Lara Eggleton (LE): Corridor8 has gone through multiple transformations over the past decade. Originally set up as an occasional print magazine and blog in 2009, it became the only platform to specifically cover art activity across the North of England, with a volunteer team of editors and writers spread across its regions. While we continue to meet this challenge, questions around unpaid work and access to opportunities are changing the way we operate.
We increasingly receive small writing commissions from organisations and project funding from ACE (and occasionally other funding bodies) to run residency programmes and other opportunities. We’ve made significant progress toward challenging an entrenched culture of unpaid creative labour (for both writers and editors) in which only the privileged are afforded a voice. This year we’ve decided to take things a step further by introducing a ‘supported content’ model, in which organisations will directly fund our regular content.
Where do you see this shift in relation to your experience with Corridor8 over the past decade, and wider conversations about the currency and role of art writing, both in the art world and beyond it?
Lauren Velvick (LV): Corridor8 was originally launched in print in 2009 at The Manchester Contemporary. I remember going with my housemate at the time and we clubbed together to buy a copy for £10. I was in my second year at university studying art history and while I did try to keep up with the contemporary art scene in Manchester, I found it very intimidating and was more interested in putting gigs on in my basement.
I didn’t know anybody involved with Corridor8 back then, and it was actually through a colleague in 2011 that I started writing for the ‘blog’, which was still secondary to print at that point. When the previous online editors stepped down I took over, and as someone who’d spent a lot of time online, I pushed the blog and tried to get it better organised and more active. This online side of Corridor8 has since evolved into the main output of the magazine.
I remember that I used to get frustrated with friends and others complaining that I wasn’t publishing enough hatchet jobs; I was working full time in retail as well as trying to develop my own practice, so I didn’t have time to deal with potential backlash and frankly wasn’t sure enough of myself to do so. I think that within our specific context the documentation aspect can actually be as important as the criticality – where else can you find a decade long archive of art activity in the North?
Back then I didn’t know much about how things ran in the art world and assumed that because C8 looked ‘proper’ it was secure and prosperous, but now I know that very few organisations are. I’ve done a lot of free labour for C8 over the years, but to be honest the way it’s gotten my name out, the much maligned ‘exposure’, has probably been instrumental in securing other opportunities. It certainly allowed me to build up a writing portfolio and to grow the confidence needed to engage with the wider art world, alongside working in various bars, shops and cafes.
So, while I absolutely agree that we need to be working towards paying everyone, the advice to never do anything for free does stick in my craw a bit, because it seems like telling people they aren’t allowed to do what I’ve done.
How did Corridor8 come across to you when you first found out about it, and how did it look from the outside?
LE: It’s interesting that you came to C8 through your own DIY adventures, early on in your career when volunteering makes sense and can lead to other opportunities, and provide ways into hard-to-penetrate scenes. I think that holds true for a lot of our writers, who haven’t been published yet and can ‘cut their teeth’ on short reviews, and who benefit from editorial feedback and exposure.
I stumbled on C8 a bit later; I’d finished my PhD in 2011 and, having realised rather late that academic writing wasn’t my bag (or at least not my only bag), I was looking to break onto the art writing scene, as much as anyone can. I’d written a review or two for C8 and was approached by the Yorkshire editor to take her place. I agreed, but with the proviso that I’d try to bring some funding into C8 while I was doing it.
I’d already put in loads of volunteer time with the AAH (Association for Art Historians) and in publishing academic writing (a thankless pursuit unless you’re salaried), and wasn’t keen to repeat it in another sector. I had skills and experience that I felt should be remunerated, and I’d also become very suspicious of the art world’s (especially big institutions’) tendency to exploit volunteer labour, eg. full time six-month or more placements with no promise of a paid gig at the end. I didn’t want to be exploited as an editor, and also didn’t want to push volunteer writers beyond the point where it actually benefits them.
LV: I think this is really poignant. Sometimes it seems like everyone in an undervalued, underfunded position assumes that others have it better, so academics may be assuming that curators are having an easy ride and vice versa, when actually we’re all suffering from the way that the humanities in general has been so denigrated – whilst simultaneously being economically exploited. We keep trying to work out if there’s a way to make art writing and publishing ‘sustainable’, but actually it’s the system that doesn’t work. For example, the online magazines I enjoyed reading regularly have shut down over the past few years – not through a lack of readership or interest, but because they either couldn’t or weren’t willing to compromise on content for revenue.
LE: Right, this sustainability dead end, which is really about not having anywhere to go for support or income, is why I came up with the collaborative residency model for C8 – it creates paid opportunities, naturally ticks funding boxes and also (ideally) attracts match funding from organisations who see the added value of writing. In 2016 I approached Micheal Butterworth (writer, publisher and founder of C8 and its precursor, Corridor – you can read about this history here) and proposed applying for an ACE grant for a pilot residency. This paid me and a few writers to deliver a publication and public programme in collaboration with artists and staff at The Tetley, and our designers at dust collective. It went really well and we secured another round to work with Castlefield Gallery, The International 3 and Humber Street Gallery in 2017/18. Included in the grants were additional funds for commissioned writing and organisational development.
