Monday, 20 June 2011

Briefly on arts co-ops (summary of Emerge Open Space discussion 19/06/11)

Ok, so as some of you can probably tell by my Twitter timeline yesterday’s Emerge Open Space with Red Ladder was inspiring, exciting, galvanising, educational, informative, fun and many other things in between.

Those of us who attended were all in agreement that there’s a huge amount of exciting work coming out of the region. Absolutely masses of the stuff! We had a fab discussion about consolidating a narrative around the work, the making of it and the people involved. We agreed that we should find a way of blowing our regional trumpet but I won’t mention that for now as it’s a whole other tangent (intelligent arts journalist types who might like to jump on bandwagon, please make contact).

We were also all in agreement about the challenges that we all face as artists/makers/practitioners and we identified that we’re all going through those challenges in isolation, trying to tackle the difficulties on our own.

The word COMMUNITY (a critical yet nurturing one) featured very, very heavily throughout the day. We all articulated a need for it and the fact that the room was buzzing with energy demonstrated the possibilities of being part of one. We became more and more energised and radiant as discussions progressed (despite many of us recovering from West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Transform Season closing event the night before). It felt fantastic to get together with like minded individuals with similar aims. It was supportive, cathartic and invigorating.

One of the proposed open space sessions asked ‘when should I give up the day job?’ another ‘do we measure our worth/work in terms of money/career?’ and another ‘what are the challenges/advantages for a new company starting out in the region?’

We grouped these three questions together and set about establishing how it could be possible to create the work we wanted to create, with the necessary resources in place, whilst also surviving financially. It seemed that making work was all sacrificing, exhausting, virtually impossible whilst holding down a day job and more often that not on a ‘beg, borrow and steal’ budget. We were operating as ‘jacks of all trades’ which prevented us being masters in any one area.

Rod Dixon (of Red Ladder fame) quickly identified the possibility of a co-op. I looked around and noticed that the people sitting around me had skills that I didn’t and vice versa. Each of us wanted to make creative work but we all had experience in different areas/roles/jobs to pay our bills. I looked at Kus with his sales experience, Jaye with her PR & marketing, Carolyn with her outreach & education background, Lucy with her arts management etc. etc. (there were other folk there – I haven’t forgotten you – I just don’t know your background so well yet) and I realised that collectively we were potentially a powerful machine.

I shouted out ‘We could be a producing co-op!’.

Recently I’ve felt the strain of trying to balance both the creative and the practical elements of a project and had begun to realise the significance of the producer’s role in making a space (space being time, energy, resources, gigs as well as physical space) for the creative work. I don’t normally speak without engaging my brain first but my producing co-op suggestion was obviously keen to be heard as it splurged forth without my thinking about it.

Perhaps the others had felt the same kind of strains as folk seemed to quickly subscribe to this idea. We identified that we all had time and skills we could offer in exchange for the space (time,energy,resources,gigs) to do our own thing creatively (I should point out that we all have different creative agendas – so we weren’t proposing that we’d all work together creatively, we’d keep our own projects). We could support each other by taking a portion of the workload for someone else’s project in return for the others taking a portion of the workload when it came to our project.

It was acknowledged that money would be required (we’d be sacrificing our time so we’d need a way to pay the bills) and it was expected that we’d be able to trade our transferable skills in lucrative ways (commercial sector workshops/training, education programmes, artists outside of co-op in need of support) and that we’d be able to take a living from this income and invest surplus back into the co-op to cover the costs of the range of creative work we make (which would also be income generating and also feed back into the co-op). We’d be a self sufficient little industrious machine creating a cluster of works/shows/performances which we could collectively promote and tour.

Strength in numbers! Empowering stuff!

Of course it’s not quite so simple as I’ve tried to make it seem here. There are parts that I’m still not 100% certain about and there’s complex fine detail that would need to be established. What I’ve written in this blog post are only my own thoughts, ideas and interpretations. Others may interpret the discussion differently. If anyone reading out there can see any snags or that I’m off the mark, please do feel free to point them/it out, I am still learning…

I don’t think setting up a co-op is an ‘easy’ thing to do. It takes a massive amount of extremely hard work, dedication and patience to attend to the finer points and details. There’s a huge amount of facilitation, negotiation, discussion, co-operation and teamwork involved. A co-op would definitely be looking for ‘workers not shirkers’ to make it work. Though as I write this I realise that making theatre already demands all of the things I’ve listed above. Maybe we’re better prepared than we realise to make a co-operative really work?

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