Features Published 19 May 2015

What is Artist Development?

Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, of Ovalhouse, James Yarker of Stan's Cafe, Natalie Querol of The Empty Space, and Paul Warwick of China Plate debate This Thing Called Artist Development, ahead of the day of discussion at Ovalhouse on 22nd May.
Natasha Tripney

Rebecca Atkinson-Lord: I sometimes think Artist Development is a bit like pornography; everyone’s definition is different. Over the past few years I’ve had countless conversations about what venues and producers offer and it’s become pretty clear that there are wild variations across the sector. I’ve come across artist development programmes that offer nothing more than a room to work in, some that are basically a series of chats over coffee, some that seem more focussed on the developers needs than the developee and a few that don’t have adequate care for the wellbeing of the artist at their heart. Nonetheless, as well as all those, there are some that are genuinely transformative positive forces shaping the ecology.

Rachel Briscoe – my co-Director at Ovalhouse – and I work very hard to try to offer a genuinely bespoke development framework for the artists we work with. That means that the process is necessarily artist-led; we encourage our artists to identify what they need and how we can give it to them and then we do our best to deliver. However, for the artist-led model to work, artists need to have some sense of strategy in how they see themselves and their work. They need to be able to evaluate themselves critically to identify what they need, and of course the reality of arts funding means that there is always some degree of limitation on what’s possible.

For very early career artists, that level of critical thinking and self evaluation might not be second nature and they may need some careful coaching and support to figure out what’s best for them. I often wonder: if I coach an artist to identify an area for development – can I still call that development artist-led?

The most successful artist development relationships I’ve been part of have been quite nebulous; often their success was mostly to do with building a positive creative relationship with the artist on a one-to-one level. I’ve come to realise that the most valuable thing I can offer an artist I care about, whose work I admire, is my own critical and creative attention; my time in a room or a cafe or a pub to challenge and interrogate with careful affection. If the best Artist Development is bespoke, built on interpersonal relationships, how then can we reliably replicate success or even define exactly what it is we do to the wider sector?

Natalie Querol: My firm believe is that it is artists that do the developing and that, all things being equal, there would be no need for this thing we call artist development. All things though are not equal and there are myriad external barriers that limit the ability of artists to achieve their potential. I agree with Rebecca that the coaching role is important, it’s not about telling the artist how they should develop, rather it’s a process of supporting them to reflect on their own practice and providing a safe space in which they can interrogate a raft of possibilities.  In addition to that though the job of artist development can be about finding ways around external barriers, and because we all work with multiple artists we are well placed to spot when a barrier is specific to one artist and when it is systemic and a barrier to all.

Our experience at The Empty Space has been that, in many cases,  the specific nature of those external barriers can change over time. Ten years ago in the North East of England for instance it was very difficult for artists based in the region to develop any kind of a relationship with a venue; the doors were well and truly closed so the task was to start opening them. A few years later changes in leadership at key venues and the Arts Council’s ‘talent development’ priority meant that the landscape changed dramatically  and not only are individual venues now enormously welcoming and keen to develop relationships but they also work collectively through the North East Artist Development Network to run events and provide bursaries that are specifically aimed at connecting artists with more venues.

Once artists were well supported within the region a new barrier became apparent – a lack of producing expertise meant that very few artists were benefitting from touring beyond the region. We responded with This Way Up, a programme that connects tour ready artists with producers based across England whilst also taking time to develop the producing capacity within the region. It’s a two pronged approach that demonstrates how artist development can be both bespoke and strategic – supporting artists who need help now to get around the barrier in whatever way is best for them whilst also supporting future artists by taking a longer term approach to removing the barrier altogether.

Rebecca Atkinson-Lord: I had a conversation with an artist I work closely with a few days ago, and he was very clear that he felt that the best way to develop an artist was to give them the resources and get out of the way; that the only role a venue or organisation should have in Artist Development was in choosing who to give the resources to. Maybe he’s right and the simple concept of Artist Development Schemes is in some way patriarchal and patronising. We praise artists for their singular, unique voices and aesthetics, yet simultaneously encourage them to endure a sort of external tinkering from venues and organisations across the ecology. Perhaps there’s a case for changing funding structures for Artist Development to remove the middle men – the venues and organisations – and support the artists more directly somehow.

