Blog: Navigating the Now - The Artist Who Should Have Been There by Jen McGregor

26 July 2021


I almost didn’t write this blog. I almost didn’t write it for the same reason I almost didn’t apply for Navigating the Now. The reason? I wasn’t sure whether I had the right, had my own permission, or whether I’d be taking a place away from someone who needed it more, who would do more with it or somehow be more of a real artist than I am.

When I first saw Imaginate’s call for artists for Navigating the Now I knew I wanted to be involved. I’m always keen to widen my network of potential collaborators, and I felt that my perspective on lockdown and reimagining our work during and after the pandemic might be useful. 2020 wasn’t my first experience of isolation or having my life put on hold – physical and mental illness have put me on pause more than once, and those experiences left me with a decent set of coping mechanisms that have proved really handy recently. I try to share those tools when I can, and this seemed like a way to do that.

But as soon as I’d sent my expression of interest the doubts set in. What if my perspective wasn’t useful? What if my enthusiasm for finding solutions to problems and discovering clarity within constraints actually proved unhelpful? It happens sometimes that people need to cry on each other’s shoulders rather than have someone like me skipping straight to finding things we can control within the chaos and focusing on practicalities. That worried me. If that was what people needed, maybe I wasn’t the right person to be in the room/zoom. Maybe someone else was, and maybe they wouldn’t be because I had taken their place.

As it turned out, I heard that sentiment echoed back to me again and again throughout the process. I wasn’t the only person questioning my right to be there. The figure of the Artist Who Should Have Been There was present in many people’s minds. That Artist had worked constantly throughout the pandemic and was therefore ideally placed to share their learning. That Artist had not worked since March 2020 and was therefore the perfect representative of everyone whose practice did not suit a shift to digital. That Artist was extremely experienced therefore able to communicate as a peer with the most experienced people in the room. That Artist was a brand-new emerging artist in need of a peer group’s support. The one thing all our versions of this Artist had in common was that this Artist’s needs were greater than ours.

This has always been a tricky part of a creative career, of course. Every success is someone else’s failure, and we probably know the Someone Else personally. We’ve all had to find a smile when a pal’s funding bid was successful and your own wasn’t. However, the pandemic has really highlighted and increased the inequalities inherent in this career. The question of whether I am genuinely the right person for a particular job, and why I do or don’t deserve the things I get, weighs on me more heavily when I have peers who haven’t worked in over a year and who fell through the cracks for government support.

Something that kept coming up in the Navigating the Now sessions was that sense of feeling lucky to have work, yet guilty for being lucky. I was lucky to see the ad, to have enough time to apply, to be selected, to live within the geographic area necessary, to have enough work to keep me feeling connected to my art form so that I felt justified in applying, but to have gaps in my schedule at the right times to let me get online and discuss practice and industry and survival with other artists.

The question to which none of us had any answer was how to counter this. If I’d decided not to apply, if I’d pre-emptively stepped aside in favour of The Artist Who Needed It More, was there any guarantee that that’s who would have replaced me? Was there any possibility that in this case we – or at least some of us – actually were The Artist Who Needed It More?

As I listened to the others in the group and worked through some of the tasks Luke had sent, I kept coming back to a phrase I learned years ago at my first Devoted & Disgruntled Open Space – “the people who turn up are the right people”. That’s not to say that we’re the best people, or that we’re an ideal representative group in terms of our characteristics – only that under the circumstances, we were the only possible group. The ones who saw the call and had the inclination and capacity to answer it. A combination of Artists Who Needed It and people who could support and encourage them. 

When the call for blogs first went out, I left it alone. Again, I reasoned that the blogs would be best written by The Artist Who Needs It More, by voices less well-represented than mine, or by artists who had been on a more dramatic journey through Navigating the Now. When the call went out a second time, I decided to respond.

I can’t offer a definitive guide to when an artist is or isn’t the right person to be in the room. All I can do is share the thought I kept coming back to throughout the process, which is that once you’re in the room, there is always the option of making sure you do something beneficial there. For me, it feels important to share the message that anyone questioning their right to take up space in a process like this is unlikely to be alone, and if you voice that feeling you’re likely to hear several people around you breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not just them.

It also feels important to think about who wasn’t in the room, and why they weren’t there, and what power I might have to make sure they know the room exists next time, and that they have a right to be in it too. This ties into other conversations I’ve been having about how we help and protect each other in difficult times, and who gets brought in and who gets shut out, and how your own perception of yourself as an artist plays into feelings of deserving/not deserving any help or support available.

The past year has left so many freelancers feeling excluded, left out of the industry they love, undervalued and made nobody’s priority. The one thing we – not just the Navigating the Now group, but freelancers more widely – have is each other. If you’re wondering whether you have a right to be where you are, think about who you can bring in with you or pass the benefit on to. Our feelings of imposter syndrome can spur us on to support each other better, if we let them.