Play to your strengths: a short guide to arts admin for emerging artists
By Leah Horlick
And we're back! As promised, these last two weeks of Careful Inventory are a bit lighter, more directly applicable in the pandemic—thanks for sticking with me so far! We’ve covered online safety, performance boundaries, and money; you can find all the previous posts here if you’re catching up. Today I have a few suggestions that might help you cope with the amount of administrative work required of you as an emerging artist, and a short note on how you can contribute to a better working environment for people working full-time in arts administration.
(Before you ask, yes: we have a Virgo sun over here. Sag rising, Aquarius moon. It’s a…robust combination.)
The Artists Who Answer the Emails Are the Artists Who Get the Gigs
We are rich in creativity and talent in this community. The opportunities do not necessarily come to people who are the most talented or the most creative. The opportunities go to the artists who can be tracked down.
Do I have the audacity to tell you to reply more quickly to your emails and get to inbox zero, in a pandemic?! Absolutely not! This is only to say two things: opportunities take a lot of planning, and so they come to the people who can be regularly reached, and who consistently follow up. Not only does this get you the regular work, it gets you "bonus" work: the people who can reliably be tracked down are the writers who get the callback when someone drops out of the residency, or a spot opens up off the waitlist, or the headliner cancels and they need someone who can fill in last minute.
I know that much of our professional culture is based on a completely eurocentric, totally patriarchal model of time that centres able-bodied people and people without children and elders to care for. This is a bad thing, and I am absolutely in favour of a different order of time. There are also so many valid reasons for what looks like, or seems like, or just plan is inconsistency in this life. This doesn't make you a bad person or a bad writer! But if this any of this is a reality for you, I do think it is important to accept that this will make booking readings, interviews, and other events a little harder. (Other parts of the industry that tend to take longer and move more slowly, like publications, won't be as much of a struggle.) Despite all this, the people who want to reach you will find a way and they do want to celebrate your work. Here are a couple of things that have helped me stay reachable and consistent, and might help both you and the people looking to highlight your work:
**Important caveat, related to the above! This information will only serve emerging writers who have reliable access to a phone, the Internet, and a computer. These three factors exclude an enormous number of artists working in community at all levels! I am very grateful to artist-run centres like Gallery Gachet, which has worked for decades to make free and low-cost essential resources available to artists and taught me many of the strategies we used when Estlin McPhee and I ran REVERB. COVID is a nightmare for anyone who relies on low-barrier public services of any kind, and I truly dread how this time will impact our communities and the arts sector in the long-term. For administrators who are looking at ways to open up access to literary communities without computer access, take a look through the REVERB archives.**
1. As in my first post: all you need is a landing page with an email address on it that you reliably check. (A contact form that goes to your email also works!) Anything that will pop up when someone Googles your name, after they read something amazing of yours in a magazine and want to solicit more work from you for another project.
2. Remember to streamline and direct people on how to reach you. Say “No DMs” if you don’t check your DMs or don’t want to! Route everything to one place as much as possible.
3. Can’t do email for whatever reason? I hear that. If the phone is more available to you as an option, I bet people will be very grateful to talk to you on the phone. You are saving them an email! You don’t have to disclose to people why email isn’t an option for you, especially if the barrier is related to an injury, a disability, or a language barrier. Just help out your future self—and the people who are trying to celebrate your work—by pointing them to the better option. Maybe your phone number goes in your email signature, if that is a safe possibility for you. If your phone is a landline and not a cell, or if there are hours during which you are totally unreachable, let folks know. This isn't just to help out others; this is to spare yourself the heart palpitations about if you’re going to miss that One Really Important Call the moment you leave the house or have to stash your phone in your locker at work.
4. Conversely, if the phone is not an option for you for any reason, don’t feel badly. And again, you don't have to disclose why. Give people only the information they need; you could try something like leaving your email address in your voicemail message (if you have one) and saving yourself the callbacks. There are many people out there who will be relieved to dodge a phone call!
5. You are probably already an expert at carving out writing time. Consider using that same skill to carve out “correspondence time,” like back in the day when people had to answer letters by hand. Block it out in your calendar, make yourself a snack, and hunker down to answer all those voicemails or all those notifications at once. I find this helps me not only answer all the messages I need to, but it keeps me from checking messages constantly, which is the real time thief. If you are physically compelled to respond to something every time you get a message, consider turning off your notifications so you can preserve your evening, Sunday morning, date night, etc.
6. Regrettably, there are some hard-copy forms waiting to be filled out by hand in your future. A surprising amount of forms. If you, like me, have some sort of household gremlin who steals your forms, consider sticking the dang thing to the fridge with a magnet. The form doesn’t come down from the fridge until it’s filled it out and going into the mail! If it’s something that you need your own copy for your records (especially a contract!), I usually use CamScanner or a similar app on my phone. Perhaps these will be useful to you as well.
7. With all this in mind, consider also Melissa Febos’s essay, “Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses?” You are probably not going to be able to catch everything. If there’s any way that you can extend the same grace to others that you want for yourself, especially in this cursed pandemic, it will definitely be appreciated. Further to that point:
A Short Note In Praise Of Arts Administrators
Lest anyone be confused, the tips above are to help you cope with your own admin work that will keep your career as artist chugging along. I want to distinguish it from the virtually nonstop, truly incredible work of people who work in arts administration for a living. Many parts of being an emerging artist and writer are intimidating. It’s easy to assume that the people stewarding your opportunities—whether that’s a magazine editor, bookseller, event organizer, or granting officer—are Elusive Gatekeepers of the Secrets and the Power. In my experience, and after working a few of these jobs myself, I have learned that the opposite is often true. Wherever possible, please be kind to program staff.
