An opportunity to do things differently

I am coming up to my 13th year of living in Brighton & Hove – who knew 2020 would be quite this unlucky? I moved to this gay/liberal/cultural utopia as a pretty naive and mentally unstable 21-year old looking for a boyfriend.

After seeing a career counsellor at my university I had come to the rough conclusion that I wanted to work in ‘arts administration’, I wasn’t sure what this entailed, but I imagined that it would involve starting at 10am, working in a funky open plan office and freely expressing my opinions on culture. When I arrived in Brighton I sent off a few threadbare job applications to arts organisations and unsurprisingly didn’t even get an interview. Within 6 months I was working in an insurance office processing new claims – not exactly what I had in mind. It became clear that if I wanted to work in the arts I would have to actually get some relevant work experience.

This began a fitful and unsettling period of interning at various arts organisations around the city whilst I kept working so I could pay my rent. Some of these experiences were extremely enriching, many were utterly exploitative. When I did finally get an ‘arts job’ in Brighton it proved to be my worst employment experience (including the insurance office) yet and I lasted three months in this role. To this date, I remain amazed at what arts organisations can get away with in terms of pay-scale, progression routes and working conditions all in exchange for the kudos of working in the industry.

In 2008 I met Tarik Elmoutawakil at the Marlborough and we decided to start producing queer cultural projects that resonated with our experiences from a semi-dilapidated room above a pub. We have just marked our 12th anniversary and I am extremely proud of what we have achieved as a company, working with some brilliant, talented people along the way and hopefully offering some marginally less horrendous employment opportunities (we have no means behaved perfectly over the years, far from it). We’ve kept Marlborough Productions going with no regular support and accepted the precarious existence that’s comes with it. Our projects are queer-led intersectional art projects, often centring marginalised artists and creatives (as best we could) and from this we’ve learned a lot about the conditions they need to succeed and how hard these are to create in this sector.

I have been thinking about my journey in the arts in Brighton this year when so many of my expectations about my career have crumbled. I’ve been thinking about how and why we encourage young people to pursue a career in what’s now ‘the creative sector’ (‘the arts’ is so early 2000s now). I worked really hard, had a lot of good luck, but from the start I had privilege. I had a safety net, my middle class family. I had the mental resilience to overcome experiences of bullying. I had the required sense of white entitlement to believe that arts & culture was where I belonged, it was just a matter of time before the doors opened. I realise that this is not the case for so many young people who want to be part of Brighton & Hove’s cultural sector.

Events of 2020 are making the unjust power structures in our society impossible to ignore and with the well-publicised crisis in the creative sector caused by Covid 19, things are likely to become even more precarious. If I was to embark on a career in the creative sector in Brighton in 2020, I’m not sure even my privilege would allow me to hang on in there. However, there’s an opportunity to do things differently, to not be too precious about the past, to let go of the questionable working practices, dismantle old hierarchies of culture in our city. I want us to be confident that we are inviting young people from all backgrounds into a sector that doesn’t perpetuate inequality. This might be an uncomfortable process for a lot of us, some of us might have to give up control, or status, or kudos; but I think it’s essential if our city is going to actually live up to the progressive values it purports to embody.

Author: David Sheppeard
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