In this blog, Director of Creative Carbon Scotland, Ben Twist, shares his experiences and reflections on recruiting for an embedded artist role.
At Creative Carbon Scotland we have had a fair amount of experience selecting artists for what are broadly embedded artist projects, from our work with SEPA and communities at risk of flooding in Aberdeen and our partnership for engaging communities in the Aberdeen adapts project to our Velocommunities project with a cycling project in Glasgow amongst others.
But the embedded artist project for Cultural Adaptations posed some new challenges. The brief for this project was much less specific than previous ones and the project itself was longer term, so the brief was likely to change as the artist, we and Climate Ready Clyde, with whom they would be working, learned more about the project and the process.
In addition, the Cultural Adaptations project had given us an opportunity we had been seeking – for an artist to work with policymakers and inside an organisation at the decision-making level, rather than with members of the public in a community setting. This seemed to us to be quite different: school children, attendees at a cycling project and adults attending an event in a community centre have a different, non-professional role to play compared to the local authority officers and managers from public bodies who form the board of Climate Ready Clyde. The latter are representing and potentially spending the money of their organisations; they may be members of professional bodies that encourage them to make certain sorts of decisions or behave in certain ways. In simple terms, they will be wearing their work clothes rather than their home clothes, which means they have different ways of thinking and behaving.
We therefore needed an artist who would understand this, would understand the pressures and responsibilities of this group of people in this setting and would command their respect, whilst also using their own artist’s role and perspective to challenge the Board to think and work in different ways.
Here are five things I learned about this sort of recruitment:
Try using an ‘open call’ to find new people to work with
This was a role that would appeal widely and we saw it as an opportunity for us at CCS to widen our knowledge of who was out there, in Scotland and further afield, who shared our interest in this sort of work and could contribute to our learning as well as the project. We decided to put out an ‘open call’, rather than either select an artist that we already knew or to seek applications from a small group of artists that we thought would be interested and interesting. This was the first time we had been able to do this, as previous projects had been more rushed or more specific in their requirements, pushing us towards working with people we knew or who had been recommended to us. An open call is also a fairer way to recruit, as it means that new people have the opportunity to apply. We therefore advertised the role on our own website, through the very popular and well-used Creative Scotland Opportunities site and through various cultural networks and bulletin boards such as eco/art/scot/land, each of which directed anyone interested to our own site.
In the end the artist we thought best qualified for the role was someone who we already knew, but along the way we met useful people and learned from their applications and interviews about them and gained ideas for this and other projects.
Consider – but don’t necessarily use – a ‘competencies-based’ approach
This was a role for a reasonably experienced artist and, referring to the Scottish Artists’ Union (although we weren’t particularly seeking a visual artist for the role) as its recommended pay-levels are banded depending on the years of post-training experience, we decided to seek an artist with at least five years’ experience. And we identified experience in making ‘strategic contributions to initiatives’ as one of the key attributes we were looking for.
This reflected the way in which we conceived the role: perhaps more like a more standard job than an artist’s brief. We wanted an artist with certain qualities rather than one whose artistic work was of a particular kind. The successful candidate would be someone who could hold their own in a meeting of the Climate Ready Clyde board, who was interested in environmental sustainability and had experience of working in non-arts settings and on long-term, strategic projects, and one who was happy not to produce any artistic work as part of the project. The art would be their work contributing to the board meetings and the other activities that they and we would decide upon: the advert included the line ‘no physical artwork is anticipated as an output of the work’.
What we were most interested in therefore were the applicants’ skills and attributes rather than their specific artistic output – which is different perhaps to what you’d look for in seeking an artist for some other roles. The page advertising the embedded artist role on our website therefore emphasised the skills, attributes and experience we were looking for:
This role is imagined for an experienced and established individual artist or cultural practitioner, working in any discipline, looking to use their creative skills to contribute to wider society. We anticipate an individual with 5 or more years of experience in the cultural sector will be most appropriate for this role.
The types of skills and experience that will be beneficial for this project include:
- Interest and experience of working collaboratively with diverse groups and in non-arts contexts. For example, regeneration, environmental, educational, social, healthcare contexts.
- Experience of making strategic contributions to initiatives. Synthesising diverse facts, goals and references, making connections and communicating with different ‘audiences’. For example, being a Board member or Trustee of an organisation, being an active member of a union or membership organisation, contributing to policy consultations.
