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A Rural Dwelling Artist: Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff



I recently wrote an open letter, addressed to Arts Organisations and Funders and rural dwelling artists. There was no specific trigger point for this stream of frustration, but a build up of experiences, thoughts and observations since graduating in 2018.  The intent of the text was not to negate the good things that Arts Organisations and Funders provide, because let’s face it, every individual, group and organisation has its own agenda, aims, outcomes and expectations, not to mention challenges. The text highlighted four main areas of concern in regards to accessibility for rural dwelling artists. Three of these also cross over with artists who do not live in the rural; age, health and socio-economic status.


A Rural Dwelling Artist -The Truth

An open letter to Arts’ Organisations and Funders (17.11.19)


It’s time to be honest about the reality of maintaining an arts practice when you’re an artist living in a very rural area and the health, (or should I call it wellbeing), and socio-economic challenges, that are brushed over by city based organisations and funders.  I may be committing potential arts career suicide here but, what the hell. The chances are my art career will never go anywhere anyway due to the aforementioned challenges. I should stress, I am not directly criticising all of the arts organisations I have come across, I am acutely aware of their own challenges with funders, the boxes they have to tick and those I've worked with are trying.  However, I do get more than a little pissed when I see the word ‘rural’ pop up in manifesto’s and strategies, only to see no real change. This text is completely based on my own experience, no I haven’t researched and spoken to other artists in a similar situation. Why? Oh, that’s because I have no connections in my immediate rural area, and all the artists I do come into contact with live in, or very much on the borders of cities.  So I make no apology but hope that other artists in a similar position can relate. I also use this text as an invitation to artists’ in rural areas to share their experiences.  


A bit of background.  I am an ‘emerging’ (as in, graduated 2018 and continuing to progress my practice) artist living in rural Warwickshire, in a village with a population of under 1,500.  Nearest cities are Coventry and Birmingham. I have taken up opportunities over the past 18 months which have been very useful to my professional practice.  Have they been useful in regards to my mental and physical health? To my socio-economic health? Has the trade-off been worthwhile?  There's not a simple answer to that.  Yes, all the opportunities have been hugely beneficial in terms of space, critical support and valuable networks, and those connections continue.  


I’m going to talk money to begin with.  Where does the money come from in order for an artist to pay to make use of opportunities?  My admin job. I work part-time due to health issues that prevent me working full-time. Days off mean no pay, I don’t get annual leave because I chose to be freelance to allow more flexibility for arts opportunities. In other words I have minimal income and rely on the DWP gracing me with payments after I’ve jumped through numerous metaphorical hoops to justify my need. The average costs for travel  (based on 3 journey’s a week) plus memberships and software licences is often around £150 a month - that’s a whole weeks income from my job).  I don’t think I need to detail anymore for it to be obvious that this is not sustainable.


More importantly is the impact on mental and physical health, of which the financial situation obviously plays a big part.  I’m not 20, 30 or even 40 years of age. I’m a late starter, with a disability and low socio-economic status. I have to pace myself.  A full day, consecutive days or a late night opportunity can take its mental and physical toll. Travel is often a minimum of 1 hour and 45 minutes. This is physically and mentally demanding and often requires one to two days of rest depending on the length of time spent at the destination. So let’s put it plainly, a one day event is, in reality, a 3 day commitment.  I’ve pushed myself in the past 18 months, knowing that to get anywhere in this unequal industry I have to be present at events and private views.


As funders or when applying for funding and thinking about accessibility  or looking at the ‘rural’, are you taking into consideration the distance and means of travel for rural dwellers to come to you?  Or are you looking at ways to come to us? Don’t respond to that I already know the answer. Do you take into consideration the financial cost of travel?  Do you take into consideration the physical and mental cost of the time and cost required?   Some do, many don't.


To financially sustain an arts practice is near enough impossible if there are other factors thrown into the pot.  Maintaining physical and mental health is also bordering on impossible and I for one can’t continue in the same vane as the last 18 months.  I can no longer justify applying for residencies, attending networking events or other, workshops, exhibitions on a regular basis. I’ve never been a fan of the romanticised starving artist suffering for their art and yet that’s pretty much what I’ve become.  


So let’s have a real discussion about the rural and the artists living within it - they’ll be the ones that don’t make it to the talks, presentations, events.  

Edited 18.11.19

This open letter is not intended to target specific organisations.  I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that I have been able take part in.  The intent of the text is to raise awareness across the industry of the challenges artists face due to: location, age, health, socio-economic status.

If you're interested in having REAL conversations about being a rural dwelling artist and want to be part of an artist-led creative think tank that looks at how these challenges can be navigated, and come up with ideas for change please message me at helennelsonart@gmail.com 

There is a lot to unpick when looking at the reality of how these issues impact on a rural dwelling artist.  There are many organisations across the West Midlands doing their best to address the barriers facing artists from under represented backgrounds.  However I suggest, the current dialogue is only skimming the surface with regard to location.  Part of that could be because those artists most affected are the ones whose voices are often not heard, due to the very issues that organisations are wanting to change.


What is unique, I believe, to rural dwelling artists is the issue of transport and the challenges associated with that; infrequency and poor public transport, distance and cost.  These, in isolation, or cumulatively have a direct correlation with challenges faced due to age, health and socio-economic factors. As an industry and as artists we need to have useful dialogue around the subject of location and the barriers it presents.  However dialogue alone is useless if it is not used as a basis for realistic change.