An open letter to young people about careers

I want to be honest, because I believe that you are all under a huge amount of pressure, and I wish to help to alleviate some of it, even if it’s just for the amount of time you’re reading this.

My name is Alice, and I work with 15 – 25 year olds at Nottingham Contemporary. I also like to write in my spare time, so I have written an essay on careers.

I am writing at my desk in an international art gallery, but I am not a director, or a curator, or even someone in events. You may not want a job working with young people, in a learning team or even in an art gallery, and you’re thinking that I have nothing relevant to say to you. But I wanted to come and talk to you about things that I hear from a lot of the young people I work with and hopefully be as honest with you as I can be about careers.

I want to be honest, because I believe that you are all under a huge amount of pressure, and I wish to help to alleviate some of it, even if it’s just for the amount of time you’re reading this.

The reason I’m writing is because I imagine you currently having career talks from professionals. I too had these kinds of talks when I was in education, from people who have been where you are now, but now have a job and can whimsically look back on their time and see it as character building. It’s really easy to look back on your life and pick out the moments that got you to where you are now, and therefore it’s really easy to go to another group of people and say, well I just did this and that and then I got to here so you could do that same. But I don’t want to be like that. Because I am still young enough to remember how crap it was when I was applying to university and when I didn’t have a job.

So let’s start with some truths… most (if not all) of you, will not get your preferred job straight after university. You will not walk into a career. You will be poor and everything will seem like a struggle for a long time.

But that’s ok. You will survive and you will be ok – and I hope that my own story can give you some tips to make what’s to come easier for you.IMG_0330

Firstly, don’t worry too much, you’re all already doing something that I wish I had done but didn’t. You’re on a foundation or fine art course. I’m so jealous. You are with like-minded people, you get a studio space and facilities and access to lots of interesting tutors and professionals. You’re so lucky, aren’t you just enjoying every single day?

Well no, I suspect most of you are really worried about applying to university, getting your portfolios, CV’s, statements and interview techniques up to scratch. Some of you won’t know what course to do, which city to move to, what university looks like the one for you, and most of you are more terrified than you can articulate about the interview, about even getting an interview; but let me ease this pressure. Just humour me for a moment and pretend you didn’t get into the university you wanted to. Imagine that you went to a different university, or you took a placement instead, or a year out. And when you get to this place you didn’t want to go to, you meet someone who becomes your friend, and you really admire each other’s work so you start collaborating together and you start making events together. How much better does that place you didn’t want to go to sound now?

If you don’t get what you are aiming for it doesn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong, please don’t confuse not mattering with not caring. If you turn up to an interview and act as if you couldn’t care less about the place, they probably aren’t going to accept you. I’m simply saying that you should relax more, because if you are too focussed and anxious during your foundation you will miss what is on offer to you right now.

Making a portfolio isn’t box ticking, it’s a chance for you to use the facilities in college to make work – and surely this is why most of you want in a care in the arts isn’t it? To make work? Or maybe it’s not, maybe you see university (please replace university with whatever will apply to you) as a stepping stone to a career. But this is a mistake I see over and over again.

When you are striving for something better, you will miss the opportunities you have right now. Again, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a goal to work towards, I’m just saying that the goal isn’t the only thing to focus on.


When I went to university to do an art degree, I wish I hadn’t worried so much about a career. I would have just made work I enjoyed, and pushed myself to make use of the facilities – after all I was paying for them! And let me relieve some more stress that might be consuming you at the moment – a student loan is not something you have to worry about, you only have to pay it back when you are earning enough to do so. It has never stopped me from doing anything, I pretend it’s not there and it automatically comes out of my pay packet every month and is less than the amount I pay for wine a month (which perhaps isn’t saying alot if you know me and know I drink alot of wine), but my point is, if I can afford to drink wine, I can afford to pay back part of my loan and for it not to worry me.

While we are on this subject, I don’t want to come across as naive. I was very lucky (in a way) that when I went to uni, I had maintenance loans etc, and I know that some of you will have to work as well as study, and that isn’t an easy thing to do – but perhaps you will appreciate your time in the studio or lectures more than I did because of it.

The best advice someone gave me about being creative, would have served me well had I heard it while I was studying. I was on a residency, and another artist who was doing the same project said to me, that the only way you can make good work – whether that’s making an artwork or writing a report is to turn up.

