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  • Writer's pictureStacey Toner

‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.’ – Brené Brown


I’ve decided to start a wee blog-diary as a tangible way to get some thoughts down in relation to the work M:ADE are engaging with as part of the Arts in Moray Collective during 2023 (thanks Mike Ingles – you were my inspiration!). I guess this is primarily in response to making the significant transition from ‘partner’ to ‘partner and artist in residence’, in an attempt to navigate and consolidate that change – which in itself feels like a vulnerable and new space to inhibit.

For those that aren’t aware, the Arts in Moray Collective was formed in 2020, bringing together four local organisations (Dance North Scotland, M:ADE, Moray Way Association, WildBird) who’d had a standing interest in working together; the announcement of the national Culture Collective Programme funded by Creative Scotland provided an opportunity to do so. The work of the collective was and is focused on community engagement through creativity, originally a response to covid recovery in relation to reconnecting with communities but also in providing work for artists who had been impacted by loss of employment. You can read more about phase 1 here or listen about our phase 1 outcomes here.

M:ADE’s involvement in phase 2 differs; we have decided to focus more on sector-based research, with an overarching view to exploring the notion of ‘sustainability’. I have shifted the dynamic in which I am working within the organisation, as for the first time I have stepped into a contracted role, which is structured as a ‘residency’ and sits alongside the responsibilities of ‘creative director’. I am doing this in collaboration with Caroline Ickle, who fulfilled a research-based residency within AiM phase 1, which interrogated AiM’s rhizomatic approach to collective working. Together, we are now considering the question ‘how can artists, communities and organisations contribute to a functional and meaningful cultural sector?’. In short, we hope to generate an understanding around how we might move forward beyond the scope of Culture Collective funding – when I say ‘we’ I mean M:ADE, the AiM Collective and more widely, the regional sector (if our work is of interest and of use to others). As the residency is in its early days, this opening piece is more of a personal reflection, in which I’m disclosing three stark realisations that have hit me hard over the last four weeks.

I hate the word sustainability. I’ve started to dive a little more into the language that we use in the arts and how it can be problematic – ironically, words should help us communicate, but at times can be a major barrier in doing just that. Even more ironically, I am so conditioned in what we say and how we write, that I’m guilty of using jargon in this train of thought! In a time where budgets are being cut and the cost of living ever on the increase, I think we should be aiming first and foremost for functionality, as in this climate I’m not overly confident that genuine sustainability in the third sector is wholly achievable (that’s not to say that it never could be and I’d love to be proved wrong). For organisations and freelance artists generating income on a project-to-project basis, only so much forward planning can be honoured, and so we are challenged with a fundamental contradiction in priorities; to be ambitious, inclusive and green whilst spending less. I do recognise, however, that we should be framing this as an opportunity – one to think differently, challenge the status quo and apply true creativity to what we do and how we do it.

It’s been SO hard to practice what I preach. For those that have followed M: ADE’s journey, you will know that it was born out of volunteer time, both my own and that of our board. It’s growth and development has been fuelled by commitment and determination. So, as I began this residency faced with dedicated time and capacity, I froze. A necessity that felt, and still feels to an extent, like a luxury; there’s an underlying issue here that speaks to the sectors in-kind culture (and maybe also to my own less than best practice behaviours!). ‘Trust the process’ I have breezed a million times to students, yet there I was stuck in the get-set position. Another piece of advice I’ve given, ‘just start doing, then something will come’, kept playing in my head…so I picked up a book and started reading. Then I felt guilty for reading. Is this how I should be using my time? Am I a fraud in identifying this as work? The shift from ‘partner’ to ‘partner and artist in residence’ isn’t as smooth as I’d exected and is a dynamic I think will take some time to settle – hats off to all students and artists that embrace the process with ease. I’m currently in the hiatus between admin-monkey and maker, and as it becomes more comfortable, maybe it’s not a bad place to be.

Working with the right people is GOLD-DUST. When I say right, I mean what feels right to you in your gut – I wholeheartedly believe that, especially in the cultural sector, we should exercise an approach that listens to both head and heart. It sounds so cliché, but that saying ‘enjoy what you do, and you will never work a day in your life’ has legitimacy. No job is 100% satisfying but believe me when I say, the crappy bits don’t hit hard when you are surrounded by similar minds who support and encourage you and vice versa. People who can hold you accountable, give constructive feedback and challenge you in one conversation and in the next celebrate your wins, give you time and help you be better and dream bigger. This counts in multiple contexts – from the partners and artists we labour alongside and the communities and individuals who engage with our work to our sector peers and colleagues. Joy can be synonymous with work when conversations and projects are positively challenging, and professional relationships are respectful, empathetic and progressive.

Consequently, what felt like a rather confusing commencement to this new role, has in fact been one of learning, awareness and gratitude. And in coming back to our research question, ‘how can artists, communities and organisations contribute to a functional and meaningful cultural sector?’, some time to reflect in itself has provided me with some clarity and confirmation; that to productively connect, effectively share and be authentic in our liability are all worthy and valid ways in which to holistically contribute to our wee creative world.

Cerith Wyn Evans Inverse Reverse Perverse (1996) Tate

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