VAI Column: Graduate Supports


Visual Artists Ireland offers a range of supports and opportunities to artists at all stages of their careers, including emerging artists. We recognise that recent graduates have different needs to those with more established practices, but also that it is important to share new developments that affect everyone. We value peer support and encourage artists to discuss their experiences and learn from each other. Many of our events and seminars are free, while those that do have a booking fee are heavily discounted for VAI members.

The Visual Artist’s Café format combines information-sharing, discussion and networking. We partner with regional arts organisations and local authorities to host either full-day or half-day events, with the topics tailored to the needs of artists who live or work in particular areas. Many artists suffer from isolation, as they work from home or in individual studios across Ireland. These friendly and informal regional café events bring together local artists and arts organisations, encouraging active dialogue and helping to build supportive professional networks. Café events often feature invited speakers (who share their expertise on specialist subjects), panel discussions (to explore subjects more deeply) and talks by experienced artists who share details about their work and how they have overcome professional challenges.

In addition, individual artists can participate in VAI’s Show & Tell – a format that allows members to share their work with their peers, thus helping artists become more proficient at public speaking and delivering short presentations about their work. The deliberately concise format (comprising ten slides in six minutes) encourages artists to talk reflectively about the broad themes and techniques involved in their work, rather than focusing on the minutiae of individual artworks. It’s the ‘elevator pitch’ that might pique the interest of curators or help you to engage future audiences.

As well as being contactable at any stage via email or phone, VAI also run monthly helpdesks in our Belfast and Dublin offices. Artists can book 30-minute appointments to discuss specific professional challenges they are facing. Whether it’s signposting (pointing artists to relevant people and places), writing a funding application, getting tax advice, planning an upcoming exhibition or thinking about residency opportunities, these helpdesks provide support to artists based on their individual needs. We also offer free advice and advocacy for VAI members when challenges or disputes become too difficult to deal with alone.

We also work with experienced arts professionals to deliver one-to-one project clinics at many of the Visual Artists Cafés as well as at the annual VAI Get Together. These short mentoring sessions with curators, critics, artists and educators are useful when evaluating recent work or planning future projects. Project clinics are private spaces to discuss everything from initial ideas and the creation of new work, to the technical aspects of exhibition-making.

Belfast Open Studios is an annual event in which 16 individual studio groups across the city open their doors to the public. One of the objectives of the programme is to facilitate the meeting of artists and curators. Individual artists can take advantage of the spotlight on the city by inviting curators and galleries for private studio visits. We also run a Speed Curating event that is hosted by Belfast Exposed Gallery. Artists frequently tell us about the opportunities that speed curating generates for them, both at Belfast Open Studios and at the VAI Get Together in IMMA each year. As part of the Belfast Open Studios programme, we invite Irish and international curators to deliver talks about their own research interests, giving artists greater insights into their own working practices.

Collaboration and partnership are critical to the success of VAI’s Professional Development Programme across Ireland. We work very closely with local authority arts officers and district councils to meet the needs of the artists in each region, often delivering bespoke regional programmes. Last year our ‘Lakelands’ event in Enniskillen brought artists and organisations together from Fermanagh, Cavan, Leitrim, Monaghan and Sligo, recognising that artists living and working along the border are supported by many organisations situated in the surrounding area.

We also partner with independent organisations and specialist studios to ensure that support across different artforms is meeting the needs of contemporary practitioners. We regularly collaborate with Artist Moving Image Northern Ireland (AMINI) to bring respected programmers and artists from the UK and Ireland to host screenings and talks. We welcome opportunities to discuss new initiatives that can support artists in other ways.

Launched in 2018, ‘New Spaces’ is a new programme that seeks to create opportunities for emerging curators and artists to realise a series of exhibitions outside traditional institutions. Working in partnership with established galleries and arts professionals, mentoring is being delivered to develop the different skills needed to work without the infrastructural support of a gallery setting. The second round of the ‘New Spaces’ exhibition programme continues until 22 September across four venues: Sion Stables in Sion Mills; Gwyn’s Café and Pavilion; Cottage (in The Craft Village) and Walled City Brewery in Derry. The third and fourth iterations of the series will launch on 6 October and 17 November respectively, with each open to the public for a four-week period.

Rob Hilken is the Visual Artists Ireland NI Manager.

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