Natalie Querol: I don’t think the concept of artist development is inherently patriarchal or patronising but in delivery it can become both. If we start by listening to artists, responding to their needs and using our leverage to draw down resource that couldn’t be accessed individually then the artist remains firmly at the centre and we are simply serving their needs. That’s not always how it works though. I’ve recently seen an organisation withdraw support from an artist because as the project developed the likely artistic outcomes changed and rather than bend the support to fit the artist they demanded that the artist bend their project to fit the support – in effect the artist was required to serve the organisation’s beautifully crafted scheme. There’s an experiment I’d love to conduct – give a bunch of artists an artist development budget with no strings attached apart from a responsibility to report on how they used the budget and what impact it had. Then follow what happens; how does artist development differ if the power sits with the artist rather than the organisation?

James Yarker: “Give them the resource and get out of the way.”

For me there are three key strands to artists development:

1: Making art.

2: Experiencing other people’s art.

3: Being challenged to do new things.

Number 1 is essential. We learn by ‘doing’. Maybe some artists need to develop a self critical faculty Etc. as mentioned above but the bottom line is they need to be able to work. The more we practice the better we get and that’s practicing making shows, not practicing doing scratch events or practicing doing exercises or practicing workshops. Stan’s Cafe has made lots of shows, I believe our later shows are better than our earlier shows mostly because we have made more shows.

I don’t think Number 2 is essential (there is the phenomena of ‘outsider art’) but it’s very important, ventriloquising others can be part of the journey to finding an original voice, hating someone else’s voice helps you define yours, being inspired, being provoked, being questioned, seeing things you can nick. Seeing other people’s work helps artists develop. This is a tricky thing to do at a time when touring theatre is sparse – in the early days I would zoom all over the country to see stuff.

Number 3 isn’t at all essential but it is clear looking back that I have developed as an artist by regularly being asked or challenged (often by myself) to do something scary I don’t know how to do – it’s not about creating a safe space, it’s about creating a terrifying space and being encouraged to go there and explore it.

Paul Warwick: I agree with a lot of what’s been said above – what’s been identified as good and bad practice. About the importance of artist led. And I’ve recently talked a bit about what I think makes good artist development in a blog for the Guardian. So here’s my thoughts on why I think structures or mechanisms are helpful.

I agree with Natalie’s point about all things not being equal. In my view, those of us that end up being gatekeepers to opportunities have a responsibility to open those gates as wide as possible. Opportunities (funding, commissions, tour dates etc) tend to follow perceived success and it’s incredibly hard to access them if you are relatively new. However, it is also crucial for the health and vitality of the sector to invest in the new and to give less experienced artists a chance. In order to make that happen sometimes it’s helpful to put a mechanism in place: firstly, to identify artists you don’t already know, and secondly, to build a framework that facilitates venues, funders and audiences taking that risk. One such framework is the First Bite Festival that we’ve just run in partnership with mac birmingham, Warwick Arts Centre, greenhouse and In Good Company – I’m going to use it as an example because I think that will help me be clear.

First Bite gives ten artists/companies from the midlands an opportunity to show excerpts of work in progress (more on this below James) to an audience and to a commissioning panel. Two go on to receive a commission to help them realise the work. Why is it useful?

  •       Artists genuinely value the opportunity to test out new materials in front of an audience.
  •       Audiences have a good time and (judging by the amount of feedback) relish the opportunity to be involved in the process of making a piece of work.
  •       Artists really appreciate the chance to see the work of a group of peers and meet other artists they don’t already know to talk about each other’s work and share intelligence.
  •       Artists frequently email us to tell us that the event functions as an active development opportunity for their process whether they get the commission or not.

For the two commissioned pieces the package is: money, producing support, rehearsal space with regional venues, additional budget for materials/kit, guaranteed tour dates, a showcase on a national platform and dates with venues in the house network (i.e. not in their home region).

So, why the mechanism? Why not just give them the resource and get out of the way?

1)    The application process is completely open.  Of this year’s line up we hadn’t seen any of the shows before and actually only seen any work by the artists on the bill in two cases. For this kind of development opportunity this feels absolutely right. It was a bit nerve wracking on the day because, of course, we want audiences to have a good time, but it is right. I don’t think it’s possible to programme in this way (successfully) without a development framework like First Bite – it enables venues, programmers and audiences to widen access.

2)    The money won’t pay for the whole show, but will act as leverage (with support from us and our venue partners) to raise a budget that will. So it’s not just about giving artists resources but also, where appropriate, sharing expertise about how to generate resources and developing the capacity to do this in the future.

3)    Likewise the producing support and the relationships built with the venue partners (those within the home region and those further afield) – these are skills and networks that are useful long term.

4)    Crucially, the structure also has the beginnings of a distribution network built in. I don’t think it’s enough to give artists the resources to make shows; collectively we have a responsibility to think about how that work will reach audiences. Not two or three nights in the host venue but national touring. That this aspect of development is so often overlooked feels like a massive missed opportunity and is one of the factors contributing to the dearth of touring work that James identifies.

