Rotherham, South Yorkshire
'Trust us to deliver'
Commissioned Artist: Jo Peel
"A tree reaches over the top of the image and is supported by ropes. The tree is allowed to rest and recuperate whilst the seasons pass by. Seasonality is an important aspect of self-employment, being able to respond to the ‘seasonal aspects' of life, working differently and with different levels of focus at different points in the year, including having a fallow time; rest as an actives process of restoration.
The tree at the bottom of the image is held up by a crane, whilst also spilling its guts (depicted as bricks) to represent the struggle of self-employment and the uncertainty that surrounds it. The crane represents the changing life of cities, an ever-present symbol of development. The building and its reflected windows show the multi-facets to creative practice and the reflection gained from time and space. They also reflect images of Rotherham, showing how place is intrinsically linked to practice but that it is also important to look out at a wider context.
The megaphone (shouting about our practice and connecting with people) sits upon a table, held by many different supports, representing the importance of creating networks and “not going it alone”, as well as the importance of different facets to your practice and not relying on a singular income stream. The egg is both a recognition of not putting all our eggs in one basket, and also representative of new ideas, allowing them time to gestate during this fragile period of fertilisation - until they are ready for growth!"
In this section, we share a few headline statistics on Rotherham - the last on the ‘Place’ focussed workshops tour - and pull out some of the main points bubbling up from our discussion with the local creative and cultural sector workforce.
Rotherham is a large minster and market town, within the wider Metropolitan Borough of Rotherham and South Yorkshire Combined Authority (SYCA). At the 2021 census, Rotherham ranked 61st for total population out of 309 local authority areas in England, which is a fall of seven places in a decade.
When we started exploring regions with a balance of geography and typography across England, there were plenty options to explore within the Midlands and the North. Yet, when we explored places with evidence of cultural and creative growth, Rotherham provided an interesting and representative balance when it came to the criteria set out for our place selection.
As with Croydon, when ACE announced their original ‘54 priority Places’, which would see an increase in creative and cultural spending and support , Rotherham was listed as one of 15 areas identified in the North. Furthermore, according to PEC, Rotherham is home to one of three micro-clusters - a smaller but significant pocket of creative activity - within the Sheffield commuting zone and within the much larger established creative cluster.
Additionally, in the past 10 years there has been a wave of innovative creative programming taking place across the borough. Rotherham is set to become to UK’s Children’s Capital of Culture in 2025 - a co-designed project kick started directly by the children and young people of Rotherham . Furthermore, Rotherham is home to one of the ACE’s 39 ‘Creative People and Places’ projects, Flux Rotherham ; an action research programme, support by a core group of local partners, who co-design projects with local artists and community groups to increase local engagement in arts and culture.
Rotherham’s investment in cultural activity, particularly in grassroots and co-designed projects, is an exciting and potentially transformative platform for the wider economy and the reputation of the borough; we therefore felt it would be a fascinating moment to speak to creative and cultural sector freelancers about if and how this new optimism had translated into their lived experiences.
The Workshop Findings
In our session in Rotherham, there was a strong 'artistic' representation in the room, with participants specialising in a variety of cross disciplinary forms including installation, social engagement, crit/commentary, puppet making, but also poetry, creative writing and education.
Having your own microphone
Starting the session, we asked what being freelance, self-employed, or atypical had meant to the participants in 2022. They explained that freelance life felt “liberating”, provided an ability to take your career in “non-linear” directions, to “cross-pollinate” creative disciplines and take projects in surprising directions; themes chiming heavily with our workshops in Croydon and Truro. The group explained that being freelance sometimes felt like “having a microphone”, being able to speak and create in an authentic and independent voice. However, just like in the other workshops, the participants told us that you have to be incredibly “dynamic and brave” to operate in these sectors. Freelance life, they explained, creates huge sense of “responsibility”, to oneself and to ones clients; this required a good deal of confidence in ones own abilities and a commitment to working with integrity. It seemed that for the group in Rotherham, having the freedom to create was only made possible by an extreme form of dedication to getting there.
