A Manifesto on Leadership for Artists

A Manifesto for Leadership for Artists

(first delivered at Tramway World Café, and then British Dance Edition 2014) 


Artists help us prepare for the future.

Artists always exist on the threshold of becoming – the act of bringing things from the imagination or potential into being, positions them always with one foot in the future and one in the present.

Artists by their very nature shift, agitate and play with structures of power.  In their work the can condense the whole world into a grain of sand and express a global dynamic within a localized experience that we can engage with and play with. They give us the opportunity to practice exerting our own power, through critique, through agency,  complicity, resistance.  They show us how we can in many small ways build new worlds.


This is one of the most powerful things any of us can do.  Be a small change, enact a shift in the world to make a better place.


Artists engage with complex systems and conflicting strata of society, but they retain their own autonomy to a degree.  Their own self governance.  In their work and in their practice of everyday life, they are agents of survival, adaptation, and crucially self-determination.


As the ‘wealth creators’ at the top of our economic pyramid, cream profits off our consumption and pay no taxes for the privilege, they source labour from emerging economies and replace people functions with technology… don’t tell me that that those jobs will be replaced because we need people to make the machines and write the code.  Jaron Lanier (You are not a Gadget) illustrates it well, Kodak used to employ 140,000 people, instagram employs 13. Jobs are becoming an antiquated notion. We are being shoehorned out of the formal economy and into an informal economy where we don’t receive pay for our contribution or intellectual content. Never mind jobs for life, the very concept of having a single source of income in exchange for labour is under threat for most people There are many of us in the unfolding present who are finding ourselves suddenly solo, freelance, adrift.


Portfolio jobs are predicted to be the future for more and more of us.  Canaries in the coal mine, our artists have always been masters of the freelance art of survival.


The things we need to do to support artists better are not dissimilar to the things we need to do to support freelancers and individuals whose work, labour and contribution to society is not valued in the formal economy of wages. In the arts we need to become better at financially supporting individuals, as budgets shrink, organisations protect themselves and less funding goes to artists.  In our country we need to become better at financially supporting individuals.  There are a number of solutions being proposed.  Citizen’s income is a way of valuing the invisible informal economy in wider society, it values women and men raising children, the elderly, disabled. Volunteers, young people. We need a way to show the invisible economy of the artist, to value all of the work that artists do, unseen and unpaid.


I’ve developed a list, a manifesto of sorts, of all the advice I give to artists who are struggling to find their place in this economy. To all of you struggling to find your niché in the existing hierarchy, this is for you:



  • Embrace change – you are an agent of change
  • Be the change in yourself, that you want to see in the world
  • Adapt, be flexible and fluid so you can exist in different landscapes
  • Maintain your dignity and above all, self respect – respect from others     comes after if we are lucky
  • Engage playfully with institutions
  • Your capacity for playfulness and curiosity will allow you to gradually shift power structures to better support your practice
  • Find your niches
  • Cherish your peers, the work you do will always and necessarily be different
  • Don’t obsess over the successes of those who happen to chime with the zeitgeist. It doesn’t make what you do any less valuable or important
  • Momentum gathers pace and also fades, be mindful of your own ebb and flow on your own trajectory
  • Don’t sell to people you don’t like if it’s going to burn you out
  • Power is something you already have and you don’t need to give it away by courting those you’d rather not work with anyway



  • Remember there are three horizons, the past, the present and the future. All of these exist at once and you need to be mindful to address them all in your planning.
  • Think about what you need to do to thrive in the present the Emerging / Near Future, the Far Future
  • Make time for activities which allow you to thrive, thinking, rest, recharge, helping others, spending time with a mentor
  • Think about your role models, what do they do?  Who do they do it for?
  • What do you do and who do you want to do it for?
  • What does thriving mean to you?
  • Identify your other skills, writing, design, digital dexterity, and plan how you’re going to make the most of these skills on each of your three horizons.
  • Barter with other peers to address any gaps you have, make the most of your natural capacity and qualities


  • Get out there, be visible
  • Exchange information, contacts, strategies, things that go around come around
  • Keep an eye on cultural trends and developing opportunities
  • Realise that you don’t need to squeeze or compromise yourself, not all opportunities are for you.  As we say in Scotland, ‘What’s fir ye, winnae go by ye!’
  • Write funding applications and do budgets with groups of peers, read and comment on each other’s proposals, become good at defining what you do in terms that other people understand
  • Maintain your own contacts
  • Archive
  • Work hard and rest well, find good mentors and support networks, but remember that first and foremost YOU are your core agent in the world



  • Participate
  • Be the change you want to see in the world.  Be visible.  If there aren’t enough women, enough disabled people, enough people from your age or social background in positions of power, find other people like you and support each other, speak out when you are ready and have others to back you up
  • Support others who are marginalized, but find sympathetic people in privileged groups who will also speak out on your behalf.   Things make more sense to those in power when it comes from one of their own.
  • If you feel you are marginalized, find a way to playfully expose inequality and speak out against it but protect yourself too – it’s painful, so you must find a way to bear it
  • Things don’t change overnight. To paraphrase the closing lines of Cloud Atlas, a novel that charts the emergence of resistance in individual people across hundreds of years, ‘Yes, this is just a drop in the ocean, but what is an ocean but a multitude of drops’.
  • Find your other drops
  • Do it, do it, do it.  Whatever it is, do it, be visible, make it manifest, make it real.  Change begins in the imagination, and moves through actions.
  • Show there’s a better way.  Prove it works.
  • Put what you believe in everything you do.
  • Know what you want a better world to look like, compromise only on the timescale of change to achieve win win solutions, small change is better than no change. Don’t compromise on your integrity.
  • Remember that most people don’t realize when they have privilege, the stories they tell themselves about the world affirm their political beliefs.
  • Tell them other stories.  Stories are one of the most powerful way we can ask people to enter a mindset that they would otherwise resist.
  • Ask them to behave differently, change the terms of reference, change the architecture, change the rules whenever you can.

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