It’s no secret that working in creative fields can be challenging in any city and at any point in time. We navigate industries that support creative people, artists, designers, storytellers, dancers, that are in flux or inconsistent. We rely on the gig economy and we’re often not considered a priority if budgets run thin.
And the precariousness of steady creative work and the crushing impact of COVID-19 to the arts sector weighs heaviest on BIPOC (Black person, Indigenous person or person of color) communities.
In addition to finding opportunities and juggling projects, we are often navigating white-dominant culture while experiencing any of the million manifestations of racism reserved for Black and Indigenous folks along with our POC community. If you experience the world as a BIPOC creative, your life and work intersects with systems that perpetuate bias, exclusion and many other forms of oppressions rooted in racism.
This article is not about how hard it can be, but rather some back-to- basics tips for how we can take care of ourselves as working creatives. If you are a BIPOC creative doing the work you love, you are an inspiration and a gift. I hope my words of guidance remind you that you are deserving of respect, protection and care in all aspects of your life, including your professional life.
Who am I? I’m a connector and creative who has been a part of the Seattle arts community for 15 years. I have been able to work directly with artists, specifically Black and brown artists to help their work get seen, sold and shared—and it has brought me tremendous joy.
I have sat on more arts selection panels and grant committees than I can count; I’ve served on arts boards, attended hundreds of artist show openings and events; I’ve collaborated, partnered and contracted. I’ve been a guest curator, museum administrator, gallery founder and most recently, freelance corporate arts consultant.
I’ve seen creatives flourish and I’ve seen (and experienced) the hard lessons that many creatives have had to recover from. In the spirit of care, I offer here some notes of guidance that may be most relevant to both BIPOC creatives at the beginning of their journey or reminders for folks who have been in the game.
I hope to focus this piece on the things that you can control—maintaining your integrity and creativity while acknowledging these harmful systems and their impacts on our practice.
There are lessons that are just not taught to us in art school and that’s why we gain so much from being in community and sharing stories.There are points that can only be shared by hearing it from our folks who have failed, who’ve struggled and who’ve thrived. This is not an exhaustive list of tips and ideas, rather these few points are the “each one teach one notes” that I hope will help keep us from being exploited and / or undervalued.
This is not always a popular piece of advice. I love social media for sharing work; however, I don’t yet think that social media platforms have evolved enough to replace a website as a hub of information. I have encountered enough artists who have some work on Instagram, different work on a website and, if they are cross disciplinary, have some other medium posted somewhere else.
Love that your social is poppin’—that’s great AND the truth is that, like anything these days, we need to have quick easy references or ways to see all your work and contact you. Unfortunately, it might be difficult to send an Instagram link to a gatekeeper, but I can email a link to a website.
If you’re an interdisciplinary creative, it’s easier to see your graphic designs, writings, paintings, poetry, dance footage etc. all in one place. Because, (unless you’re already ultra-connected) if you’re looking to book a large business and someone is recommending you, they often need to sell the idea of hiring you to someone else or a group of people.
The ease of sending a link and not having to log on to social media to see your work and contact you in your DM’s saves everyone time. I’ve done this—when I worked for a museum, it was so much easier to send a web address than an Instagram link with only visuals and not enough bio info or contact info. A website with a resume, images or video, short bio and images of past work and an active email address for contact can save time and make it easier for your contact to make the case for contracting/hiring/commissioning you.
Keep your social sites, but please take full advantage of low cost or free website tools if you can.
There are as many processes for seeking out artists as there are artists. If you know you would like to work with a company or firm you need to know what their process is for getting artists involved in an activity. The way museums, galleries and businesses actually go about selecting or hiring artists has not always been transparent to most of us, so it can be hard to plan an approach.
When I worked for a small community museum, artists would sometimes approach me about showing their work and selling it, mistaking the museum for a gallery, which was understandable. As an arts consultant, I know now that for-profit businesses could be hiring for a myriad of projects all handled by separate departments and people. It’s just not a straightforward formula and that’s why you need to get to know the process for the area creative field you’re looking to work in.
Learning the process requires some research and outreach. If you’re looking for gallery representation, know what type of work the gallery sells and how they decide on who to represent? What’s their process?
Get yourself in the stream of information and apply for opportunities. Find out if the business, gallery, or museum hires freelance creatives or if they work with an agency, arts consultant or gallery. And what their online discovery tools are—if they use the Linkedin search directory or have some other way of finding artists for projects, programs, or shows.
It just helps to understand how these processes work so that you can dive into the stream of information—and it doesn’t hurt to build relationships in the process.
