As CVAN South East celebrates ten years of the Platform Graduate Award, championing artists graduating in the South East and South West regions, Oxford artist and freelance curator Sarah Mossop looks back on her close involvement with the scheme, alongside her own career in that time, and considers what changes have taken place for artists starting out in our region
The Platform Graduate Award launched in 2012; do you recall how the scheme came about?
The idea for the scheme came from Michael Stanley who was Director at Modern Art Oxford from 2009 – 2012, where I was working as Head of Learning and Partnerships. It came out of his discussions with other members of the regional Turning Point network and the aim was to strengthen relationships between galleries and the HE sector and celebrate and support recent fine art graduates. Amanda King, Director at CVAN SE, 2008-2015, coordinated setting up the scheme and, starting in 2011, I worked with her closely on the initial stage which involved establishing a group of representatives from galleries across the region who would lead on delivering the scheme – in some cases it was curators, in others gallery educators like myself, although in my experience the distinction between the roles is often quite blurred. Our starting point was to agree on the format of the scheme and form partnerships with local universities to plan and deliver the first Platform Graduate Award in 2012. The first cohort of galleries was Turner Contemporary, Modern Art Oxford, Aspex, Milton Keynes Gallery, and although this has changed over time, they remain part of the scheme. There have also been changes at partner universities due to some of the initial courses closing reflecting challenges in the sector.
A key part of the offer to artists participating in the Platform scheme is the experience of exhibiting at their partner gallery within a few months of graduating. Each gallery has taken a different approach as to the number of artists they select and whether they have group or solo shows. Each year, just one artist from each gallery is nominated to go forward to the next stage, which is the Award comprising a bursary and mentoring with an established artist for a year.
What do you see as the greatest value for the many artists who have exhibited and accessed professional development over the ten years of the Award?
From the feedback I’ve had from artists while working with them, and from several I’ve kept in touch with, I think the greatest value comes from the insights they gain into how the publicly funded gallery sector operates. At Modern Art Oxford we’ve usually presented solo shows due to the size of the space that’s used for the Platform exhibitions. This has the advantage for the artists of them receiving very individual attention from across the team in the whole process of presenting their work. Although not formalised as such, we see it as providing a package of professional development that should stand them in good stead for the next stage in their careers. Indeed, being involved in Platform can sometimes help artists decide which direction to take their careers e.g. the exhibition provides excellent material to support MA applications; alternative careers in curating, museum and gallery education and teaching have also been pursued by some of the artists I’ve worked with.
The artists also have the opportunity to participate in events as part of the public programme e.g. where performance has been a focus of their practice, or if they want experience of leading workshops, and most are involved in public talks of some kind. On several occasions I’ve chaired ‘artists in conversation’ events with Platform artists and in doing so I offer support with preparation and delivery. It’s often the first time they’ve experienced speaking in public about their work and artists often comment on how they appreciate this interface with the public. They gain informal feedback about their work and that helps them build confidence in presenting and speaking about their practice.
Another value is an introduction to networks that they can engage with beyond the time of their exhibitions e.g. local artist networks and the Platform Alumni network.
Can you describe your personal history with the Award? How has your involvement touched your own career path?
2012, when the first Award took place, ended up being a very traumatic period in my career. Although I was involved in setting up the partnerships with Oxford Brookes University, Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford and University of Reading, and selected artists from the degree shows that year, by the time the exhibition took place at Modern Art Oxford in the autumn I’d been made redundant and had left the gallery! I haven’t spoken publicly about what happened previously, and it’s a sensitive topic, but I feel it’s one that needs to be discussed more openly as I’m not the only person in our sector to have this experienced of redundancy. Indeed, it seems to happen most frequently to education/learning posts at galleries making a career in this field quite precarious.
My redundancy, and that of a couple of other colleagues, was part of an organisational restructuring, which seemed incongruous to me at the time given the crucial stage I was at in developing a number of partnerships (including for Platform), some of which ceased as a result of my leaving the gallery. I had been at MAO for ten years (prior to that I had been a Secondary School Art Teacher, undertaken a secondment to set up a gallery education programme at the Minories Art Gallery in Colchester, Gallery Education Manager at the Crafts Council and had worked as a freelance Arts Consultant) and during that time had developed relationships with a wide range to individuals and organisations, locally, nationally and internationally, which I felt benefited the gallery and informed the work we were doing across access, inclusion, learning and community engagement. When I took up the post I chose to live locally (and still do) as I felt it was important to get to know the local community and to have a strong presence in local networks, something that it’s much more difficult to do from a distance. My personal circumstances meant it would have been very detrimental to leave Oxford at that time, but staying proved very challenging for further work opportunities. It’s well known that working in this sector is not well paid and that career progression is fairly limited (on two occasions when I’ve taken up gallery education posts I was the sole person in the team at the start). Looking back I can see that something I have always stressed the importance of when mentoring artists proved vital in my own career survival, and that’s belonging to networks – for me at that time engage, the National Association for Gallery Education and NSEAD, the National Society for Education in Art and Design (belonging to a professional union proved extremely helpful when negotiating my redundancy) and local visual arts networks all led to freelance and further work opportunities.