From the beginning of our discussion, the concept of seasonal working seemed to be at the front of some participants minds. They explained that seasonal working patterns could feel inbuilt into freelance work, seeing them switching from busier - and sometimes overworked - periods to “fallow” or “dry months”. Each of the participants expressed the negatives associated with this way of working, including; a lack of regular financial assurance generating a very natural fear and anxiety; a tendency to say “yes, yes, yes” to work when it comes in; and the need to continuously horizon scan to create pipeline.
While the group acknowledged that uncertainty was an underlying concern that never really goes away, some pointed to the more positive aspects to alternative patterns of work. For example, one participant explained how working at varying speeds, or focusing on different aspects of their work during different parts of the year, allowed for a more reflective productive creative process for them. One participant, an artistic commentator and critic explained: “Seasonality I actually find to be quite interesting, because it means that I can sort of channel into what is actually going on in the art world and see how things sort of morph and shift depending on sort of trends you can see…”.
Another artist explained how 2023 would be a year for them to “go dark” with their creative practice; that they would pivot to generating income through their pre-existing commercial skills while “giving myself that time and space to really interrogate the concepts”. As the art commentator explained further;
“…artists need a fallow time, sort of time where sort of the nutrients are returned to ourselves. I think that having this idea of rest being an active process of restoration, and healing and necessary development is a conversation that we can bring to the people that need to hear it: the fact that artists and freelancers don't work in a conventional way. And the means by which they gain capital, and hold capital is something that requires unconventional solutions…”.
Another reoccurring theme of the Rotherham workshop was the idea of accessibility. One of our participants, a writer and educator, shared that a lack of sick pay for freelancers was a constant source of anxiety and concern. They also explained that, as an individual with autism and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), some of the administrative burden of freelancing can be more difficult for those with executive planning challenges: “…I got my two ASD and ADHD diagnoses and my dyslexia when I was 30. So there's a lot of people of my generation in the arts who aren't picked up but very often we struggle to fit into large systems of working and [traditional] team structures. And we like to do things in our own way. And we like to innovate in our own way…”
This was echoed by one of the younger participants, also an individual with ADHD, who after leaving a more structured and disciplined school environment, found the unstructured “freedom of freelance life” somewhat overwhelming.
Another of the participants shared her frustration at the continued inaccessibility of project funding application processes. As creative practitioners, she explained, it was frustrating to have to continue to apply in a written format. The group agreed and pondered what it might look like for voice, video and other alternative methods of communication to be more commonplace within funding streams; supporting not only disabled creatives and practitioners more equitable opportunities, but to communicate intention and ambition in a different way. Interestingly, on the morning of the Rotherham workshop, one of our participants was unable to join due to illness, so we agreed that we’d receive their input separately, via voice note; those reflections have been included in this report.
A trusted community
As with the other groups, we spent a significant amount of our time talking about what it was like to be a freelancer specifically in Rotherham and the surrounding area compared to other parts of the country. Strikingly, one of our participants made the following observation: “I'm from South Africa originally and then I moved to London and was there for like eight years…Then I moved to Rotherham in 2006….then I got the opportunity to move to Los Angeles. I wanted to come back to Rotherham, because I felt that [it] was one of the most poignant places in the world that I've ever lived…The art scene here is so different to everywhere else - like everyone here really cares about what's going on…”
We asked them and the group to explain what made working in Rotherham so special. From the response this discussion generated, it was clear that there was a certain unique strength in the relationships between the individual artists and the support organisations in Rotherham. When we enquired further about how local organisations had supported the participants, they unanimously agreed it was about ‘trust’. The youngest participant across all our workshop locations, explained: “I've been lucky that I sort of had that bit of a head start to get contacts and start to know people… just the trust that… everyone…gave us permission to just sort of go… to do this thing... That was really nice, especially as a young person as well. Because a lot of the time people come to you and go ‘oh you’re only 20 you’ve not got the experience’, but then because you've not got the experience, you can't find that work. And if you can't find that work, you don't get the experience. So you get stuck within a sort of loop. Just have someone go: here's a project, run with it…”
Almost all the creative and cultural sector workers in the room who had engaged with ACE National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) locally agreed that the trust they were given was vital to their development as independent creatives. Without a leap of trust and a certain degree of risk-taking from local commissioning organisations, many of these young creatives would not get the experience they needed to develop their portfolio or grow as professionals. For the more experienced participants in the room, where a lack of evidence wasn’t a concern, they explained that trust was also extremely important to them. It was a way for them to feel not only validated in their work, but empowered to create confidently and expand their practice into new territories.