Arts administration work does not pay handsomely and you have to have a strong commitment to the arts—not just your own practice, but also the artists in your own community—to stick with it. Your arts administrator is probably an artist in their own right. In many cases, program administrators are women; they're probably your age, if you’re roughly a millennial like me, or much younger if you’re my senior. These folks are coping with astronomical stakes, treading bridges that are ready to catch fire at any moment, while usually navigating a tonne of pressure from leadership and performing before a long line of people who are waiting perhaps a bit hungrily for their roles to open up. In many cases, the people in these positions are coping with scrutiny not at all unlike the kind you face as an emerging artist! They are also often expected to tolerate a very broad range of disrespectful behavior from artists, because to do otherwise would jeopardize the organization and certainly jeopardize their job.
Broadly speaking, the same issues that are impacting you as an artist (the money is late, the Facebook comments are out of control, the glass cliff is very steep, or someone put on their hairspray right next to the air intake for the venue) are probably also impacting the program administrator or any staff member working in a traditionally devalued and feminized role. This, of course, will not always be the case. However! In my experience, the people fighting hardest for institutional change in the arts are usually the people working in these highly technical, correspondence-heavy roles because they are the people in direct communication with artists all the time. They’re the people who are shelling out for their own tickets to community arts events, and trying to re-route the opportunities and resources to be more equitable. They also usually can’t tell you what in heaven’s name the institutional hold-up is without risking their own job, which is a terrible feeling and very difficult to navigate for months on end.
These notes are certainly not a blanket excuse for the ways in which arts administration can perpetuate ableism, racism, tokenization, and general gatekeeping. I am not saying “don’t give an administrator feedback or take action when you are being disrespected,” or that you should only treat administrative staff well because they might also be artists. This is also not a call to any kind of white-collar, white-coded, classist collegiality or "manners." I am saying we could do a much better job of coaching artists on how to approach admin staff, and dispelling some illusions about that work, and that this coaching should happen sooner rather than later. Make an effort to recognize people and say hello when you see them in public. Consider asking how their own work is going. Don't snoop around if someone has been on a long leave or out of the office. You are building a relationship with a peer that you are going to be in communication with for a long, long time, if you can swing it.
Unfortunately, you will encounter artists who treat program administrators in the similarly inexcusable ways they probably treat retail employees, food service industry workers, and people who staff the front desk of anything. I will always remember the people who told me to go get them a coffee, or who shouted at my coworkers, or who talked to a colleague like they were Merely A Plebeian Drone Who Doesn't Understand Their Art. Treat this just like the red flag it is in a romantic relationship; not only is this behavior inappropriate in the first place, but if an artist treats people in these roles this way, they will almost certainly do it to you, too. And if you have a metaphorical beret on, please take it off.
One important way that you can contribute to a better working environment for everyone is to please, wherever possible for you, follow the guidelines the administrators have set out for contacting them. I know these seem like a pain at first, but they are to make sure your work is not lost in the extraordinary behind-the-scenes shuffle and given all the attention it deserves. Reach out to people appropriately, in the same way that you want to be approached through your desired channels. Publishing staff, editors, and event organizers face the same risk for being hounded, harassed, or stalked as you do. If you feel frustrated that you sometimes can’t find the contact information for publishing staff and similar roles, remember that this is part of the reason why.
The last word on this for today is: most arts administrators really, really want to help you. This is an original tip from my thesis supervisor Rhea Tregebov, who taught me to always call that grant officer if you have questions! They want to disburse that money! Similarly, follow up if the instructions from the magazine are unclear. They want to see your work! Ask if it would be possible for the organization to mail you the form so you don’t have to try to find a public printer during COVID when it’s minus 30 and you have no car. They want you to get the forms in on time for your own sake, not just theirs.
That's it for today! I hope I'll see you virtually this evening at McNally Robinson in Saskatoon for the last night of my book tour for Moldovan Hotel. I'm very lucky to be joined by Peace Akintade, Saskatchewan's Youth Poet Laureate! I'll be back with another post on Friday featuring sound advice and transferable skills from artists I love and respect who are working in genres other than writing. Bring your notebook again!
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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Leah Horlick is a writer and poet who grew up as a settler on Treaty Six Cree Territory & the homelands of the Métis in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her long-awaited third collection of poems, "Moldovan Hotel," is available now from Brick Books. Her first book, Riot Lung (Thistledown Press, 2012), was shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award and a Saskatchewan Book Award. Her second collection, For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press, 2015), was named a 2016 Stonewall Honour Book by the American Library Association. She is also the author of wreckoning, a chapbook produced with Alison Roth Cooley and JackPine Press. She lived on Unceded Coast Salish Territories in Vancouver for nearly ten years, during which time she and her dear friend Estlin McPhee ran REVERB, a queer and anti-oppressive reading series. In 2016, Leah was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. In 2018, her piece "You Are My Hiding Place" was named Arc Poetry Magazine's Poem of the Year. She lives on Treaty Seven Territory & Region 3 of the Métis Nation in Calgary.