Career Q&A with Charlie Mills, Artist Liaison at Bold Tendencies

Can you tell us a little more about your role at Hannah Barry Gallery and Bold Tendencies?

I began working for Bold Tendencies just less than 4 years ago, in the spring of 2015, as one of their annual Art Trainees. I ended up staying for most of their summer season, working in FOH, at events, and occasionally some tech work. Over the next few years I returned ad hoc to help install commissions and support the team on larger events. Then, starting in September last year I was offered a part-time role as Artist Liaison at Bold Tendencies – to be managed alongside my MA – which really expanded my role at the organisation. During this year I helped research, develop and execute each commission for the 2018 Visual Arts programme, which included a range of tasks at each stage of the process – writing research documents, presentations, pitches, liaising with artists and fabricators, project management etc. Since finishing my MA in September I now work full-time between Bold Tendencies and the Hannah Barry Gallery; my role at the latter is a similar position, albeit further oriented toward their existing roster of artists, their upcoming shows and projects.

Since you’ve been working in the industry, have you noticed any changes in accessibility and opportunity for young people in art, and especially those from disadvantaged demographics? Do you believe the art industry is truly as nepotistic etc. as popular folklore would have us believe?

It is important to remember before opening up conversations of accessibility that the art world and/or creative industries are not a singular behemoth. Of course, nepotism exists. It exists in nearly every single industry. However, the question is probably best phrased in terms of transparency.

Some sectors of the art world are far more nebulous than others, such as auction houses, blue chips, commercial galleries and the like. Although there are many reasons for their existence (and there are plenty of commercial galleries that don’t fit this bill), these are areas of the sector dominated first and foremost by the whims of the market, which – as with any luxury commodity – is in-part governed by the irreducible capitalist trident: desire, wealth and power. If you want to look for accessibility then look for transparency: the non-profits, trusts and foundations; the artist-led project spaces, studios and workshops; public institutions, museums and archives. Both the private and public sectors are either looking to, or are under pressure to increase accessibility and diversity.

It seems to be an increasingly prominent feature that people looking to go into art must start their own projects and organisations, as you have with Elam Publishing and your own exhibitions. Do you think this responsibility is healthy, or places too much onus on the individual to springboard their own career?

This depends. I would hope that we can agree that there should be enough provision for those who wish to start a career in the arts, that they need not have a full-time job as well as spend their evenings and weekends toiling on further projects. Of course, I think that if you’re really passionate then you’re likely to do this anyway – healthy or not! The question is whether its necessary for young people to do so, and whether a lot of this passion is lost to the ostensibly greater quest of ‘making a name for one’s self’. I think young people are increasingly put under a lot of pressure to do this – to pursue projects and work more, all in the vein of being seen to do so. Either way, you are definitely gathering experience and knowledge.

You need to strike a balance between the two – this year I set up Elam Publishing with my close friend and collaborator Nicole Tatschl, closely supported by our digital expert James Barge. The focus is on artist and exhibition publications for those who can’t afford larger publishers, and we mostly spend our time trying to minimise their costs through our own logistical, financial or creative support. The amount of publications we do is very limited but very focused. It satisfies our own need for an autonomous project, the client’s need for one-on-one support, as well as turning out some pretty neat publications 3 or 4 times a year. For me, something like this helps motivate and challenge you without burning out.

You’ve just finished an MA in Cultural Studies, and it’s interesting that you chose this degree above more explicitly vocational art-industry related ones.  From your experience, do you think that academic qualifications in disciplines such as curating actually prepare individuals for such careers?

Against the caution of my BA tutor, I actually enrolled for 2 weeks on an MA Arts Administration & Cultural Policy course, in the psychic bid that it would prove the more employable and ‘sensible’ route for my then drive to enter the public sector and arts policy. Unfortunately, I soon realised these kind of courses were in reality geared far more toward CV-building for international students wanting to return home with the perceived cultural capital they would acquire from a London university or institution, or else to attempt to crack into the London scene itself via course connections. These were not courses geared toward serious experience or research, at least not when considered by their price tag.

In the end, I thought it better to take my tutor’s advice and simply pursue what I enjoyed: writing. Ultimately, it actually helped me way more in my working life than any other ‘career-led’ arts course probably would have. Academic courses are by no means obligatory to an arts career – for me it helped my interests at the time and develop a language that has helped carry me part of the way so far. Looking back now I might have done something different, such as an MA in Art History or Contemporary Art Theory – best to follow what you’re interested in; the career will follow later.

How do you navigate the lack of opportunity in art without losing sight of a specific career path/goal? Or do you think that one has to compromise on strict goals in such industries as art?

Compromise is everything – for me at least. Employment is not how it used to be: one company you progressively move through, up the ranks, so to speak. Now, especially in a city like London, you will move around in a seemingly endless frenzy of jobs. Some might be better than others. Sometimes you might get lucky and stay at one organisation over the years, which I’ve been lucky to do. The challenge is to overcome the ingrained desire to be ‘constantly moving up’, especially at the beginning. Accepting you might concertina your way up through the ranks, with lows and highs along the way, is part and parcel of the cycle now.

You evidently have lots of different gigs and side projects on the go – do you think multi-hyphenate careers are an unavoidable fact for young people working in the arts?

I don’t like to think so – if you’re good at one thing then stick with it, finesse it, and hopefully you could make something really good come of it. An artist friend of mine in his last year of university became obsessed with wood carving as a medium – he is now working a prestigious job at bespoke globe carvers in Marylebone. You never know where you’ll end up if you have a specific skill set. Then again, the more time I spend in London, in the scene, or whatever you want you call it, the more I see people become dexterous in their skill-sets, trying to cover all bases. It’s not unavoidable – yet.

Do you have any advice you would give to young people looking to work/survive in the art industry?

With risk of sounding like a LinkedIn Ad: network. But not in the oblique, nespotic, and often socially repulsive sense of business cards and caviar as we usually think of it. Networking to me simply means support mechanisms: your friends, colleagues, peers. Trying to do things alone can be terrifying and overwhelming – if you want to do a project, why not share it? Want to start a zine – why not have 4 of you do it instead? Collaboration and sharing is a surefire way to get more done in less time, meet new people and keep extending the network further. Eventually you might want to do some solo projects, but in the early days be keen to share the work as well as the appraisal. A lot of this has to do with how we think about cultural production, such as the curator-as-genius, artist-as-genius, director-as-genius – and so on – and not being afraid to slough these images off for our genuine passion in the arts.

What are you excited for, personally and professionally, in the coming year?

Professionally, I’m excited for everything new in South East London: the new South London Gallery, Goldsmiths CCA, Mountview Theatre School. At Bold Tendencies I’m super excited for the full arrival of Opera on our summer programme – something not to be missed!

Personally, a project I’m currently discussing with a few friends, to be hopefully unveiled early next year, which would see a large-scale series of exhibitions taking place in an old, dilapidated pub near the Old Kent Road, possibly featuring around 20 artists a pop. For now though, we’ll wait and see – fingers crossed.

Image of Bold Tendencies, courtesy of Stella Botes

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