This week Joe Rowley reflects not the ethics of feedback and application processes.

These past two weeks, I have been engaged with the final stages of recruitment for the curator of the Glasgow edition of Raumdeuter Radio. It’s been illuminating. It has also driven home the comparatively low degree of effort it takes to provide the option of feedback and reasoning for your decision, inclusive of constructive critique and encouragement.

So many application processes I have engaged with have been resistant to providing feedback or have point-blank refused. The remit of the process I have just undertaken, involving under 20 applications, isn’t necessarily comparable with a process with upward of a hundred applicants, surely it wouldn’t take too much additional effort to skim over an application that you presumably have already read and considered with some degree of care, and taken notes on framing the good and bad points, and then put together a brief paragraph explaining your decision, framing a couple of points to improve upon. In this assumption I am not even suggesting a need to respond individually in this way to every rejected applicant - obviously, the time to reply to each and every application is prohibitive but, as I have found with the process I have just gone through, only a fraction of the people who apply seek feedback.

Obvious point out of the way I wanted to expand on why from an ethical and structural standpoint, this is something I feel should be at the forefront of any institutions process when dealing with applications for anything. Regardless of the scale of institution, reputation or sector, this holds true. Application processes are power structures and within power structures there are responsibilities.

The role of the employer, in my opinion, is all too often framed as the position of power. From a Marxist perspective, those who control the means of production hold power. Though, as Marx and many others have pointed out, the means of production may well be theoretically or legally controlled by the employer or owner of the business but the production is often being undertaken by others. This is as true in the culture sector as anywhere else and even filters down to artist-led structures where hierarchies are often flattened and the actual labour more evenly spread. In these application processes, I think it is important to keep in mind that those who take the time to conceptualise, produce and deliver an application are doing you as an employer a favour rather than the other way around.

Say you advertise for a position within your organisation; it’s a key position that will facilitate the production of a project, it’s paid, it’s in your view exciting and a great career development step. You get no applicants. With no applicants you can’t fill the position which, in turn, means you don’t have the human resources to produce the project, potentially throwing your entire programme into disarray.

The power is with the applicant.

Say you have an open call to fill an exhibition programme at your artist-led gallery space. You get no applicants, or, you get just enough to cover the programme but none are of the quality level you are comfortable with showing.

There is some power with you in the choice to turn down those applications and find another solution but, again, the power really lies with the applicants.

Of course, these are extreme examples in many ways, though aren’t unheard of. The call for a curator for the Brussels edition of Raumdeuter Radio, for example, received zero applications despite being a paid position with a broad and exciting remit. These things happen from time to time. The point I am trying to get at, however, is that there needs to be a degree of mutual respect between employer and potential employee within an application process. It's not a one-way street where you as some benevolent Dickensian character offer the poor artist in their garret a shilling to paint you a picture.

We have all been in the position of applying for a job at some point and it is draining as a process. The actual compiling of an application is often time-consuming and increasingly requires you to rewrite and reconfigure texts to fit within word counts or set criteria. From a psychological perspective, it can be incredibly difficult also. Many within the culture sector (and society generally) have anxiety issues, poor self-image, suffer from depression and also have been turned down for so many things in the past that they have incredibly low self-worth. Finding the energy and the capacity to write about yourself in a positive sense in those circumstances can be a) incredibly intimidating and almost insurmountable as a task, and b) feels like you are writing lies. I speak from experience here. In the same way as in a toxic relationship, you can find yourself trying to contort yourself into what you think the reader of that application, the employer, wants you to be rather than what or who you actually are. This degree of effort is being channelled into applications not just for the one applying to progress in their career or for basic financial stability. Often these applications are carefully considered and tailored to the institution they are being directed to, working within their frameworks and needs. Whilst it is easy to sit there in an institution and say “well I’m very busy, I don’t have time to respond to these needy folks asking for feedback”, ultimately, the people writing these applications are also very busy, and maybe aren’t working a relatively ok paid museum job, they are working full-time in a café or as a free-lancer at the same time as fitting in working on their own practice, running their own projects and writing applications to funders, foundations, fellowships, exhibitions, publications, jobs blah blah blah. Everyone is busy. Your time is not more valuable than anyone else’s. Respect that, and respect them.

Whilst that point is perhaps more specific to more established institutional frameworks, we in AL&SO have a responsibility here too. In many cases more so. The realities of many artist-led initiatives putting calls out and advertising jobs are that the funding just isn’t there to pay commensurably with established institutions or in some cases at all. Here in Sweden, there are platforms like KRO (the artists union) that can help support projects on that front, specifically through the MU agreement. The MU agreement is signed by a project and commits them to a certain rate of pay for the artists they work with across a sliding scale of exhibition duration and the type and other factors. This is financially supported by the artist union (as I understand it) to ensure that artists are paid for their labour. This does require you as an organisation to be associated with the union and also doesn’t provide any such cover for organisers, as far as I know. I have put some of these questions to KRO and am waiting for an answer. In the eventuality that it is dependent on union membership cost, there is relatively high if you already have no money and has to be paid in a lump sum per annum. Not impossible by any means, but not easy.

Back in the UK however, there is, to my knowledge at least, no such support. Organisers and artists alike are left to flail around in neoliberal toil. With ongoing and incoming cuts to culture sector funding, this is only going to worsen and mirrors a global trend that is even beginning to encroach on Scandinavia’s more egalitarian systems.

Without funding and without the possibility to pay artists or others we work with as AL&SO initiatives it is even more important to be caring and respectful in how we treat applicants, successful and not. Whilst as organisers it can feel like a weight of labour put upon us to deal with each of those applicants individually, when we are not being paid either, that is the life we chose. For those who are unsuccessful, it's important to offer the possibility of feedback and support. For those, we do select there needs to be an openness about the situation you find yourselves in as an initiative and negotiate how the artists time can be compensated and their needs facilitated in other ways.

As with so many of these texts I find myself coming back to the pretty basic maxim of: treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. If you would want respect and gratitude for your time and effort, then give that out. If you would expect a few sentences of feedback on an application you had spent a month on, give that out. If you wouldn’t expect these things, or any other level of care, then please hand yourself in to the relevant authorities and stop putting small animals in bins.


Reflecting on... The Ethics of Feedback

Joe Rowley - APR 2021

The Reflecting on... series takes situations, objects, artworks, articles, texts, podcasts and anything else really as starting points for reflection on artist-led and self-organised (AL&SO) practice.

Ephemeral Care focuses on ethics, practice and strategies in artist-led and self-organised projects.