The professional, the amateur, the enthusiast and various shades of…

In the last couple of weeks (under both artist and arts manager hats) I’ve had several conversations about artist’s fees; being paid to make new work; how public funding does or doesn’t support the process of developing new work and what kind of art making needs financial support.

In the recent Visual Artists New Sheet (Sept / Oct 2012) Chris Clarke talks eloquently about the distinction between ‘space’ and ‘place’ and what artists really mean by space.  This idea of ‘space’ goes hand in hand with the question of public funding and the supports that artists might need to make and/or show new work.

For the emerging artist the work and the artist need time, to let the process breath or ferment, this is one kind of support.  As is often the case the emerging artist or emerging work isn’t evolved enough yet to stand up to the competition for resources that public funds attract and the rigour that public funds demand.   Early career artists and established artists require different kinds of support.

I realise that this might read as an argument against public funding for early career artists and that I risk undermining the ideal but seemingly contradictory climate that we all crave i.e. an environment where we are free to express what we want with the support of the public purse.

To complicate things even more you might say that there is a distinction between the public purse and state funding.  The former could be attached to an idea of civic and civil cultural production, that is supported from within civil society, intrinsic to it’s discourse and a worthwhile endeavour reflective of an active civil society.  While the later i.e. state funded cultural production could be potentially tethered or obligated in some way to exercise itself as official ‘Irish Culture’.   This ‘space’ that Chris talks about is of course what the ‘arm’s- length’ principle and autonomous cultural support bodies provide for – a space where art can seek both practical and financial support adjudicated by peers with the support of strategically employed public resources.

What questions should we continue to ask ourselves as artists?  What kind of artist do I want to be?  What I may say, point at or reveal may differ radically in its address to either a private or public patrons.  Can anything really radical be expressed in the full glare of the state apparatus?  What kind of civil cultural life do we value, and how should that function?

Of course we should question how our institutions work.  Decisions about public funding should be transparent but to claim one is not in receipt of public funding because of arbitrary decision-making, ad-hocracy or administrative bottlenecks isn’t useful.  By participating in this professional sphere, in either paid or unpaid capacities, we are stakeholders in our institutions as artists and public and can contribute to this social, cultural ecology and discourse.  In taking a stance of being outside or ‘not at the party’ we forget that we are also amongst peers and may and do thrive through reciprocity and a sense of collegiality.

To use the analogy of a river, creative work develops within a network of streams and rivulets until eventually it journeys into an institutional mainstream.  Cultural value, traction and track records are built through: the development and exhibition of work; through a developmental journey and through interaction with terrain.  How can we artists simultaneously navigate and address the margins and the centre and how can the centre support the margins?

I think as artists we function as enthusiasts, amateurs and professionals concurrently and shift between these modes in our creative lives and interactions.  There is a distinction between being paid and being a professional artist.

To lighten this pondering and to continue with the watery analogies I just recently came across a book while browsing in Chapters called – Sketching in Water Colours, a book for Amateurs by an Amateur by James Steuart Nelson & Sons Ltd, London, 1938 Edition.  Setting some of his gender assumptions aside I’m enjoying the humours advice that Steuart has to offer.

‘This book is written by an amateur for amateurs.  The author has sketched since he was a boy with little professional teaching and he has wrestled and is still wrestling with difficulties. With the experience thus gained he has found that he has sometimes been able to smooth the path for other strugglers and with this object before him he has penned these pages.  There is no intention of raising class distinctions in excluding the real live artists from our conference…An amateur may become an Artist, but an Artist cannot become an Amateur, grappling with the most initial difficulties long since forgotten by the Artist, but which are ever with us…Lakes have also an irresistible attraction for the many; in fact, the younger the artist the bigger the lake, and the more muddy the water.  One of the objects of these pages will be to try and lead him to simpler themes and to endeavour to inspire in him enthusiasm, without which progress, not to speak of success, is impossible.’


About Monica Flynn, visual artist, organiser, cultural freelancer

My work encompasses drawing, audio-visual media, photography and text, which I present as portraiture; staged events and as works co-authored with the audience. I also work in the area of event management, CPD for visual artists and as a freelance cultural project manager. One strand within my work at present reflects on groups and group action and the creation of events and happenings where I can engage others in dialogue or shared experience. At its core this work aims to explore the connections between the individual, the collective and our belief systems. Asking questions about collective agency and how we think and work in concert. I occasionally write responses to other artists’ works which can be found on my blog. I am a co-founder and board member of The Market Studios with Claire Behan and Deirdre Morrissey.
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