Caring for yourself while working as a BIPOC creative

Image credit: Franzi draws
Image by:Brazhyk

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.

Let Your Work Shine—And Be Easy To Find

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.

Get Information, Find Out The Process

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.

Align Your Network With Your Values

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!

Get A Contract—And Read It

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.

Keep Creating

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 artist, filmmaker, animator, dancer or anything else—keep creating, keep your voice centered and keep loving yourself and community.  

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