Artist Care (or it isn’t personal)

When you work in a cultural organisation, one of the greatest assets is that you have access to artists who will support your work. But knowing how to work with them, and get the best out of them, can be difficult. During my 20 plus years of organising events with authors and artists in bookshops, theatres, festivals and various random venues (including Cheltenham Literature, Science and Music Festivals, Group Events Manager for Waterstones, Stratford Festival, the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms and numerous theatres nationwide), there are certain rules I’ve developed for myself about working with people of an artistic and creative nature. Certain things one has to bear in mind.

My first piece of advice is to know what your artist looks like.  It sounds obvious, but there’s little more deflating than being ‘the talent’ and no one recognising you when you arrive.  I try and find out a bit about them – their previous work, whether they’re married or have children and so on.  This gives you the background to make some informed small talk when they arrive, and puts them at ease that you know your job. Talking to them as though they are just another human being, and not as someone you hero worship (even if you do), goes a long way here. I’ve talked about the benefits of sunscreen with Lord Melvyn Bragg, the advantages of worming tablets for dogs with Martin Clunes, the meaning of ‘now you’re diddling’ with Sir David Attenborough, and the merits of red wine with Howard Jacobson.  Find something they’re interested in (whether it’s their children, home, work or a hobby) and just chat normally.  It puts everyone at ease.

When I meet an artist for the first time, no matter who they are, I try and read the signs to find out how they want to be treated – stay and chat to them if they want it, leave them in peace if they don’t.  Offer them refreshments suitable to the time of day (and know in advance if there are specific dietary requirements), and try to present something other than sandwiches with dry, curled-up edges.  Everyone feels better when they’ve been fed and watered, although if they’re nervous, they may not want anything until after they’re finished.

One of the fundamental rules I’ve learnt is that any artist or author, no matter how successful and how famous, can be nervous when asked to appear in front of a live audience, particularly if it’s doing something outside of their personal comfort zone, such as meeting sponsors or potential donors, or talking in front of a live audience if they are used to a solitary working style (such as authors or playwrights).  Nerves can manifest themselves in a variety of ways, and it’s up to me, as the Event Manager, to ensure that I deal with those nerves in a completely professional manner.  An artist might be sullen and withdrawn, or garrulous and overly friendly.  Occasionally I’ve seen tears, and I’ve often seen a deep need to be reassured that they look fabulous.  An artist who is downright rude before an event can be wonderful and charming afterwards – and it’s all down to nerves.  They worry that they’ll forget what they want to say, or that no-one will come, and everyone worries about being made to look foolish in some way.  Never let anything anyone says upset you, and if it does you must never let it show.  I was once told that I’d put on weight since someone had seen me last.  I merely smiled and said it’s due to happiness, knowing that it wasn’t meant nastily, but the person was nervous and said the wrong thing.  It wasn’t personal.  

Finding ways to chat normally to them and putting them at ease will help enhance both your artist’s and your audience’s experience of whatever the event is.  If your star is meeting potential donors, then stick close by when they’re with them.  You can help steer a conversation to an area that the artist can talk comfortably and knowledgeably about, and move them on to the next group of people so they don’t get stuck with the same person or group.  If your star is being interviewed, then make sure the interviewer is well briefed to ask about things your artist can talk about with clarity and engagement.  It helps get the best out of everyone, and again, puts everyone at ease.

Perhaps one of the things that makes me good at my job is a refusal to get star struck.  As a result of being calm and professional with absolutely everyone I meet, I’ve been offered some amazing opportunities.  I’ve met both the Clintons, I’ve shared a pork pie with Sir Roger Moore, I’ve been kissed by Ewan McGregor, and I’ve danced with Peter O’Toole.  Experiences I will treasure, but not ones I often talk about.  Being discreet is another essential part of my job.  I never ask for photographs with the artist, and heard some very good advice about this once, “If you ask for a selfie with Madonna, that’s not cool.  If Madonna asks YOU for a selfie, then that’s cool”.   It’s stuck with me, and is a great way of ensuring I remain professional with the artist I’m looking after.  Having said which of course, if you’re working on behalf of a charity, a selfie with an artist wearing the charity t-shirt or badge might be exactly what you want.  So think about what you need to achieve, and the best way of achieving it, but also try and see every single request from the point of view of the person you’re asking.  How will it make them feel?  Will it compromise a contractual agreement they have with a sponsor? Does it conflict with a personal standpoint they may have?

It all really boils down to thinking about how that artist is feeling, and if I was in their position, how I would want to be treated. I’ve developed mothering instincts I didn’t know I had, and it’s now second nature to me to try and put people at ease and reassure them that everything is great. I try to treat everyone I’m looking after equally, although inevitably (and with apologies to Orwell) one has to treat some more equally than others. It’s knowing which ones that’s important…

Jo James  |  May 2015