Reflecting on Your Practice: Professional Development Workshops

Between January and July a series of artist development workshops were held across the East and West Midlands in partnership with regional agencies and venues to give artists in the area the opportunity to reflect upon their practice, find strategies for progressing their careers and spend time with other artists.

Delivered by visual arts specialist and EMVAN coordinator Elizabeth Hawley, the workshops were designed to increase the knowledge and understanding of attendees of their place within a visual arts ecology through advice giving, collective problem solving and practical exercises and were intended to allow them to explore issues affecting their work and how they might work more effectively and to help them recognise where they were in their career and how they might succeed in achieving career progression.

Here, in response to questions posed by Turning Point West Midlands' colleague Annabel Clarke, Elizabeth reflects on the workshops.

What were the aims of the sessions?

I designed the ‘Reflecting on Your Practice’ workshops to be different from a lot of training and workshops that deal with topics such as marketing, networking and finance as separate things. The sessions are intended to take a holistic approach to an artist’s practice and to:

  • increase the knowledge and understanding of the attendees of their place within the local, regional and national visual arts ecology
  • encourage, in the attendees, ownership of and pro-activity towards their career development
  • allow attendees to consider where they are now, where they would like to be and how they might get there by identifying their needs, and making them able to recognise opportunities and deal with obstacles 

The sessions cover: positioning oneself within an ecology, profile raising, working practice, resourcing one’s practice, networking and connectivity. They are influenced by coaching theory and are interactive, featuring group discussion and practical exercises, as well as reflective thinking and advice giving, enabling the attendees to develop strategies for problem solving and personal development.

Where have the sessions been held so far?

Over the last three years I have delivered three sets of sessions in the West Midlands; in the last set sessions were held in Birmingham, Coventry, Walsall and Worcester and hosted by Grand Union, Coventry Artspace, the New Art Gallery Walsall and Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum. I also delivered an extensive set across the East Midlands earlier this year, in similar venues (Rufford Gallery, Nottinghamshire; The Silk Mill, Derby; NNCA, Northampton; The Collection, Lincoln; NCCD, Sleaford; The Rooftop Gallery, Corby; Primary, Nottingham). We’ve tried to make sure a range of independent and local authority venues have been involved in the programmes.

What do you find are the questions/queries that are brought up by participants most frequently? Do you think they are a reflection of the arts at the moment - are they perennial problems/issues that come up nationally/regionally?

The sorts of things that came up more than once were things like: how can I get my work seen, what do I do if I my applications are rejected, how can I meet like-minded artists, how can I get feedback on my work, where do I find a mentor.

Whilst I think the situations that many artists operate in are more acute now than they were, say, four or five years ago, I also think that issues such as unpaid opportunities, impenetrable exhibition policies and working in isolation have always been there, and are the pretty much the same no matter where you practice in this country. Those artists who struggle less with these issues are those who are best able to navigate their way through the absolute plethora of information and initiatives that exist, or who work with people who can assist them in doing so.

Has what you have discussed in the sessions influenced you at all in your work or changed your way of thinking?

My experience of working in the visual arts sector has developed in me a belief that a skilled and motivated workforce is an essential part of a vibrant sector, but also an awareness that many people working within the sector don’t prioritise their own development to ensure that they remain skilled and motivated, and in demand.

I designed the sessions to address issues that I have come across consistently during my 15-year career in the visual arts, and to allow me to use the skills and the techniques I have adopted that I hoped would be useful in addressing these issues. I’ve enjoyed spending time with the people who have attended all the sessions that I’ve delivered and have been encouraged by their engagement and touched by their honesty.

If anything, the sessions have confirmed for me the value of artists spending time with each other in a supportive and facilitated environment. However, I am also a big believer in ‘the relationship’ and know that one size doesn’t always fit all. That’s why I really enjoy one-to-one support and mentoring. 

Overall, 250 artists have attended the Reflecting on Your Practice workshops. For more information about future workshops please contact Annabel Clarke via email at Annabel.clarke@bcu.ac.uk

Turning Point West Midlands supports creative and professional development for artists by working together with The New Art Gallery Walsall and regional artist-led spaces and groups including Artspace in Coventry, Airspace in Stoke, Wolverhampton Contemporary Art Forum and Worcester Arts Partnership. Visit Artist Development West Midlands to find out more about the programme of activity and opportunities.

EMVAN supports artists and their professional development by creating opportunities for them to network with organisations and other artists, signposting them to tools, resources, and opportunities, providing access to information and expertise, and by working with Higher Education Institutes and professional development agencies. Visit EMVAN to find out more