Once you’ve done some research, contact someone. Have all your info in one place, make sure you have a pitch, references or a CV (even if it’s short!). The creative community often moves on the power of word of mouth—but not always—and COVID-19 has stifled informal, natural networking for now.
I’ve worked with businesses who put out a call and the artists they select may not be known to the business prior to the call. There are plenty of ways to network, and much of it relies on you knowing your work and being able to connect your work to the goals of a project.
There is a flip side to making an approach as a BIPOC creative. We often have to work with clients or seek work from businesses or institutions that have historically excluded BIPOC creatives (and there are many).
If you know that your work aligns with their activity, then you may be able to build a relationship that leads to a partnership, but please don’t feel compelled to if you suspect bias, or any disrespect to you—either as you approach them or in your working relationship.
At this moment, with all the statements being made in support of BIPOC people, there’s been greater cause for reflection on exclusionary practices and policies in companies, venues and institutions. This does not change the fact the people who hold decision making power over gallery representation, corporate arts programs and museum curation are overwhelmingly white and still have a long way to go. Do your research and pursue your goals, but don’t compromise your dignity.
You deserve respect!
If you have experience with contracts and agreements, go forth and prosper; but if you don’t, please have a trusted friend, mentor, or lawyer who can interpret the fine print. Not reading contracts, or even not having them in the first place, can leave you exposed and poised for disappointing outcomes.
Not having agreements—even general written agreements— is a very common mistake, and one that I’ve made myself. The mistakes I’ve made with not having agreements have led to my work being exploited and, in one case, a catastrophic break of a cherished friendship, all because there were no terms, no way to know what was expected and how much each person would be recognized for their work.
The expectations within an agreement between you and the entity you are partnering with are negotiable before you sign but difficult to change after you’ve already agreed.
Make sure that the deadlines, rates, deliverables and other details of YOUR specific activity are well understood. I learned this the hard way while volunteering for a project with a partner. The expectations were not articulated on paper, things went sideways and the relationship dissolved. For better or worse, getting everything on paper is one of the practices that the dominant culture values. Though sometimes it seems too formal or like it might kill the spirit of a collaboration, this is the one practice that, when done well, prevents misunderstanding, hurt and reputational damage.
Ensuring you have even a simple agreement for what you will do, what’s expected, and what the other party will do (with timeline details) can serve to benefit both or all parties involved in a project.
BIPOC cultural contributions to our community, the economy and the wellbeing of our society are valuable beyond measure. We deserve to thrive and create while having our work respected and protected. In order to push through we need to know the game and the process by which people are paid for their work.
We need to be clear in our intent and understand the intent of partners, organizations and other opportunity forming entities through written agreements. We also need to build our networks boldly and our communities intentionally so that our reputations can live strong and open doors for us to do what we love.
I hope these foundational reminders guide you through both smooth and rough parts of your journey. Whether you’re a musician, graphic designer, writer, visual artists, filmmaker, animator, dancer or anything else—keep creating, keep your voice centered and keep loving yourself and community.
Anti-racism is now a common term heard in conversations about race since the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many other Black people in 2020 alone. This language, elevated by the Black Lives Matter movement, has taken root—pulling many of us towards new levels of engagement with racial justice.
If you happen to identify as white, you may be responding to all of this with a range of reactions: Maybe questioning your privilege, or getting involved in conversations; you might be defensive, or dismissive, or you’ve taken to the streets to protest injustice and fight for equity at all levels.
Wherever you may be on the spectrum of understanding racism, anti-racism and racial equity, the movement is happening with or without you. So if you haven’t yet and you know what’s at stake, now is the time to engage. My day job is in the equity and inclusion field in higher education, but I’ve been working in the creative industries, starting with museums and galleries, and then working directly with artists, musicians and performers for over 15 years.
If you’re at the point where you’re asking questions about how to help move racial equity forward as a creative, I hope this article steers you in the right direction. How to be a Better Ally is meant as foundational guidance, offering ways you can get engaged in the work. Some of my examples are drawn from the visual arts world, but most of what you’ll read applies to disciplines in all creative fields.
Conversations about racism often butt up against egos and old narratives that reinforce beliefs in superiority and privilege. I often hear the phrase “It makes me uncomfortable to talk / write, speak about / acknowledge racism” or “I feel guilty” from white peers and colleagues.
The truth is this: The days where Black and brown people are harmed, excluded, rendered invisible and silenced so that you can remain comfortable are coming to a close. Your comfort is a small sacrifice for building a world where groups of people are not oppressed, and we need you to get through and make a commitment to change the system.
