‘You have to be…slightly starving’, Ruth Medjber on what it really takes to make a living as an artist…
Art is not just in galleries, it’s everywhere around you in your daily life. It’s the movies you watch on Netflix, the graphic design of the latest Covid poster, it’s the busker singing cover songs on Grafton Street. It’s the poem that’s recited at a funeral or a wedding. It’s the photographs that you like on instagram.
I grew up in a very standard Irish house (or so I think). My Dad was into football, my Mam was into shopping, my brother played for every sports team in the area. Me becoming an artist was not an obvious choice. Even now, after countless exhibitions and my first published book of photographs, I still hesitate when I call myself an “artist”.
Growing up, art was considered a hobby. It was something pensioners took up to kill time. It wasn’t a job and it definitely wasn’t a career choice. This wasn’t the attitude of my parents, my parents were fairly laid back and allowed me to choose my own path as long as I got a degree in something (did anyone else’s parents insist on you having a degree?). It was more the attitude of the society I grew up in and unfortunately that attitude still remains.
I joined my secondary school a week later than everyone else due to a family bereavement. By the time I arrived, both the art and music classes were full and they weren’t entertaining my idea of expanding the class for me. Here I was, destined to be surrounded by both music and art for my whole professional life and I was stuck in chemistry class. What wasn’t full though was P.E. The camogie team, the basketball team, the football team, they all had plenty of space too. The school made sure of it. When the teams got full, new teams were created and the school somehow found the resources to hire the extra staff.
I was on the camogie team and I loved it but not as much as I loved making paper maché face masks. There was no tournament for that though. I longed for the same recognition for my arts and crafts as the winning sports teams got. I wanted a massive golden trophy and an announcement over the tannoy “congratulations to the under 15s papier mache team who won the schoolgirls’ final today” and then the whole school would cheer.
Imagine if at the end of the news each night there was an additional 10 minute segment on what new gallery shows were open, or new poems that had been published. Imagine an Olympics-sized event showing the world’s greatest landscape painters as they painted, Bob Ross style, on a lakeside in Switzerland.
The truth is, we don’t celebrate art in that way or give it the same space, time and recognition that we do with other professions, even though we pride ourself on being a nation full of artists. With the recent proposal for a universal basic income scheme for artists in Ireland, we could be inching towards an Ireland full of artists again, and thankfully not just the starving kind.
As it stands, there’s only a few ways of making a living as an artist in Ireland and I’ve tried them all. The first one is what your lecturers in college will tell you to do straight out of college; apply for grants and bursaries.
These are the bane of every artist’s existence.
Personally I’ve applied for many a grant and the majority of them have been rejected. The only one I qualified for was a very small grant. I think I was successful because the form was only one page long, any longer and they would have spotted my lack of posh sentence forming skills a mile away.
You see, I’m convinced you need to have an honours degree in form filling to be an artist in this country. The application is a long and treacherous process. The thoughts of reapplying each year, spending weeks drafting the forms and using my thesaurus app to death fills me with a PTSD type of dread.
I half ass the form as I know that my chances of getting a grant are very slim. I then realise that if I half ass it, my chances are even slimmer. So I knuckle down and give it my all and still that tiny little rejection letter arrives. One of my rejection letters said something along the lines of “we’re too busy to tell you why we rejected you”. I had spent weeks on that form and I had no idea how to “fail better” next time. With my confidence feeling like it’s gone ten rounds with Katie Taylor, I began to look for other ways of making a living as an artist in Ireland.
After a certain amount of hard labour and years of experience, working with brands becomes an option. Selling your idea, your time, your reputation, and some might say “your soul”. This is something that I do whenever I can. The idea of “selling out” was never much of an issue for me. I don’t believe that selling your work to someone who’s willing to pay is a bad thing. Do you actually want me to starve? Because that’s what will happen if I don’t work with brands.
I’m talking about being hired by a drinks company (it’s usually always a drinks company) and developing a concept with them, or adapting one of my tried and tested concepts to suit their product. Let me lay it bare here, brands have more money than anyone else and unless you’ve personally been an artist in Ireland who isn’t able to pay the rent on the reg, don’t come at me with any “sell out” nonsense. I will admit though that there’s a fine line to be drawn here. You can sell some of your soul, but not all of it. Brands will only want you if the public wants you too and the public only want you if they think you’re still down to earth and somewhat relatable. You have to be…slightly starving, or at least hungry.
Selling to the consumer directly is another option for artists but possibly the hardest avenue of all these days. Do you know how hard it is to sell a print or a tee shirt for a profit? People won’t buy a tee shirt for €60 when they can shop on ASOS for half the price and get next day delivery, it doesn’t matter how amazing your design is. The same goes for photographs and prints. We’ve become too used to buying our art in Urban Outfitters.
I’d love for this to change. I’d love it if people recognised how much work goes into their daily fix of art by Irish artists. I’d love it if I could concentrate on creating work that I love and that will hopefully make Ireland a richer place instead of trying to find another word for “please” in my thesaurus.
We need to champion Irish artists. We need to hold them up as heroes, give them time and space on the platforms they deserve. We need to educate ourselves again (and our children) about all the incredible contemporary artists that surround us. We need to fill our homes and heads with art on a daily basis and appreciate its existence. We need to revel in being a country full of culture, but not just by paying lip service but by paying actual money. We need to put our hands in our pockets and pay for art this Christmas and beyond. We can be a nation of tech giants, pharmaceutical producers, sports lovers AND artists.
Drop the price of a pint into the donation box if you enjoyed the gallery show, and visit the gift shop too. Hire a painter to do a mural out your back garden. Commission a portrait for a present. Buy a record on vinyl instead of streaming it and why not pick up the band’s tee shirt too. Happily pay for a ticket to an unknown band (and show up for the support act too) or to take a chance on a small production of a play. If you’re strapped for cash, then retweet, share, promote the work you love. Like the big brand says, Every Little Helps.