She wasn’t suggesting that if you get yourself out of bed and sit at your desk or in your studio you will suddenly be inspired to create a masterpiece or write a life changing document – she was saying that to make good work you actually have to make work. For example, you turn up at your studio and draw something, and it’s terrible and the next day is the same and so on for a whole month, but you keep going and at the end of the month you decide to put two drawings together and it sparks an idea for making collages, and those collages are really aesthetically pleasing and it really excites you so you make more and you apply to exhibitions with them and you exhibit them and sell something for the first time– this could have never happened had you not turned up to work at the start of the month.

So heeding this advice you will turn up at university, make the most of what you’re paying for (by which I don’t mean the drink, drugs and sex), and graduate. Which is what I did, and then the first thing that I did after the last day of my degree was … sign on.

I signed on and I looked for volunteering opportunities, because nearly every job description that I came across required me to have experience.180982_10150097421612633_4665808_n

It is a common complaint amongst the young people I work with, that if jobs require experience, how do you get it, and I will tell you now that whether you agree or disagree with the big society, the art sector has always, under the conservatives, labor or a coalition, expected that people volunteer for it, and that artists will be ok with this because they are working because they have a love for it and not because they need any money. This isn’t fair but it’s better that you accept this now, than be bitter – because being bitter doesn’t get you to paid work any faster than volunteering.

I volunteered, invigulating, at the New Art Exchange for a little while, it’s where I did a lot of reading up on art topics – and I asked the lead technician if I could paint some walls during the install – he was super enough to get me paid for it, and because I was around more, I got asked to do some reception shifts for them. I worked for them for two years, and got angrier and angrier that I wasn’t immediately offered a curatorial position. Picture a really mift red-headed lady as your welcome to an art gallery! It was a mystery to me why they hadn’t realised my potential and moved me swiftly through the organisation – but looking back I realise that being bitter did not make me a team player.

But while I was chuntering at a front desk, and paying some of my bills, I was also actively volunteering at a community gallery called The Crocus Gallery. This gallery was completely volunteer led, there was no short game opportunity to make money, but it was new and it was a free space. I invigilated in the cold, in a dodgy area nearly every day I wasn’t working, I got to know the group who’d started it all up and I started getting invited to meetings. Because I was there so often, and because no-one else was committed to volunteering in a cold quiet damp space – I became the exhibitions co-ordinator and then later became a director. It was bloody hard work and I was there for two years. I liaised with incredibly grumpy artists, I dealt with mental health issues of visitors and volunteers, and did everything from sending emails to hanging artworks; one year there was a leak over Christmas and I had to come back to Nottingham early to clear up the mess and try to save damaged artworks. When I interviewed for the job I have now, these experiences are what I spoke about the most.

I left the Crocus Gallery because I wanted to start my own projects, and felt as though I needed freedom from a rolling programme of exhibitions. So instead of volunteering for an organisation, I took the skills and lessons I had learnt and started my own collective called No Official Name. 10570526_10152281636162633_3169635788779302470_n

No Official Name is a creative project group. For a year we took over public venues including, Orange Tree, Sobar, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Castle, Mysight gallery and Backlit. We made four publications and launched each one with a relevant event – including one at my flat in the doorway which had 5 performers and musicians and a makeshift tarpaulin to keep the rain off our visitors, and a performance in Nottingham Contemporary’s involving glass jars and vibrators. We functioned with on absolutely no money –proving that begging, borrowing and stealing are all legitimate methods of getting creative projects done. We lugged equipment from venue to venue, and convinced performers to collaborate with us for no pay in exchange for marketing on our social media channels.

We realised that you can volunteer, but you can also make up your own rules and roles. If you can’t find anywhere that can give you the experience you need for a job, make a role for yourself that will allow you to get it.

At the same time as doing creative projects with No Official Name, I applied to work at Nottingham Contemporary as part of the retail team. I didn’t get the job, but I knew someone that worked there and got recommended to work as a gallery assistant. Proving that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

The art world can seem like a very incestuous place at times, and it can seem like if you aren’t in the know, you won’t get through the door. This is technically correct – jobs through the back door are incredibly common, but I think people confuse knowing people with networking and I don’t believe these things are the same. If the idea of going to a launch and talking to random people until you find that one golden business card that will be your contact for getting you your dream job incites fear into your heart, relax, you aren’t the only one – even the person with the golden business card hates networking. Your friends, people you know and more importantly people you like – are a network, don’t underestimate the friend who knows a friend who knows someone who works at the place you’d like to!

