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Esme Fisher setting up the Looking at Things Exhibition in Hastings Museum and Art Gallery

Exploring accessibility in the creative industry

Today the creative industry remains as important as ever, particularly when so much art is consumed during the pandemic. From streaming Netflix or a performance from the National Theatre, at-home art projects to virtual exhibitions. Art, in all its forms, gives people hope, perspective and an emotional outlet. For A Town Explores a Book festival mentee Esme Fisher, health conditions have forced her to confront accessibility to the creative industry and to reflect on how it’s changed.

When I was in college I managed to complete a couple of weeks of work experience at a fashion and lifestyle magazine. When I asked how to get into the industry I was told a rather disheartening, “Well, you will have to be an intern for a few years”. I knew this meant working for free. The message was clear, I would have to complete years of unpaid work before anyone would hire me, and with my chronic illness these were energy resources I just didn’t have.

I had always wanted to work in the creative industry, but between my health and now the global crisis, it felt like these were impossible obstacles to overcome. The creative industry has the potential to be one of the most accommodating and accessible of industries with its flexibility and inspired approaches to work, yet many people still face gatekeeping at the entry level. Despite it being a legal grey area, unpaid internships are still prevalent: the Sutton Trust reported that as many as 70% of internships were unpaid in 2018. And on average, even whilst in employment, disabled people were paid 12.2% less than the rest of the workforce, according to the latest government figures.

Now, however, companies aren’t able to offer in-person unpaid internship positions and this creates more part-time and freelance work for creatives, leaving necessary space for meaningful paid work for people entering the industry. Previously inaccessible workspaces have moved online, levelling the industry playing field. Working from home supports an adaptable work environment, opening the doors for creatives with different needs to real industry experience without exploitation or disregard.

Some of the ATEAB team with festival editions of the book

In October I joined a mentoring scheme with A Town Explores a Book, a St Leonards-based annual festival which this year explores Edward Lear’s anthology Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets. Due to the pandemic the programme has mainly been navigated online, as the festival will be too. The mentoring scheme is funded by Arts Council England, allowing all participants to be paid for their work, setting the precedent to value the work of all people.

The programme’s part-time, project-based work suits my health better than anything before, and I don’t think I would have found this opportunity without the impact of the pandemic. Through the mentoring scheme I’ve had the opportunity to help design and curate an exhibition for Hastings Museum and Art Gallery which turned into a virtual exhibition after the New Year restrictions. This allowed me to see first-hand how the pandemic has changed the way creative and cultural projects are created and consumed.

The festival’s established framework, flexible hours and the mentors’ support means I’m able to carry out my own ideas and to collaborate with other young creatives. These experiences have boosted my creative confidence and helped me to understand what I’m good at, what I enjoy and where I want my career as a creative practitioner to go. Fellow mentee Jac Holt has found being a mentee “serves as a foundation. Not only does it help people flesh out their already established skills but builds on them as well”.

A Zoom meeting between the festival team

Mentoring schemes are mutually beneficial as people can gain experience in their chosen field and established companies can discover new talent. Founder of A Town Explores a Book festival and ExploreTheArch theatre company Gail Borrow got her start after leaving acting school and joining a dance company mentoring scheme “– even though it wasn’t called that at the time – I picked up so many related skills in stage management, costume design and loved learning everything that came my way.” She explains: “Team work is nourishing! Widening the team offers more opportunity to discuss and develop new ideas.

“I think that enthusiasm is a vital ingredient for any creative company and the relationship between mentor and mentee ignites a pleasure in tasks that, if a mentor has done for a number of years alone could become repetitive or mundane. There is much joy to be found in a partnership approach.”

Gail adds that A Town Explores a Book is hoping to secure funding for the mentoring scheme to continue. Many creative companies don’t have the resources or funding to support work-based learning, such as mentoring schemes.

The Culture-Led Regeneration – A Strategy for Hastings 2016–2021 reported that key challenges to overcome in the Hastings area are that creative and cultural career pathways are not well understood or assessed, and a higher than average proportion of young people are not in education, employment or training, with 8% recorded as having no activity after age 19, compared to 3% nationally.

Gail says she is passionate about supporting early career practitioners with a lot to give the creative industries but who have significant barriers to entering employment – “The mentoring scheme is key to widening diversity in the creative sector.”

As the pandemic closes the gap between what people are able to do, it also allows for more understanding. Helping the more vulnerable members of our community only strengthens the whole. I believe that as the creative industry adapts to the pandemic, inclusive and accessible schemes will continue to develop a more diverse and inspiring workforce.

A Town Explores a Book festival runs from 1–18 April, and can be seen around the town in various locations. Follow @ATownExploresABook on Instagram and on Facebook to find out more. 

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Posted 11:51 Thursday, Mar 4, 2021 In: Arts News

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