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Introduction to: Programming

Creative Careers

people talking and people listening
18 Oct 2017
9 min read

How do you get started as a programmer? We speak to the professionals to learn more about the joys of arts programming and hear their tips for those starting out in the industry. 

Arts programmers have the power to champion emerging artists, to create connections and to curate memorable events. But how do you get started, how do you translate ideas into reality and how do you fund events when the money is so hard to come by?

Look for the gaps
Ivan Blackstock is a dancer and the curator of NSF CRXSS PLATFXRM, a street festival in Peckham. When he was younger, Ivan found his strengths through dance rather than in school. ‘I used my dancing as a vehicle to educate myself and understand the world’, he explains. 

He and his friends would often create together, but there weren’t many spaces where they felt welcome to share their talents. Ivan wanted a place where all of his ideas and friends could come together, in an event which would ‘feel like it’s us’. Driven by this frustration, Ivan began creating his street festival, ‘Its aim is to make it a space where you feel represented,’ Ivan said, ‘and where you can educate people in new and interesting ways.’

Tip: If it feels like you are not represented in arts events, it means there is a gap in the market.

Challenge the status quo
Tas Elias is a cultural engineer for Ace Hotel in east London. With a background in music, he has worked both in the corporate world and as a freelancer. Looking through the programme of the London Architecture Festival, Tas noticed there was only one woman featured. He asked himself, ‘What can I do to redress the balance?’ Out of that desire for change, he created a symposium of the 19 most influential women in architecture. ‘I sensed a gap, an important gap, and tried to fill it’. 

His programming fuelled a wave of change. Tas had invited representatives from Wikipedia to the event who later asked him to help them complete missing profiles on women in the creative industries. By asking how you can make a significant impact through your programme, you may create lasting change.

Tip: Look for what is needed. Ask yourself how you can help solve a problem, fill a gap or challenge the way things are currently being done.

Think about who is allowed in the space
For both artists and audiences, it is important to interrogate who gets to be in the space. Tobi Kyeremateng is a producer with Apples & Snakes. She works in theatre and spoken word, regularly collaborating with venues, and is a Programme Coordinator for the Sussex festival, Brainchild. ‘When a space is set, it decides somewhat who can come to that space,’ Tobi explains. She suggested that by altering the space, you can make people feel more comfortable about being there. ‘They might feel more welcome and more invited.’ 

The use of space can define how your artists and audiences feel, move and interact at an event, so it is an important aspect to consider when programming.

Tip: When programming an event, ask questions about who the audience is, who the event is meant for, and how you can bring new people in to explore different forms of art. 

Look after the artist and the audience
Taking care of the performers is an important part of cultivating a good relationship. ‘It’s about the experience the artists have outside of just performing,’ Tobi says, giving the example of Brainchild. Rather than being split into a hierarchy of performers and audience, the festival is designed to make everyone feel at ease, so much so that one festival goer came with their mum. ‘It’s very inclusive. It’s about the people.’

When one of the artists arrived and asked where the VIP area was, she said ‘This is it - everywhere.’ Because of this comfortable atmosphere, the artists often stay for the whole festival rather than just for their set.

Similarly, ensuring the audience feel comfortable at all times is a vital part of creating an event, and can be achieved creatively. Art installations at Brainchild were designed to combine practicality, aesthetic and comfort. This resulted in having sofas dotted around the field, so that ticket holders could interact with the designs while relaxing and bonding with others.

Ivan recommended encouraging honesty from your participants. ‘Ask the artist what they need, then ask the same of the audience.’ Although, as a facilitator he might not be able to provide everything, Ivan believes it helps him be aware of the links and improvements he needs to make in the future. Creating an event that performers want to interact with beyond their specific set can be just as important as the programme itself. It is likely to improve the relationship between yourself and the artist and has the potential to lead to more collaborations as your career develops.

Tobi also recommends always following up with the artists to say thank you, or to apologise if something went wrong.

Create connections
Connections are at the heart of what Ivan, Tobi and Tas do. Their projects are built on collaboration. ‘I’m always thinking how can connections I make feed into something else,’ Tas said. Reach out to people, invite them to events, ‘I can’t do my job without hundreds of other people.’