Guilt and other responses to racism by white folk early in the journey are normal, but wallowing is useless. Trying to shed the guilt only serves to center your comfort. Consider that we’ve all been sold a bag of white supremacy bunk, so we all have to work against it. I hope you might sit with any discomfort at least for a little while as if our lives depend on it (because they do).
As creative professionals, many of us grow into our careers through a network of supporters—who we find, and who find us. Who you rub elbows with can lead to a venue for a gig, a new commission or client, or representation of some kind. The possibilities are real when you can meet the “right” people.
But the decisions of who gets in the door and the economy built around that door has almost entirely been in the hands of white people. White-dominated creative fields have for hundreds of years replicated themselves to the point where most of my art history lessons in college—almost exclusively—valued only white artists and white-led arts movements.
If we can agree that this has been the case historically, then you must also come to know that it has taken activism and labor by Black, Indigenous, People of Color, mostly womxn, to demand that we be valued for our genius, complexity, depth, brilliance and all of the wonderful dimensions of our humanity and creativity.
It is because of the hard work of BIPOC that we have insights into what we can do to advance the movement for racial equity and anti-racism as individual artists, creatives and people who work in the arts. With some of this foundational knowledge behind us, we can now think about how to interrupt the systems that have for so long advantaged one group over others.
One of the most potent interruptions to a system that promotes individual icons (usually men) is to become an active, reciprocal member of a community. Now I’m not saying to go reach out to Black and brown artists and insist on friendship.
I’m saying do some research into what’s happening in your city and show up for performances or art shows from folks who are outside of your regular circle. It’s likely that you have built authentic relationships and networks in your own career-— the approach here is no different.
Showing up in support of Black and brown artists is a sign of respect. Amplifying other people’s work on your channels is a show of support. Extending and honoring invitations to engage are normal and non-intrusive actions that can cut through bias and enhance our ability to authentically value each other.
If you’re interested in educating yourself further about how to be a better ally, there are several resources that speak to authentic community building here, here and here.
In my experiences, there are far more word of mouth opportunities for creatives than anyone wants to talk about (no pun!). I already gave you the short history of who holds power in the arts and associated creative industries so you can guess who makes up the majority of decision makers, curators, contract providers, consultants, grantmakers, venue owners, show bookers and so on.
Because of this word of mouth deal, artists whose proximity to white decision makers often make them first in line for submitting proposals. These are the folks who get more access to big opportunities, and the cycle continues.
It’s no surprise that creatives of color are underrepresented in almost every industry—here are just some examples in design, music, publishing, and the arts.
These stats give us a picture of the system we need to disrupt. This list does not even account for the many ways exclusion impacts BIPOC creatives. Also know that BIPOC folks have -innovated and persevered despite a system of disenfranchisement, often leading disruption and innovating solutions along the way.
The last couple of years alone we’ve seen more and more actors and artists of color in the forefront to address the underrepresentation issue, but that’s not the whole story. Seeing overrepresentation in one area does not translate to representation in the boardroom, director’s chair, casting office, C-suite or any other position of authority, power or agency. Even if there is representation in a creative space, just know that it doesn’t always mean equal pay for BIPOC folks for any given gig.
If you’ve found yourself in a position to be invited to submit your work for a job, or someone has found you or vice versa, you can interrupt the system of replication by knowing of (or actually knowing) BIPOC creatives and ensuring that the person who has the decision making power knows of them as well.
Through the working relationships and partnerships you build with people in organizations or companies, you have the choice to ask if they have a history of working with BIPOC creators—and if they don’t, make sure you're raising the visibility of BIPOC through those interactions. I’ve seen this work!
This action relies on you authentically doing the work of knowing about artists and creators in your community and valuing the work of BIPOC artists in such a way that you would ask uncomfortable questions of the people who are paying you. But it’s also the least you can do to fight as an accomplice for BIPOC artists to be seen, heard and known.
Developing an anti-racism practice means having a conversation with fellow artists and others about being white and having privilege—and what that has meant for your career advantages.
Consider the fact that if BIPOC artists and creatives experience racism and oppression to the point where they are excluded from opportunities, we live in a distorted reality—whether or not you think you get advantages from the system.
The distortion pushes us to recognize that being white means you can be “not-so-good” yet still be successful within this system—- simply because the Western world has decided that whiteness is superior. (See Ijeoma Oluo’s book “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America”).
Questions for reflection:
While you have that conversation, consider the loss for all of us when creative industries do not acknowledge or bolster BIPOC creators in meaningful ways. Imagine all of the ways our collective understanding of art and culture might have looked different had that not been the case. What would the arts look like had the thousands of would-be BIPOC artists been recognized as participants in shaping the canon, becoming the decision makers and resource distributors?