Of course making work is important. It’s central. But I think we can also serve artists by supporting them to build sustainable careers. By sharing our privileged access to the structures that make this possible – be that buildings, audiences, money or phone numbers. The best artist development programmes deliver this stuff.

I also think it’s useful, and I know James disagrees with me on this, to make scratch or work in progress performances. Artists consistently tell us that it is creatively useful for them. And it works for us as producers. James you’ve made the comparison to short stories, novellas or novels – different disciplines. For me it’s more like working on sketches or producing a maquette – these can be an integral part of the creative process and have the added value of being really useful things to show other people who you want to help you realise the full work.

Natalie Querol: I think scratch nights can be a brilliant way for artists to try out work as it develops – certainly in the North East scratch nights grew out of an environment in which ad hoc work in progress sharings were already commonplace so they weren’t something artificially created from nothing by venues or development agencies. The scratch night that The Empty Space co-curates with Live Theatre is unusual in that about half its audience is made up of people that have no professional connection with theatre or personal connection with the performers and because of that their feedback is very honest and based on trying to understand what the artist is trying to express rather than on trying to tell them on how to make their show. Artists are always telling us that they find this particularly useful. Having said that not all artists find it useful to scratch and that needs to be fine as well. I’d be worried if scratch nights became an obligatory hoop to jump through to make work, or if they became the only way to begin a relationship with a venue. I often find myself emphasising to artists that they should only scratch with us if it’s genuinely useful for their process otherwise it’s just cheap programming and that’s definitely not ok.

There is also a danger, and I’ve seen this happen, that development support is focussed exclusively on creating new work so artists are encouraged into a cycle of developing work to a fairly early stage, performing for a few nights then moving onto the next show. There’s no time for a show to develop, to be improved by being performed for different audiences in different spaces. Initiatives like First Bite and This Way Up are relevant because they recognise sharing art with audiences as a fourth strand of artist development. Some artists don’t need support to do that, others do.

James Yarker: In a catchphrase from the Warwick Commission Into the Future of Cultural Value, it comes down to ‘Ecosystems’. A plurality of opportunities is always going to be much more healthy that a single structured system. There’s no controversy there. Paul is right I have ranted against Scratch Nights but that’s because I want to see finished shows. Of course artists are pleased to be part of a scratch event, something is often better than nothing and some packages such as that offered by First Bite are truly valuable. Of course showing material to audiences gives you feedback, but I’d much rather show them a ‘finished’ piece and learn from that than a ‘provisional’ piece. I don’t want to ban scratch nights but as Natalie suggests neither should scratch nights be only route go getting your new show made.

As well as hosting Pilot Nights, Stan’s Cafe has worked with Holding Space and mac in Birmingham to generate small commissions for cheap and cheerful finished shows. There is space for both approaches. I’d alway choose the finished show route. I believe an artist will learn more from taking a show to its conclusion than doing a dozen scratch nights.

Paul Warwick: I couldn’t agree more with James’ point about ‘Ecosystems’ – a plurality of opportunities is vital because, of course, artists have different approaches to making work – sometimes from one show to the next. So a healthy ecology is one in which there are a variety of development opportunities and lots of them – they don’t all work – but those of us that offer them should be mindful that they are an opportunity for the artists taking part – whether that is about developing work, strategy or skills transfer – rather than an opportunity for a venue to tick a box or programme on the cheap. Sometimes it’s also really good to work fast, which is why bypassing long development processes through something like Holding Space can be really useful. Although I still think having a strategy around distribution is important.

I think I’m right in saying that all of the opportunities above are paid. That is a line in the sand for me, if we’re selling tickets then the artists should be getting paid – end of.

I think context is really important too, especially for audiences. It’s really important that everyone knows what the deal is when we are showing unfinished work. The first Pilot Night that happened at the RSC proved this for me, we had an audience of nearly 400 (as opposed to the usual 100 or so) and the demographic was clearly very different. The RSC knew their audience well and knew how to contextualise what they were about to see for them – they did a brilliant job of that and the results were astounding. Watching the audience come in, I have to say I was anxious, but once they were all in the bar talking to the makers, scrawling feedback all over the walls of The Courtyard bar in chalk, and getting behind the performers on stage in such a supportive way it actually turned out to be one of my highlights of 2012.

Investing in artist development AND in audience development is not a luxury item or an add on – it’s crucial for the future of the sector. Any industry that stops investing in the development of its workforce and in developing its markets is going to limit its future viability. I feel this is an argument that we are going to have to get good at making over the next five years.

This Thing Called Artist Development is at Ovalhouse on 22nd May. For more information visit the Ovalhouse website.


Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.



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