An E-News notification pops up in my inbox – a new platform offering money, time, space and mentorship for artistic research and experimentation. I click the link and quickly clue on that it is an opportunity exclusively for early-career artists. Words like ‘emerging’, ‘young’ and ‘youth’ are thrown around and the descriptor reads, “We consider emerging artists to be within their first five years of professional practice and generally aged 18 – 26.”
“I find that it is often perceived that the emerging artist group is made up of young people, especially in the dance world due to the general popular idea that dance is only practiced by younger people. Trying to counter this generalisation could help make the "industry" less exclusive - especially for people who have not followed the usual dance trajectory.”– anonymous
As I read through, I think about the ambiguity that constitutes ‘professional practice’ – a term often used in these application contexts. I wonder about paid work as a potential primary measure of professionalism, and how this might disregard many expansive elements that being a practicing dance artist can involve...
“From my time as a young dancer, I remember there being a great (perceived) divide between those who were working “professionally” and those who weren’t, which I found extremely problematic. It seemed only those who were in paid work could call themselves dancers. I feel strongly about dancers naming themselves as such, if that is how they identify. If you dance in your loungeroom once a week (actually we all do that now!) and consider yourself a dancer, then you are one...For those who self-identify as being emerging, it seems possible to be part of a community, of a movement.”- Dr Olivia Millard
Not only are most of these unpaid, many also require payment from the dance artist. Transparency and a greater acknowledgement of this is needed if independent dance is to not only exist, but thrive into the future. These fundamental aspects of practice are not undertaken merely for pleasure or leisurely entertainment (although they can be, of course) – it is the working cogs of an artistic community.
Of course, other kinds of valuable currencies exist for the dance artist – shared resources, broadened networks, reciprocated labour – however, these exchanges do not put food on the table. For many emerging artists, managing a tension between saying yes or no to paid work in unrelated fields and saying yes or no to unpaid artistic projects is a very present reality. Without the artist's personal financial investment, the independent dance ecology would collapse or, at best, continue as is. Dance practice needs upkeep, momentum and consistency. As an artistic form in its current state, it requires self-sustaining – financially and energetically.
Is ‘emerging’ about age?
Is ‘emerging’ about time?
Is ‘emerging’ about choice?
Is ‘emerging’ about success?
Is ‘emerging’ about visibility?
Is ‘emerging’ about conviction?
Is ‘emerging’ about recognition?
Reading further into the criteria I muse about the five-year timeframe the application points to, and the quantity of ‘professional practice’ each calendar year realistically has the potential to contain. With the current funding landscape often involving project-based engagements, artistic work becomes fractured and operates in isolated pockets of time. If I am involved in paid projects for an accumulative total of say four months of the year, then the rest of my year will likely be filled with paid work in other sectors and unpaid aspects of my artistic practice. Using this as a measure, it will take me fifteen years to fulfil five calendar years worth of professional practice.
Of course, I am not suggesting that funding bodies and organisations expect the artist to have had consistent full time paid artistic engagement in order to ‘graduate’ from the emerging category. Rather – I am thinking about the temporal nature in which artistic work often functions, as a way of understanding why many artists struggle to find consistency and continuity in their practice. As less and less resources float around, it is inevitable that artists will linger for longer in the emerging world. As a 26-year-old in my fifth year out of university, the fact that I do not consider myself close to the edge of the ‘mid-career’ threshold leaves me in a somewhat hazy space; almost no longer eligible for emerging opportunities, yet still distant from established ones.
“I have invested a lot of time/practice into training, performing and teaching dance but I am only just beginning to choreograph and direct. To me, these are all different skill sets, manifested from the same person. So do I still classify as ‘emerging’? I will always be researching in new ways and finding different mediums. Is the term related to age? Surely not. Is it in relation to artistic experience? Or life experience? But, then what specific kind of experiences? We are always learning and developing as an artist in a non-linear way. Is it in relation to a person’s visibility in the industry or your community?"- Niharika Senapati
Undoubtedly there are many platforms available for emerging artists, however the scope of selection must be expanded if they are to promote inclusivity and genuinely reflect the diversity of ‘emerging’ in the sector today.
”The thinking was to perhaps make a more active/inclusive term (rather than age) and acknowledge that an artist was on a journey...Like many terms (independent artist) emerging has been taken up and now has a range of meanings to different contexts.”- anonymous
As stage-identifying terms become more prominently used by funding bodies and organisations, as artists we need to remain autonomous in ensuring they are being used within the community in a way that best supports practice. Are we referencing people with them in a way that is useful, or is it sometimes reductive? Are we using them to create community, or do they sometimes separate? Are we actively utilising hierarchy in ways that are generative, or does it sometimes fall to habit?