Talk to your folks about the present and how things are changing; who are the artists, creatives, and culture workers making your city great? Where are people the most impacted by inequity in their creative fields and what are they experiencing? And look at history. What strategies have been implored in the past to bring about equity and change?
If you-value the work of anti-racism, chances are you’ll make mistakes and get called out.
When this happens, acknowledge the impact of what you’ve said or done and apologize. I’ve known white creative professionals and white-led institutions who’ve been called out for cultural appropriation, language, exclusion or ghettoising artists (for example, by featuring Black artist’s work only during Black history month).
Know this: 1) Your response to getting called out is everything, and 2) You’re fortunate that people care enough to take the time to make sure you are not able to cause harm to others. An authentic acknowledgement of the impact and an apology followed by corrective action is the way to respond and oftentimes are the initial steps to more trust and understanding between individuals and groups.
Being self proclaimed “anti-racist” is more said than done. Consider being less eager to give yourself the title, and far more interested in being active in the struggle to end racism and all of its manifestations.
Anti-racism can go beyond reading books and articles, and it even reaches beyond talking to your friends and parents and community. It’s taking action that will have a positive impact and disrupt systems of oppression. What is our work as creative professionals if not to disrupt business as usual and make us pause and consider building something beautiful, meaningful, hopeful, raw and honest?
You can go about your life, be the artist or creative that you are and take action against racism. As you become more confident in your values for racial equity and anti-racism the choices about what to do will become clearer.
Remember, we must hold a vision for a world where race is not a determining factor in your success as a creative.
We can’t change history, but we can change the way it’s told and we can definitely shape the future of culture. What does that future look like to you?
Whipsmart’s How To Guides are like having a good friend in the industry who knows their sh!t—someone you know you can always take out to lunch to pick their brain, and who won’t judge you for asking questions!
For our How-To Guides, we lean into experts to give us the advice they wish they knew years ago, to uncover the secrets of their field or the unspoken mysteries of being successful as a creative professional—all broken down in step-by-step, easy to access and understand guides. Hover and click on the boxes below to launch into a specific section. Or just dive in and read the whole thing!
Creativity thrives on connections, and creative professionals often make a living on the basis of the community they build and interact with. Now more than ever before, those connections are discovered, developed, and sustained online. Maintaining a presence on social media can be a powerful tool for business—but only if it is approached thoughtfully and intentionally.
As a communications and social media professional with over a decade of experience in social media and public relations , I can personally attest to the power that a great social media presence carries -- and the pitfalls that can come. For creative professionals, a well-managed social media presence simply can’t be beat.
Over the next five articles, we’ll outline everything you need to know to put the power of social media to work for your creative business, from defining your brand voice to picking platforms, technology tools to interaction strategies.
Before all of that, however, it’s important to establish a baseline of what role social media plays.
What social media isn’t
Nothing can kill a great party faster than someone who only talks about themselves, and just about every social media network is much the same. Though it can be tempting, if you treat social as nothing more than a digital telephone pole to put your poster on, your effort will be less successful.
What social media is
Definitions for what counts as “social media” vary widely - and for good reason. The exact networks and functionality may always be shifting, but there is one thread that connects them all. In the end, there are people on both sides of the screen, with the network facilitating communication. As online communities, they’re also places to build relationships, share your work, and communicate. They are the digital version of a community, and need to be treated as such -- communities. Think about it this way: Facebook is a living room where you invite in your friends and family. Twitter is a cocktail party where you meet new people interested in the same things you are. LinkedIn is a conference networking event, where you may have informal conversations, but about business topics.
No matter what creative field you’re in, you’re already surrounded by content that tells the story of your business. Figuring out what to post just means identifying how you want to tell your own story—and sticking to it. Not-so-coincidentally, the posts that are the most successful on social media are the ones that have that undeniable ring of authenticity about not just your work, but who you are.
For example, check out these posts from Washington State creative professionals below. As these examples show, authentic posts can be short or long, personal or political. The form itself isn’t the most important thing, the sense of the post fitting who you are is.
Your “brand” really is just the collection of feelings and ideas that you want someone to consistently have when they interact with you. Much like building a friendship over time, the more often someone encounters a similar experience with your brand, the more clearly they’ll understand and remember your work. If you’re not entirely sure what you want your brand to be, start by asking yourself these questions:
Using the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to develop a brand ideal that can drive your decisions about social media -- as well as your business in whole. For example, leather workers Colladay Leather put their brand message this way:
“...we want our products to cause you to ponder beauty and inspire you in your own creative journey.”
This is effective for two reasons: it focuses on a feeling and experience rather than a specific product or service, and it speaks to the values behind the business.