We’ve since applied for two more grants; the first failed but the most recent one was successful; in 2019 we collaborated with Yorkshire and Humber Visual Arts Network, Yorkshire Sculpture International and New Contemporaries. Our future partnerships will also depend on Arts Council support, not to mention any additional commissions. Through this trial and error grant writing process it’s become clear to me how difficult (impossible?) it is to run an art writing platform that funds its activity whilst paying its managers, writers and staff.
Because we have a great website (thanks to designers SB-PH), lots of people assume we’re a ‘proper’ business with salaries, turnover and a headquarters. We’re actually a very small outfit that has, until now, produced content mainly the back of volunteers, give or take the occasional grant or commission from a gallery or institution. Without support from organisations, we have no way to support our regular publishing, which is something that project funding isn’t really designed for (it only covers fees relating to specific time-limited projects).
To go back to your point about C8 playing an important role in reporting on and keeping a record of arts activity in the North – do you think our content should be more critical and/or creative, and how might this sit with organisations paying for reviews?
LV: I think its important to probe what is meant by ‘critical’ in this context. Sometimes it appears to constitute simply bothering to write about things you don’t like, which, if you’re doing it for free and to make contacts where’s the incentive? I think it’s really important for there to be polemics as part of a healthy discourse, but not at the expense of trying to work out what you think through writing, or honing your craft by describing things with words. I really enjoy reading the latter, and I want there to be space for both. While ‘arts ecology’ is super cringe as a term, in practice it’s really beneficial for artists to have communities or networks of writers that can think deeply about their work, we all know that conversations at openings often don’t count for much!
At the end of the day if you’re paying people you can ask more of them. You also have more time to shape and refine if you’re paid as an editor, and that can empower writers to be more considered in their criticisms or creative with their writing.
In terms of how this works ethically, with organisations and institutions putting up the money, I think we just need to try it and see what happens. It’s not as though capital is ever clean, and I’m interested to see what kind of tension this model creates between the arts professionals who see reviews and art writing as purely promotional material, and those who understand them as part of an ongoing discourse around art and exhibitions.
What do you think? Could there be a way to publish without being compromised in some way, or is it enough to be transparent about the ways that we are?
LE: I think we need to be bold at this stage, or we run a serious risk of disappearing. I’m amazed by the amount of content we’ve been able to produce over the years on a purely volunteer basis, and equally worried about that achievement. It’s time to pay our editors and our writers, and challenge the entrenched culture of unpaid creative work. Sure, there’s value in getting some experience volunteering, but not everyone can afford to volunteer and there’s definitely a point when we all start to prioritise paid work, either out of pride or necessity.
You’re absolutely right to point out the value of writing as a way to think things through, to make sense of the world, to process all the anxieties, concerns and conundrums that gather there and to express them in a way that can inspire, provoke and inform. In this way we care for ourselves and provide a service to others, which is worth a lot in our troubled times. This is the message we’ve been trying to put to organisations, and to funders.
There’s a quality issue here too: most people work harder if they’re paid. They’ll prioritise a paid job over an unpaid one, and they’ll take more care in crafting and refining because their time is remunerated. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought of my writing practice as a hobby, and have always (at times naively) tried to make it pay. I grew up with very little expendable income and recognised pretty early on that in some places/ contexts/ sectors, the arts are monetarily valued. When I arrived in the UK in 2004, it was a golden era of arts and education funding – fat culture cows grazing our hearts out. Now it feels like survival; we’re like skinny dogs sniffing around for scraps!
So to answer your question – I think some compromise is necessary, but that doesn’t mean we have to sell our souls. For example, I’m not interested in ‘advertorial’ in the strict commercial sense, but I don’t have a problem with accepting money from organisations if it allows us to pay our writers and editors whilst retaining our independent voice.
Most organisations are open to the idea of criticality and are happy with reviews that are balanced and constructive. And to be honest, most of our reviews to date are relatively supportive in their tone, and I don’t see a problem with that. We act as a platform for orgs across the North, small and big and everything in between, and play an important advocacy role for them. I think it’s time we ask for some mutual support, to help us stay afloat.
LV: Absolutely. As far as I can tell, having done pretty much every kind of role in the regional art world and the service industry for the past decade, the best way to coherently argue for our value is by acting collectively, and acknowledging that culture and creativity aren’t a zero sum game. It is in this spirit that you can be critical whilst also being kind, as well accepting critique in good faith.
Details of Corridor8’s new ‘supported content’ model can be found here.
Lara Eggleton and Lauren Velvick are Corridor8 directors and editors.
This interview is supported by Arts Council England.