Joy – rediscovering the joy of working in culture in challenging times

Over the past few weeks, I have had a post-it on my desk with the word ‘Joy’ written on it.

It’s a nod to the sign I made for myself during the pandemic emblazoned with the word ‘TEAM’ to remind me that getting through this would be something we did together, or not at all, and also that the process of recovery and a return to joy is as much my responsibility as simply getting through was back then. Because in these challenging times, I realise that working in culture, however difficult and unfair the experience may be at times, has brought me joy and I am mourning its absence.

So many of us are exhausted by what has gone before that we are struggling to find the strength to begin again at a time when resources are increasingly limited. And it appears I am not alone. There has been an exodus from the sector that has led to the following types of jobs being added to the Skilled Worker shortage occupations list in the last year, all be it at wages that are derisory:

– Arts officers, producers and directors – all jobs

– Artists, all jobs

Through our recruitment division at Achates, and simply as friends, I have had numerous conversations in recent months with people considering leaving the cultural sector and asking me what they should do? My answer is always the same, I can’t tell you the grass will be greener at a time when the wealth of our society is increasingly concentrated in a few hands, and I won’t tell you that you must stay, but you must do what gives you meaning and joy.

There is a pre-pandemic quote from Bidisha, which always rankled me:

“And let me say that being one of the metropolitan elite is just super. Everything the philistines say about it is true: you spend Monday at a film screening, Tuesday interviewing a designer, Wednesday at the theatre and Thursday at a gallery. And on Friday you go to a radio or TV studio full of people who are either really nice or just nice to your face (I’m not fussy), and you chat it out in a structured way, with cordiality, humour and mutual respect – despite your differences of opinion. It’s a privilege, a joy and a skill in itself.”

I realise now that it annoyed me because of the fear that I might be getting too much of my sense of joy from the fun and excitement that went with the experience of working in the arts in better times and not enough of the joy from the rigour, the debate; the privilege and the responsibility of connecting art to audiences.

Cultural organisations create or curate work, but they are also fundamentally connecting machines between art and audiences. At a time when there were limited opportunities to sell to audiences, the pandemic exposed that our relationship with audiences isn’t simply one of consumers, but of communities.

The experience of the pandemic has given me an understanding that meaning, and joy, come out of realising a clear sense of purpose and that as cultural organisations our purpose in not only in art, but in our relationship with our audiences and the change we are seeking to bring about with them. As a consultant, that means doubling down on my role in helping cultural sector leaders to realise the purpose of the organisations they lead and to unify staff and Boards behind that purpose so that together we can find the strength to begin again and the joy in that for ourselves and our communities.

Our June Achates Inspires explored ‘Extreme Fatigure’ and the ways in which we can bring a more sustainable and meaningful approach to work and wellbeing in our organisations. Follow this link to view the session.


Caroline McCormick, Achates Director