at the forum have offered valuable insight into how the sector is developing. In his 2011 presentation, Mick Wilson described a ‘reputational economy’ that affects the visual arts specifically. This is a system where our attempts to work towards an improved livelihood are augmented by the way that we compete with our peers for reputation. Wilson characterised this competition as a zero-sum game, wherein one person’s reputation rising means that another’s must fall. Everybody doing this together has created an economy where the right to work is now the thing that is valuable. Hence, if we succeed in our work, the reward is enough reputation to qualify us for more work. Throughout all of this, very few rewards take the form of financial gains.
In their 2012 keynote discussion, Sarah Glennie and Mary McCarthy spoke very frankly about the planned amalgamation of the museums. It came at a moment when the sharp corners of the amalgamation were at their most contested and least transparent state. They talked through the different adaptations and strategies that the museums might use to defuse the potential damage caused by the reform plan. Glennie remarked that the museums had been added to a list of 40 quangos that were brought into a government cabinet meeting to be either absorbed or abolished.
It is precisely these kinds of discussions that make events such as VAWF so valuable right now; the visual arts could use more transparency and more sharing of information. We need a place to air our problems and, critically, to share our successes. Not only do these conversations give us access to alternative perspectives but also, through having them, it becomes easier to see who is willing to work for the entire sector, rather than just for themselves or their own institutions. The sustainability of our work practices relies on how well we can learn from our peers and, in that sense, the problems that affect the arts are not permanent: they are a temporary and dangerous opportunity. If we can address them as a community, we will be taking a big step forward. So if you’re involved in the visual arts in any capacity, then it’s your forum – what do you want from it?