“The term "emergent" is more powerful and productive for me than "emerging". The former is entwined in my practice of making experimental performance, the latter is more of a funding or selection criteria. "Emergent" in my practice speaks to possibilities, nuanced and complicated relationships with disciplinarity, the role of fiction in dancing subjectivities, and the understory - the layer between the forest canopy and the forest floor.”- Amaara Raheem
There are moments, of course, when labels like ‘emerging’, ‘mid-career’ and ‘established’ can be useful in providing a context or framing a space. They can provide a cohort, a sense of camaraderie, togetherness, comfort, clarity.
“I think that the term is useful for people who are starting to make work, and work independently for the first time, as we now have a "category", something that we can feel a part of, and a way to legitimise our practice.”- anonymous
Yet while early-career programs and platforms are integral in allowing emerging artists to work in a comfortable environment and access different kinds of support and mentorship, the reality is that many are pocket-sized, isolated engagements. It is important that these opportunities consider career longevity more rigorously, provide follow up and continual feedback and long-term support in some capacity. Perhaps an emerging fellowship that offers a set amount of money each year over ten years, or an emerging residency program that offers space to show ideas twice a year for five years? Some kind of framework that encourages sustaining and recognises that embodied work requires continuity throughout all career stages – not just at the beginning. How can we better imagine systems and infrastructure in light of this?
“We need somewhere to start, support to keep going AND something to be working towards, something that continues and is constantly building”- Siobhan McKenna
Often terms like ‘emerging’ are used as a strategy for ease in money distribution and categorisation by looking at how long the artist has been active. A model for greater inclusivity could give more attention to the content of the artistic proposal itself. For example, the criteria could read, “We consider an emerging idea to be within its first year of development.” Although inevitably bringing up questions about ‘newness’, this draft model attempts to broaden selection beyond age and status.
I am advocating for this kind of model to be in addition to, rather than instead of, platforms that specifically target artists based on how established their body of work is. It does not aim to take space away from established artists, but promotes trust in emerging ideas and shifts the focus back towards the art. I am reminded of Lucy Guerin Inc’s most recent residency program which had two streams through which you could apply. As indicated by the titles, ‘Make A Start’ and ‘Moving Forward’ were matched with criteria based on what stage of development the idea was at in acknowledgement that even at all career levels the work is always, and should always be, emerging in some way. There are too many facets of being an independent artist for it to not be. Artists need permission and resources to take time, have space to take risks, make errors and work in relation to a world that is shifting too frequently to ever really ‘arrive’.
“Well the joke is that at my age, one has surpassed ‘emerging’ and is now “submerging", at least that is what it feels like in the current landscape...We are all evolving inside our own work, alongside others, developing and understanding process that hopefully results in something interesting, but it also may not, and how we move from here is significant but not defining.”- Michelle Heaven
From 2009–2015, ArtStart (an Australia Council for the Arts program) provided $10,000 to recent creative arts graduates “wanting to establish a career as a professional artist”. A repercussion of the major funding cuts announced in the 2015-16 Federal Budget, the cessation of this program was significant in the loss of space for recent graduates and early-career artists to focus on building sustainability in practice and getting their “new arts business” off the ground. Bridging the space between training and “establish[ing] an income-generating career in the art form they have studied” now requires considerable time and personal financial investment from the individual. ArtStart seemed like a chance to move forward from training, to learn and unlearn information, knowledge and skills that are or aren’t going to sustain and support your practice. In many ways this experience is reflected in what those of us who are lucky enough to be receiving JobKeeper are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic – albeit support almost unwillingly given to us by the government amidst a global crisis, and for many, received through sources completely outside employment in the arts.
“[ArtStart] was a significant marker in my trajectory as a dancer and marked a time where I could think, dance and discover what it was I was interested in as an artist. It opened up my world and allowed me to connect with artists I would not usually connect with. I can genuinely say that I would not be who I am without that grant.”- Niharika Senapati
In the absence of securities such as ArtStart, and within a funding crisis that threatens the continuation of the form, it is more pertinent than ever that dance practice does not solely rely on funding bodies, panels and institutions to validate and enable work. I have observed many of my friends and fellow graduates leaving the industry before they had even entered it, filled with uncertainty and turning to study in another field almost immediately.
“Is it unrealistic to think the way of the future for us could be a well funded, supported industry with sustainable jobs? Is this something we have to leave behind?”- Siobhan McKenna
As artists, how can we choose to work on strengthening the independent sector while navigating the financial burden of choosing to continue practicing in a way that mutually supports each other? Perhaps community and resource sharing, intentionally traversing all ages and stages of practice, is the way forward. By pooling experience, expertise and sharing resources, we can create internal support systems to sustain our practices now and into the future. The essence of dance practice exists not as three disparate stages, but as a fluid, interchanging series of potentially nonlinear junctures. The emergence of Think Tank Dance Assembly feels like it is somehow located within this. We may be independent, but we should not be alone.