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Inspiration & Insanity – working in the arts

Monday, 7 December, 2015 -- Helen Wilson

What would I say to someone hoping to work in the arts? Don’t expect to be rich, but don’t listen to the naysayers who say you’ll never earn a living – it is simply not true.
Since graduating from Leicester University with a degree in English and History over 20 years ago, I’ve turned my childhood love of dance into a career that has taken me from the outlandish contemporary art world in London, to the De Vos Institue of Arts Management in Washington DC, sharing ideas with arts leaders from Nepal to Zimbabwe.

Getting started was the hardest thing as no-one in my family knew about the cultural industries. I applied for box office jobs. When I accepted an interview at the Paul Raymond Theatre without knowing it was a strip club my boyfriend laughed himself silly! 

I worked my way up through theatre marketing, becoming a press manager at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Southbank Centre, Sadler’s Wells and Phaidon, the art book publishers. Working in press relations allowed me to meet the most amazing people - up close and personal. The hours were long but it was so much fun, from roof top gigs on the Queen Elizabeth Hall to underground galleries, from Nina Simone’s last London concert to New York City Ballet.

Ten years ago I moved into management, becoming Director of Dance UK, the national support body for the dance industry (www.danceuk.org). Dance UK has over 1500 members, including choreographers, dancers, teachers, universities, theatres and dance companies, ranging from Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet, to famous choreographers including Matthew Bourne and Dame Gillian Lynne. I learnt how to lobby politicians and set up the All Party Parliamentary Dance Group, creating the first Dance Manifesto in 2006, resulting in an extra £5.5 million investment in youth dance.

It is only when you run an arts organisation that the true pressure of the shifting world of funding hits home. I can’t express the level of relief across the cultural industries when in the recent spending review the Chancellor announced Arts Council England’s funding wouldn’t be cut again. Arts leadership is about steely nerves and robust business planning, and knowing you can’t achieve anything without close colleague. I’ve been through the hell of a major loss of Arts Council money, as well as hitting the high of fundraising over £3 million. Probably my proudest moment was raising money to open the first ever NHS specialist dancers’ injury clinic in 2012. Through all of this many of my Eltham College friends have helped, offering everything from VAT advice to a shoulder to cry on!

In 2016 Dance UK will merge with three leading dance charities, including the subject association of dance in schools. In the current economy, mergers have become the hot topic for charities, but successfully seeing them through is a huge challenge. After five years of negotiating, planning and sleepless nights we went live with a new, stronger support body for the dance industry in December 2015 #togetherfordance. After which, I think I’m overdue getting back to focusing on the actual art!

Caroline Miller (1990) Director, Dance UK

Photograph credit Rick Senley