It’s May, the county has turned verdant green literally overnight and I took great delight in driving the roads to Langport earlier this week to catch up with the other attendees at SAW’s Artist Development Day. It was a great turn out and lovely to see new faces among the group. Tea and coffee was served on arrival and we had a brief time to catch up with familiar faces before the day’s proceedings.
The main focus of the day was to ascertain the working aspirations, dreams and creative goals that our members strive to achieve, to share coping mechanisms and improve techniques to help them accomplish and maintain a high standard of the arts that connect with a dispersed audience in a rural location. Many work in isolation, having chosen their location over an urban lifestyle for a number of reasons. Somerset may be the main catalyst for their work or it may be deep rooted family connections that hold them to the landscape. Gatherings like this are great reminder that they are not alone, their peers are out there facing similar issues and connecting can help maintain a sense of sanity, it’s up to the individual artist how much they choose to connect and measure what is beneficial to their working practice. All are determined that living rurally should not be an inhibitor but a positive force that makes one think laterally, a skill that many artists are fortunately adept at or are learning to be through necessity.
SAW’s creative director Carol Carey is only too aware of the hurdles facing Somerset’s artists and the need to diversify in order to remain working creatively, ‘‘Many more artists are working in socially engaged practice – where communities and individual people, many unrelated to the arts, are often the subject of the work itself and become the result as well. These sorts of artistic practices are particularly relevant and successful in the rural environment where gallery culture is less prevalent.‘ Carol ended with the following thought from Susan Jones who has been invited with Visual Arts South West to contribute to the plans for SAW’s forthcoming Autumn Conference. Susan writes
‘I’m attempting to make the case for why artists themselves should seek to influence how they are ‘branded’ and perceived by others. Artists may be better served if they give their unequivocal support into the profession as a whole, and play an active part in raising the status of artists within society, not just for their own benefit but for posterity’.
Carol also made it quite clear that although the organisation gained National Portfolio Status earlier this month it does not mean there is more money in the pot; an assumption made by many. What it does guarantee is a firm relationship with the Arts Council over the next four years to help deliver a socially engaged programme that continues to be artist led. The directive has not changed, SAW is still committed to supporting Somerset Artists in realising their potential; so if you are a member and have an idea for an engaging new project I thoroughly recommend that you actively get in touch with the team at the office. PROSPECTUS grew from one such seed and Anna Best and Zoe Li gave a brief presentation about this experimental art school that was first discussed during 2016’s Artist Development Day.
Visual Arts South West’s networking manager, Gordon Dalton, gave an insightful presentation and a few hard truths about earning a living as a professional artist in the South West. The region may be home to the most artists demographically and a thriving tourist destination, many of whom are seeking culture, but nationally it receives the smallest pot of funding and depressingly out of all the counties that make up the region, Somerset receives the very least. Despite these statistics I was reassured how positive and determined everyone in attendance was about the future of the arts within Somerset – the owners at Clayhill Arts, a new development in the Quantocks, chose the location aware of the expanding, lively art scene.
All those present at the Artist Development Day obviously value their lifestyle choices; I know I relish in not having to spend two hours of my day on a commuter train, yes my income is lower but I feel richer for it. I have had to think creatively to pursue a career path that satisfies a desire to live and work on Exmoor and I realise many families in the area are facing the tough decision to remain living rurally or find work in far better connected areas, an issue recently highlighted in The New Statesman.
The ‘break-out’ session that followed the talks divided the artists into five discussion groups, Workshops, Bursaries, Mentoring, Residentials and Networking, encouraging each to explore in more detail the benefits, experiences, barriers and possible solutions to acquiring the diverse skills required to work professionally, attaining respect and receive recognition reflected in a realistic income that pays the bills. The notes are to be collated by SAW and are a valuable resource which will help them understand the current needs of its members, initiate the core ideas raised and with the support of its artistic cohort (who are all keen to ‘spread the passion’) expand the thriving art scene within our rural landscape to one that is valued nationally.
On behalf of SAW I’d like to thank everyone that actively participated and hope that you found the day beneficial, thought provoking and positive.
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WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY by Davina Jelley
Published on May 9, 2018 // Davina Jelley