How to work in the arts: James Trevelyan (Arts Council England) & Phillippa Slinger (Ledbury Poetry Festival)

From the outside, working in the arts can sometimes seem mysterious, impenetrable, or even impossible. It’s not a career path that gets brought up much at school: as Sarah Howe remarks, “‘poet’ never showed up on the computerised careers service as an option” – and ‘arts administrator’ is nearly as rare. In the hopes of demystifying the sector and showing that yes, YOU can make a living in the arts, we’re launching a new series of features, asking a range of people about their careers in the arts – starting with Arts Council England Literature Relationship Manager James Trevelyan and Ledbury Poetry Festival Manager Phillippa Slinger.

Photo of James Trevelyan reading in front of a microphone
Photo: John Canfield

Name and job title: James Trevelyan, Literature Relationship Manager in the London office of Arts Council England

Length of time working in the arts: I suppose nearly all the jobs I’ve had have been around the arts at least. I spent several years during and after university working in theatre bars both in a small regional venue and in the West End. But I have had more recognisable “arts jobs” – working in organisations and on projects – for the last six years.

Could you tell us a bit about your current role? Arts Council England are the national development agency for arts and culture, which basically means we provide funding for artists and arts organisations to do their work. I work in the Literature team so spend a lot of my time hearing about new projects from writers, publishers, spoken word artists and programmers, and advising them how to apply for the funding we offer. I also look after a few writer-focussed organisations that the Arts Council regularly fund (that’s the “Relationship Management” part of the job). I’m a writer myself too, so the highlights of the job for me are going to events, seeing new work and meeting poets, graphic novelists, fiction and non-fiction writers on a regular basis to discuss their new projects.

How did you get into this role? The Arts Council regularly fund over 800 organisations in different art forms across England, and I’d worked for few of those organisations before applying which really helped.

I started thinking about a career in the arts later than other people. I studied English Literature at Lancaster University and then did an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway in London. During that time, and for a couple of years afterwards, I worked in theatres either on the bar or day managing front of house. Eventually, using the contemporary poetry knowledge I’d built up since my MA through writing, reading and going to events, I started volunteering for the Poetry Book Society once or twice a week while working evenings at the theatre. That gave me a great overview of small arts organisations and experience of the jobs you might do there like social media, copywriting, live events, marketing and administration.

These are the skills that I took to, and built on, at other jobs. I was lucky to work freelance doing similar jobs at a few organisations including The Poetry Society, which accidently gave me quite a lot of experience in the Literature sector. Most of these jobs were small bits of marketing, admin or event support, but that led to other work using my writing skills, like writing book reviews or giving creative feedback on Young Poets Network competition entries. I was really fortunate to then work for a small publisher called Penned in the Margins for three years as their Sales & Marketing Manager, which combined all the things I’d learnt and allowed me to work much closer with authors and learn about the publishing industry, which is knowledge I still use every day.

What advice would you give to young people getting into arts careers? I would definitely say at the start – for better or worse – it can still be who you know, not what you know. But I didn’t know anyone or have any family working in these jobs before I started, and I was a very nervous networker, so there are ways to try and overcome that barrier. I found that through writing poetry and going to poetry events with my course mates, slowly the network of writers I knew (or was aware of at least!) grew. I also gradually got a good knowledge of what was going on, who ran events, and who was writing and performing exciting stuff, which are all really useful things to know if you decide you want to work in that industry. Performing at events and getting involved in putting nights on myself also gave great hands-on experience. The literature sector in a city (even somewhere as big as London) can often be quite a small community, so just being around it and attending events should allow you to meet people and give you a great knowledge-base for applying for jobs. And saying hello to people along the way does help if you can pluck up the courage!

And when you’re in your first jobs – just be friendly and hardworking. You’re unlikely to get the most exciting things to do at the start, but if you treat stuffing envelopes and clearing out cupboards with as much enthusiasm as you would programming a festival, then you’ll be asked back and suggested to other people, and the more exciting things will be just around the corner.

Is there anything you’d tell your younger self about working in the arts? Don’t limit yourself with what you do or want to do. I’m not entirely sure I know exactly what I want to do now, and that is after several years working in different jobs. So there’s no need to narrow down your interests early on. Most literature and arts organisations are quite small and close knit, so it’s easy to get experience of different things along the way and find out what part of it you really enjoy doing.

Find out more about Arts Council England: Arts Council England were set up in 1946, by Royal Charter, to champion and develop art and culture across the country. They are a public body of the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. They help to fund some of the biggest arts organisations you can think of, from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to the Southbank Centre in London, as well as hundreds of smaller organisations and individual artists. There are national arts councils in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland too.

What other jobs are there within funding bodies? It depends on the size and type of the organisation – Arts Council England are the biggest in the UK and have lots of different departments, including Children and Young People, Training and Advice, Customer Service, IT, HR, Finance and more.  They also have a nifty page where various staff members talk about their roles here. Here are some examples of job titles you might find in this kind of organisation:

  • Director(s)
  • Relationship Manager
  • Head of Finance
  • Finance Assistant
  • Head of Programmes
  • Head of Communications
  • Communications Officer
  • Executive Assistant
  • … and more!