Make funding applications stand out
You’re always going to be tampered by the lack of budget regardless of what you want to do. The key is finding the solutions with the amount you have that give you the best possible outcome. Tobi suggested asking for small amounts of money rather than going to one person and asking for a large sum. She also noted that if you can show that you have fundraised, however little, it will make a good impression.

When discussing fundraising applications, Tobi recommended specificity. ‘If there's something specific it's doing or targeting it's easier to lead with that. Make yourself stand out’. She suggests the focus should be the impact of who you’re working with and who is coming to the event, rather than the event itself.

This approach has allowed her to write applications that stand out. In a recent application she focused on her own development as a producer. When you’re early or mid-career, it is hard to find funding for large scale events in well-known venues. Thinking creatively about stages can not only save money but also lead to dynamic events in unusual places.

Always expect something to go wrong
One piece of advice all three of our professionals believe is to ensure you have contingencies. Tas recommends ‘planning to within an inch of your life’ in order to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing, ‘so you can give everyone peace of mind’.
‘Always overestimate and always plan for things to go wrong because they always will.’ Tobi recommends that you plan for mishaps at every stage of planning, rather than planning the event in full and then trying to spot areas that might cause issues. ‘It's something I do at every step,’ she said, ‘so things don’t get lost’.

Tas agrees; ‘It's much easier to make sure you have a minimum viability. I ordered like 280 salt and pepper grinders for one event. Two turned up.’ But it was enough. ‘It's about making sure you have a minimum amount- if it’s artists, tech staff or crew, you always need a skeleton crew that are guaranteed to come and you have their mobile number and have ordered a cab for them.’

Be multi-disciplinary
When asked how he manages when so many jobs are unpaid, Ivan’s advice was to ‘put your fingers in many pies.’ The key is to find transferrable skills. ‘That’s how I found a sustainability,’ Ivan said. ‘The current climate is all about being multi-disciplinary.’
Sometimes it is about who you know. Mobilise the people around you, Tas suggested. When an opportunity comes up, they'll be sure to let you know. ‘Recommendations are a sincere form of flattery but they're also a way to make serious money.’

For more expensive artists, be patient. Tas said, ‘If someone’s not going to perform for you for £50 then wait until you have £55.’
Some partnerships or links will break down and funding might get pulled. When this is the case, Ivan’s advice is to pick up the phone and throw the idea at other people. See what people are looking for and try to find someone or something that will catch their eye.

Another key thing is persistence. ‘A lot of places say they don’t have budget but they have. Push that they're going to get value for money and they'll get return on their investment’, Tas said. ‘And if in doubt, come and talk to me because I have a budget!’

While we all want to make a huge impact, doing little things can also mean you create a meaningful legacy. Tobi mentioned a festival goer who went to Brainchild alone, organically met another visitor and ended up working with them afterwards. Building relationships between others and encouraging your connections to work together can lead to even more exciting creations.

‘I feel that the UK is ready for something new.’ Ivan says, thinking about the idea of creativity being born of frustration. As an artist he is constantly thinking about how to build himself and his personal brand, thinking about what he wants his legacy to be. ‘Every day is a fight for me,’ he said. As the main carer for his grandmother, juggling work and social life can be tough. ‘Going through this journey, I'm seeing what is needed. Why can't we introduce street culture to people of that age demographic? Hip hop can be a tool to educate people.’

Age doesn't matter, he said. ‘It’s about connecting people.’ The art of programming, everyone agreed, is to focus on the people, both on and off-stage.

This session took place on Wednesday 18 October 2017

Words by Kate Wyver


  • If it feels like you are not represented in arts events, it means there is a gap in the market.
  • Look for what is needed. Ask yourself how you can help solve a problem, fill a gap or challenge the way things are currently being done.
  • Ask questions about who the audience is, who the event is meant for, and how you can bring new people in to explore different forms of art. 
  • Make connections and keep them - follow up with artists to say thank you and learn from anything that went wrong. 
  • When it comes to budgets and funding, the key is finding the solutions with the amount you have that give you the best possible outcome. 
  • Ensure you have contingencies - always overestimate and always plan for things to go wrong... 
  • Sometimes it's about who you know - mobilise the people around you. 
  • Focus on people - both on and off-stage

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