For over a year I worked freelance and most of my contracts came via the networks I was part of. As well as enabling me to pay my mortgage (I was at risk of losing my home when I was made redundant), it extended my expertise in ways I couldn’t have foreseen – for example, as a result of attending a Clore Leadership short course I developed my practice as a mentor, including mentoring artists and early career curators. This led to a career shift myself and my next role at an organisation was as Exhibitions Programme Manager for Arts at the Old Fire Station in Oxford
By 2015 there had been many staff changes at Modern Art Oxford and Emma Ridgeway, the new Chief Curator, Head of Exhibitions & Learning, approached me to find out more about the work me and my team had been doing (she’d seen evidence of the various projects in the gallery archive and was keen to draw upon this in developing the programme with her new team). It transpired that she was seeking a freelance curator to oversee the Platform programme for the gallery in 2016 and, despite some reservations, I expressed an interest in taking on the role. I liked Emma’s vision for the gallery and I felt her approach aligned with my own. Also, having invested a lot in the development of Platform I had been very disappointed not to be able to complete a whole cycle in the programme. So, in 2016 I re-joined the cohort of partner organisations across the region and coordinated Platform for Modern Art Oxford once again. I thought it was going to be just a one-year contract but I have continued in the role under the title of Associate Curator since then and am delighted to have worked with so any amazing early career artists. I think the continuity of my involvement has been beneficial to the Platform programme at MAO and I now appreciate how cathartic it has been for me personally. It’s enabled me to overcome my distrust of the organisation and negative feelings towards it which distorted what had otherwise been a significant and hugely enjoyable period in my career.
How have you seen the environment for early career artists evolve in that time? What changes have you noticed for artists and others working in the visual arts in that period?
In many ways I don’t think the environment for early career artists has become any easier, and I think this is a particularly tough time with the academic status of the arts being undermined by the current government, and a cost of living crisis that will be impacting particularly harshly on those working in a poorly paid sector. On a more positive note, there is a far greater attention to equality, inclusion and wellbeing in the sector and the issue of fair pay is at least being highlighted. Another positive development is the progress in digital platforms as an additional or alternative way for artists to showcase their work and reach a much wider audience.
Of course Covid has had a massive impact. For the artists who graduated in 2020 the Platform exhibitions and events were all online. Indeed, I didn’t meet any of the artists in person that year. This year’s artists were also affected in that their first year was mainly delivered remotely and several HE tutors commented to me that they felt this had had a negative impact on the group dynamic.
As a result of adapting their practice during the pandemic, I think early career artists have become more adept at working remotely and developing their online presence. They needed to innovate and I think it’s made them more resilient.
Other changes I’ve noticed include shifts in the focus and support to artists provided by ACE, such as the grants scheme for Developing Your Creative Practice and, as with organisations like a-n a greater recognition of the needs of the neurodiverse community. And there are an increasing number of major exhibitions by female artists and women in senior positions at arts institutions.
How has your art practice, and your other different roles, developed into your present work.
Working with the Platform artists has been a huge privilege and it’s fed into a re-kindling of interest in my own art practice. Over the past four years I’ve been making art again (I originally trained in sculpture at Chelsea School of Art) and I’m working towards showing a new body of work, hopefully later this year. I’m doing this alongside working part-time as a Freelance Curator and Arts Consultant.
While I was working full-time – developing learning programmes, developing strategic plans around learning and engagement, managing arts projects, writing funding applications, organising conferences, mentoring artists, curating exhibitions and site specific commissions – I found my creativity went into how I approached my work. I didn’t have the mental or creative space to focus on my own practice. The experience of working with so many amazing artists has informed the development of my ideas and now I’m trying to implement for myself some of the advice I’ve offered early career artists over the years! This shift in my professional identity is proving interesting and I’m finding it enriches the conversations I have with artists.
What advice do you have for artists establishing their careers today, or for someone deciding to work in another aspect of the visual arts?
Whether you’re establishing your career as an artist or in another aspect of the visual arts sector: develop your networks; take up opportunities for training; money isn’t everything (working in the arts sector is hugely rewarding for other reasons) but be realistic about your potential income progression; don’t be averse to taking risks – they sometimes lead to the most unexpected and positive outcomes; look after your physical and mental health.
You can find out more about Sarah’s practice by following her on Instagram here.