A spotlight on inclusion
While it was clear that Rotherham arts organisations, in the main, appeared to be engaging well and were trusted by the freelance community, we did spend some time discussing the issue of engagement and participating with minoritised ethnic communities. Participants in our group, from the British South Asian community in the area, described how at times, they felt like there were supported or directly engaged due to their ethnicity, rather than for their skill as an artist. One participant described: “As a young woman, and a person of colour… it always kind of feels like that I never get to lead on things where it's just about doing something, it's always…got a hidden agenda of ‘we want you to work with BAME’. I feel like that's a massive thing. But it is quite heavy for me as a person in Rotherham trying to be freelance…”
Another shared: “I’m kind of kind 50/50 with it…I want to be a representative of [BAME people] in the arts sector because, growing up, I didn't have that. I didn't have someone to look up to the same as me…the creative space isn't something that's promoted in the South Asian community, generally, from a wellbeing, space, mental health space, or even a career in the arts in any way…But at the same time, I'm a bit like, I don't want to be boxed into that.”
This was an important conversation, touching on the difficulties of developing diverse outreach and engagement activities, as well as work opportunities in an area that is predominately white British, and how such initiatives can be received by parts of the workforce that are underrepresented.
We need feedback
As we neared the end of the workshop, we asked the group for suggestions on what policy changes they want to make freelance life just that bit easier. As well as re-emphasising the accessibility of funding applications, and support in applying for opportunities, some in the group shared the importance of getting feedback on their work. They explained that sometimes, particularly with larger projects or bigger funding schemes, once the work was finished, there wasn’t much opportunity for feedback or evaluation. The group seemed to agree that receiving feedback on their work, projects and funding applications - however big or small - was a vital part in supporting them to grow and develop as freelance, self-employed and atypical creative and cultural sector workers.
An 'ear for the region'
The group also agreed that now they were moving into post-lockdown life, they were increasingly relishing opportunities to network again: to meet each other, find out what is going on, and support each other, practically and pastorally too. One participant commented that it was sometimes like “…we need our own staffroom” to interact, talk about what’s going on and share issues or inspiration with each other. Another mused: “[we need] somebody who kind of glues things together a bit and encourages connections and communication without agenda… somebody [who] understands the artists on the ground, and to be fuelling the fire of that network…just like the ear of the region.”
Interestingly, one of the more experienced and established freelancers mentioned that in 2023, he wanted to spend more time offering work to younger artists. They explained; “I think about how I would’ve wanted somebody like me in my position now to go, ‘Hey, look, we’re doing this’ and share everything. If somebody was with me not just to help me, but to open that out that would be amazing...”
This latter observation seems to confirm the former’s observation about the need for a wider sharing of opportunities and projects: there was high demand for the more experienced practitioners work, there was room for their organisation to grow and they wanted someone to proactively share it with, but they simply didn’t know who might be interested.
As we closed the workshop session, we asked the Rotherham group what their piece of advice would be for freelancers starting a career in their sub-sectors. One participant recommended: “...don’t put your eggs in one basket”,and that new freelances should always consider utilising the full breath of their skills, working across as many sectors and opportunities as possible. Yet, for their final piece of advice, the group resoundingly agreed “Don’t do it alone”. As we heard from the Croydon workforce, freelancers in Rotherham felt that much less of a burden when working and collaborating with others.
 Locating 54 ‘Priority places’ by balancing evidence of creative activity in the area with evidence of social need and where their own historic “investment and engagement is too low”:
 For the full story of the grass roots and co-designed project: https://www.childrenscapitalofculture.co.uk/about/