Once you understand what your brand’s about, you can create general guidelines for how you communicate -for and about your business. It can be easy to get caught up in the culture of the social network you’re on and lose your brand voice. Guidelines will help ensure that across networks, your posts always sound like they were written by the same person, even if they’re not. Answer questions like:
So how does all of this translate to actual content for social media? Use your answers to the questions above to guide the choices you make about what to share, and how to talk about it.
A big part of sharing online isn’t just about sharing the big successes or big ideas - that only creates a 24/7 highlight reel that’s exhausting to see, and even more exhausting to create. Instead, look at the words and phrases and feelings of your brand, and then look at what happens in your everyday work that demonstrates those things.
The posts that will get the most engagement, and be the most successful for your business, are the posts that help the people out there get to know your brand better. It can be scary to think about letting others into your everyday life, but keep in mind that you’re not necessarily creating social media content for people exactly like yourself. The things that -may seem very everyday and banal to you are exactly the things that are fascinating to others!
There’s currently somewhere around 50 “major” social networks. Some (like Twitter) have proven they have staying power, while others (RIP Vero) are practically forgotten in moments. When you’re deciding where to represent yourself as a creative professional online, which networks you start with can help communicate your brand identity to the right people.
The medium is part of the message.
There are three things to keep in mind as you consider this choice:
Just like you’d never have a conversation with your mentor the same way you would a client, the communities that you are involved in online each have their own personality. This is why you’ll never want to cross-post the exact same content to different networks. Even if it’s minor edits, customize what you post to the community you’re in.
There are more details about network best practices in the calendar template also provided as a part of this guide.
In social media, the tools that you choose to use can make your life easier. There are three areas where technology that works for you can help: planning, content, and metrics. While there are paid options that can help with all of these, starting out with free options to figure out what works best for you will lead to a better result.
The best content is both consistent and intentional, which benefits from structure and planning. It can also save you quite a bit of time to plan ahead, because you can batch-create part of your content.
There are two ways to approach your planning—with either a content focus or a network focus. A content focus means listing what things you want to post about, and then placing your posts about those topics on a calendar. A network focus means planning day-by-day what you’ll post on each network.
Generally a content focus puts what you’re communicating about your brand first and foremost, and allows you to vary what you post across whatever networks work best for you. This is what our free week-by-week social media template calendar starts with-—but figure out what works best for you. Google Sheets, a calendar, or even a set of post-it notes across the bottom of your monitor can all be used to plan what you’ll be posting each day based on the content you have available.
Organizing that content in some way is key. Our calendar can help here, too. Facebook and Instagram allow you to schedule your posts ahead of time.
If you decide to use a social media scheduler, there are several free and paid tools that can serve you well:
Most social media networks have content creation tools built in, but most social media pros use additional tools. No matter what tools you use, it’s helpful to have a folder in Google Drive, Dropbox, or another backed up storage solution to keep track of what you create.
A few to check out:
The performance of your social media should help guide your strategy. Most networks will give business accounts access to some kind of metrics.
First and foremost, pick which metrics you want to focus on. Depending on your goals in social media—selling products, reaching a new audience, nurturing an existing community, or maintaining visibility—you may be looking at different metrics.
Sales, reach and impressions, engagements, or audience size could all indicate success. Review your metrics with those key performance indicators (KPI) in mind.If you have posts that consistently do well, try testing out more posts like those. If you have posts that consistently under-perform, try something different. Either way, your metrics can help guide what you plan.
Now we know that on social media the content - you put out is a major part of what leads to your success. But the interactions you have with others on the platform matter just as much. Changes to algorithms have also meant that the interactions and communities you build are essential. With that in mind, you should spend at least as much time interacting as you do creating content.
There are three primary elements to interaction: building a following, directly interacting, and handling conflict carefully.
No matter how good your content, without a following, it may be falling on deaf ears. Building a following on social media can be a slow process, but consistency will win in the end.
No matter what network you’re on, the formula is generally:
Across just about every network, interacting with your community is the number one way to build a successful presence. You can do so in a variety of ways on each network, but it comes down to four basic steps:
While it’s usually the number one fear of creators on social media, complaints present an excellent opportunity for you to change a negative to a positive. Research says that most social followers are willing to give your business the benefit of the doubt when you respond, and it helps show that you’re listening to your potential customers.
There’s a few major things to keep in mind:
Social media is one of those tools that can give back three times more than you put into it, as long as you treat it as the community it is. With a strong sense of your brand, the right tools for the work you want to do, and intentionality blended with authenticity on your side, your creative work can truly benefit from the social community.