I worked in the gallery for two or three exhibitions. With my part-time job at New Art Exchange and my zero hours contract at Nottingham Contemporary, I was not making enough money to live on and get off benefits, but I was still in the sector I was interested in and I was able to eat and rent a flat.

There is absolutely no shame in accepting financial help, and it certainly isn’t cool and bohemian not to accept it. If you feel guilty about accepting help from your parents, that is what they are there for – you can pay them back when you’re making more money, or you can put them in a fancy care home when it comes to it. But there does come a point when you’re doing all that you can, you are applying to all the jobs you can, you’ve got multiple crumby underpaid jobs and you’re volunteering all of your spare hours when you think – is it worth it. And this point certainly came to me.25787_399601897632_2996655_n

Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time and an administrative position in the learning team came up at Nottingham Contemporary. The work was for 6 months, I had never worked in an office and it was part of team I had no interest in working for – I mean, who would want to work with students? But I was desperate for some full time work. I got the job, and I took every opportunity I could, to find out how things work, meet new people, and involve myself as much as possible – trying to make myself indispensable.

At the end of the six months, three positions in the learning team came up at once, and I knew that I had to go for one of them. I actually applied for all three, and interviewed for two as they wanted to make sure I was in the best role for me and for them. My third and final interview for youth programmer was with the director of Nottingham Contemporary, Alex Farquharson and lasted 2 ½ hours. When he asked me why I wanted the job I had an epiphany. I realised that I had been programming for my peers at The Crocus Gallery and for No Official Name for free, I told him that I had done the same kind of work they were wanting, for so long as a volunteer, it was about time that I got paid for it!

They must have agreed, because I got the job! It’s three years later and I have set up a new youth programme in an international gallery, helped our collective put on a festival for 4000 young people in the city, helped young people with learning difficulties and social barriers access the gallery for the first time, and I have regular meetings with the Tate and 8 other national galleries that are involved with the same programme. The only experience needed for this job that I didn’t get from volunteering was real budgeting experience, but NC staff took a chance and I have now successfully managed a budget of a quarter of a million pounds.

This sounds like a success story, and in many ways it is, but like I said, I don’t want to get whimsical. If you follow my story of do this do that, it will not work for you. This, believe it or not is a cut down version of what actually happened. I haven’t told you about the jobs I applied for and didn’t hear back from, or the interviews I went to but the jobs I didn’t get, and I didn’t tell you about the time I applied to ‘The Castle’ thinking it was for the Castle in Nottingham and getting a call for an interview from someone in Yorkshire and having to explain why I couldn’t get there for 9am in the morning despite writing on my application that I lived down the road and hearing the lady on the phone laugh and feeling like a bit of a tool. I haven’t told you about when the job centre told me they couldn’t support me anymore, or when I went to college open days to find out about science courses because I felt like I’d never get a job in the arts. I haven’t told you that I went back to the Crocus Gallery to help shut it down, or how No Official Name had to stop because all of its collaborators got full time jobs. I haven’t told you about all of the moaning, lots and lots of moaning. I also haven’t told you that I accepted an award on behalf of the Crocus Gallery for being a brilliant community project, or that I sold my first piece of artwork to someone in America. I didn’t mention when No Official Name got accepted to be involved in a project in Birmingham or when my writing got published in a nationwide educational journal. IMG_8199

Now I’ve got a job, I’m in a really great position. I have enough security to look about for something else, or something better or something in a different sector, for the first time I am able to make decisions, rather than blindly applying for anything and everything. But do you see the irony in what I am saying – now I have a job, I can look for something else.

This is what I have learnt from getting on the career ladder, that the quest for a job never ends. What you thought you wanted to do might not be the right thing for you at all, or the job you never thought of doing gives you the best experiences.

You might find that you take on a really boring job so that you can do creative projects in your spare time; you might make work that Saatchi thinks is the next big thing and you sell your work to celebrities within a year of leaving your foundation; you might decide that the arts sector isn’t for you at all and go to work for a children’s charity in another country. You’ll survive, and it’ll be ok.

Remember, that when you work and work and finally get a good job, you’ll be ready to look for a new one. Give yourself permission to relax, and don’t worry too much about a career, just use the resources you have right now:

Turn up

Make roles for yourself and create your own chances for experience

Don’t underestimate your friendship network

Don’t be bitter

And don’t ever forget your own worth


– good luck, from your new contact AT