- Experience of building engagement / developing communications for socially or politically-challenging topics.
- Knowledge of or demonstrable interest in learning about sustainability-related issues, including climate change.
- Imaginative thinking and the ability to work with complexity and varying degrees of scale.
The web page also provided a link to a 10-page brief for the embedded artist, which included details about Creative Carbon Scotland and Climate Ready Clyde, the Cultural Adaptations project, what our conception of an embedded artist project is and where the concept comes from, and details about the fee, what was expected of the artist and so on. It felt to us a very clear and full picture of the project.
The competencies-based approach worked for this project, which was very focused on strategic work, but I wonder whether some applicants found it hard to adjust to this way of working (see next point). And it’s probably fair to say that it contrasts with the way in which for example our Swedish partners TILLT work, and they have lots of experience in this sort of thing. So I’d suggest it is worth considering, but it may not be the right approach for all projects.
Define your role really tightly to avoid wasting applicants’ and your own time
The page on our website received around 2,000 views; a great response. We were pleased to receive over 50 applications – but we were surprised by many of them, and it took a lot of work to go through them properly. We thought the detailed brief and the wording we had used would make clear that this wasn’t a standard residency or opportunity for an artist to make their own work, but would make clear that this was a specific job with a particular outcome. However, of the 50+ applicants, around half didn’t seem to have taken this into account; they told us what they wanted to do, completely ignoring the brief. Some were very interesting but irrelevant; many were very narrowly focused on what they would gain from the project, rather than thinking about what they could bring to it. This was quite a disappointment, and a good lesson. We need to make very clear what the project is, in very simple terms. The reasonably well-paid opportunities open to all artists – i.e. through an open call – are relatively few, in the UK at least, so we will get lots of applicants who will just hope they might fit.
Include the ‘client’ organisation in the selection process
From the applicants who did understand the brief we selected six artists for interview. We at CCS did the first stage of the selection, then passed our long-list across to our colleague, Kit England, at Climate Ready Clyde, who helped in the final whittling down. This meant that our experience and knowledge of working with and selecting artists was used, but the external organisation also played a role.
Each interviewee was asked to give a presentation and then we asked them the same three questions, to fit with standard equal opportunities practice in the UK; follow-up questions on the presentation and their answers to the questions could be more targeted to each candidate. The interview sought to gauge their ability to command a room, to gain the respect and trust of those they would be working with, to build participation in a project and to bring the different and interesting perspectives that we thought an embedded artist was there to do. Interestingly, we didn’t ask them about their more standard ‘artistic’ work, although most of them brought this into their presentation to some extent and the examples of their work that each had sent in told us enough about them and their quality.
It was important and useful to include Kit from Climate Ready Clyde in the interviews. We hadn’t had that much to do with him prior to this, and if nothing else, the selection process and the interviews themselves helped us get to know each other. And they gave us an opportunity to learn how we all saw the project. Often, as with this project, one or two people write the funding application and have a strong sense of the project and then later in the process others come in who may well have a different view and more information. It will inevitably change, usually for the better, but such a tangential discussion is often hard to find the time for. The interviews and discussion of the candidates provided that time – maybe later in the process than is ideal, but early enough.
Interviewing together also ensured Kit’s and Climate Ready Clyde’s confidence in the process and the artist we chose.
Take very good notes during the shortlisting and interview process
This lesson applies to all recruitment but came into sharp focus here. The role was unusual and we rejected most of the applications, some of which were from established artists that we know or might want to work with in future. We needed to have a really good explanation as to why we’d said no (this is good recruitment practice anyway). In our rejection emails we provided generic feedback, albeit quite detailed, but we said we’d be happy to provide more specific feedback to any applicant that wanted it.
We did receive a couple of requests for more feedback from artists, one of whom was quite cross as they felt that we hadn’t been clear in our brief and our decision making was unfair. I was able to use our rigorous process and the notes we had taken during the shortlisting process to explain clearly why we had taken the decision we had. The artist wrote back to say that they understood and appreciated not only our response but also why we had approached the project in that way: a potentially disgruntled contact had turned into a friend of the organisation.Embedded artists Embedded artist processes – learnings from TILLT Project blog: Beginning an embedded artist project