Arts Council England

Photo of Phillippa Slinger smiling

Name and job title: Phillippa Slinger, Festival Manager for Ledbury Poetry Festival

Could you tell us a bit about your current role? My day-to-day work covers all aspects of arts administration. That’s anything from completing Arts Council requirements, to liaising with our hundreds of volunteers, to press releases, venue hire, social media and anything in between. What I love about this role is that you need a good head for admin and organisation as well as a really human side for all aspects of community engagement. It’s like having feet in both the corporate world and the arts world.

How did you get into this role? I got into this job through my previous jobs in the arts, some voluntary, some paid. These varied from organising large scale community arts projects, to professional music teaching and orchestral positions. I come from a musical family so I have had a lifetime immersed in the arts.  I started studying music very young, and ended up doing a music degree at University, followed by a PGCE. You might think I’d be more suited to a career in music than poetry but nothing in the arts is wasted. There are so many parallels between music and poetry, in many ways I think of poetry as a soundscape painted in words. Think of the performance aspect: my experience in music performance taught me all about acoustics, sound, light, venue management, crowd control. All of this knowledge is vital for running a poetry festival – you just have to look at what skills are transferable in your experience, there will be loads. You also have to love people. People can be a little strange especially when they’re put under stress – learning to manage people and go with the flow is important for a 10 day festival – anything can happen!

What advice would you give to young people getting into arts careers? A big part of my role is to advocate for the arts, it’s important to be able to convey, passionately and concisely, what moves you about the arts, about their benefits to all, the betterment of the human condition, and why the arts are precisely what we need at times of meltdown and crisis. Whether you’re an individual poet, or part of an organisation, you really will have to “sell” yourself or your project to funders, sponsors and publishers. Funding applications are a necessary evil and in time you will learn to love them. Start now to learn to communicate what moves you, what makes you passionate and what it is you are planning to achieve. Learn to back up your claims and build an argument – this is vital work in arts administration. Time to work on that elevator pitch! Practise with friends, family, colleagues. Sadly you will be called upon many times to ‘justify’ the very existence of the arts, music, poetry: it’s not enough just to believe the arts are worth having and preserving, you must be able to articulate their worth. This was taught to me in my music degree and I have never stopped using it.

And lastly, get as much experience as you can. Ledbury Poetry Festival runs internships and student placements alongside other volunteering roles such as event managing, hospitality, stewarding and so on (find out more about these here). I’m sure most other arts organisations do too. Lots of organisations run particular youth strands especially for under 25’s. Enter poetry competitions and get a feel for the procedures. Do your homework, find out what the organisation offers and get in touch with how you’d like to be involved. It will all help build your CV and your skills, and remember, nothing is wasted – that’s the beauty of the arts, they are a wide, wide world full of creativity and possibility, with every role imaginable and there’s the right position just waiting for you!

Find out more about Ledbury Poetry Festival: Ledbury Poetry Festival is one of the biggest annual celebrations of poetry and spoken word in the UK. Poets from all over the world gather in this independent market town to perform, write, read and listen to poetry. Contemporary literary titans and upcoming talents work together to create an exciting programme of readings, performance poetry, masterclasses, walks, talks and films through to breakfasts, music, exhibitions and bike rides.

What other jobs are there within literary festivals? Depending on the size and type of festival, you’ll usually find:

  • Artistic Director
  • Finance Manager
  • Marketing and Communicators Manager
  • Box Office
  • Stewards
  • Interns
  • … and much more!

Ledbury Poetry Festival logo

Keep your eyes peeled for more Young Poets Network features about careers in the arts – and let us know in the comments what you’d like to see next. You can read our second feature with Annette Brook from the Royal Society of Literature and Ali Lewis at Poetry London here, our third with Verve Festival and Press’s Stuart Bartholomew and Spread the Word’s Bobby Nayyar here and our fourth with harana poetry‘s co-editors Kostya Tsolakis and Romalyn Ante here.

Phillippa Slinger trained as a professional musician and has been working in the Arts sector her entire career. Roles include orchestral performer, music teacher, and community arts practitioner. Since 2015, Phillippa has been Festival Manager for Ledbury Poetry Festival, the UK’s pre-eminent literature festival for poetry, covering all aspects of the Festival’s administration, and running the Festival’s year-round Community Programme of outreach activities.

James Trevelyan grew up in the Midlands and now lives in South London. His debut pamphlet of poetry DISSOLVE to: L.A. was published in 2016 by the Emma Press. He works in the Literature team at Arts Council England.

Published July, 2020

2 thoughts on “How to work in the arts: James Trevelyan (Arts Council England) & Phillippa Slinger (Ledbury Poetry Festival)

  1. What stars!!!!!

    These are beautiful people who love their work, are good at it and are the driving forces in vital contributions to our global society.

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