Q: I am an artist and I have to make a choice. Should I stay in London for my career or should I leave the city’s stress and chaos behind?
When I was applying for universities way back in my school days, I remember very clearly bursting into a classroom to tell my art teacher that I had gotten into Central Saint Martins. I was full of adrenaline thinking of the big move from Liverpool to London that was about to happen, and I was thanking her profusely for her support in my application. But she didn’t look happy. She was restrained with her congratulations and it caught me off guard.
She said that she didn’t know if London was the best idea. She said she thought I might be better staying where I was. I was confused. She used a phrase I still remember to this day, saying “Don’t you want to be a big fish in a small pond, instead of a big fish in a pond full of other big fish?”
I wonder what your answer would be to that question. Personally, I was too excited to listen to what she was actually saying. In the end I went to London. I did my degree, I met my collaborators, I learnt the shape of the industry, I discovered what kind of art I really cared about, and then I went back home.
I couldn’t afford to stay in London but more than that, I didn’t want to. I never felt rested. I spent half my day on the bus. None of my friends were ever free to hang out because they were working all hours, and so was I.
“Being a part of a thriving artist-led scene with new friends and more headspace could end up being more meaningful to your career”
When any of us actually got an art-related job, it was temporary and too much of our time was spent chasing invoices. I was overwhelmed. Art school had been an island but London rent wasn’t convincing me to stay on its outskirts. I filled my pockets and my head, and then I was on my way back to a smaller city where I could open a gallery, rent a full-on house, and feel like a whole person again. Whole enough that whenever I want to dip back into the London circus, it is doable and genuinely fun again. London was fundamental for my career in the arts but that’s only because I knew when it was time for me to move on.
But outside of London, your artwork is less likely to be written about. And if you live outside of the capital but haven’t spent any time there, curators might look down on you. Unfortunately, London conveys a weird stamp of approval in the eyes of some people, even though that’s antiquated and not even a useful measure of success. There aren’t as many events or openings out and about, and they’re not as varied (or diverse, depending where you are). Plus, smaller ponds mean fewer ‘people in power’, basically anyone who can give you an opportunity. But in my experience, smaller ponds mean it’s easier to get in front of that small number of people, and contact is everything.
Of course, there might be a limit to how high those opportunities can take you. Not many cities in the UK, outside of London, have a market to speak of, and that could really matter if you make the kind of art that sells. But while you might not sell work as easily in Birmingham, for example, being a part of a thriving artist-led scene with new friends and more headspace could end up being more meaningful to your career, your artwork, and to you in the long run.
“If you live outside of the capital but haven’t spent any time there, curators might look down on you”
More and more people are striking out of London and when I watch what they do next, they always seem to be creating the best work of their life. I think more people should try it. Mass exodus, in my opinion. Honestly, I think it would do art some good if the artists were just all drinking better tap water.
It’s hard to think about leaving London so dramatically when living in the capital seems like such an inevitability in the creative industry. Even if you leave, meetings or exhibitions will probably bring you back. Is it possible for you to stay flexible?
I know this next idea very much depends on your body, head and bank account, but could you pond hop? Try the other scenes out before you buy, or cycle through them like a mysterious traveller. You could even think about going abroad and leaving not just London behind but this entire country. If London gives artists an invisible stamp of approval, imagine what Oslo and Berlin can do for your CV.
It’s all rough and I wish we could look in a magic ball to see the future and know which way to go. It’s worth remembering London doesn’t necessarily mean automatic access to opportunity, and ultimately you should look after yourself. Could life be better somewhere else? I’m glad I left but every time I have a meeting in London, I still feel a little jump of excitement.
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Culture Therapy: Let Art Solve Your Problems
The London art scene can feel like the only one that exists when you’re inside of it because you are knackered or self-centred, or both. So, in an attempt to share what else is happening in the arts, this month’s prescription is simply a link to Corridor8. You have some reading to do.
Corridor8 is “a not-for-profit platform for contemporary visual arts and writing in the North of England.” They publish texts that cover reviews, interviews, features and sometimes weirder stuff than that. I’ve been reading them for years but they come to mind now because I recently read a review on there by Josh Coates covering an encounter-based performance in St Helens.
“Reading reviews of happenings elsewhere can make the world feel richer, and maybe help lead you to new places”
I’m recommending it because this kind of writing expands my world. I wasn’t there to see that performance but I love knowing that on the top floor of an office building in a town 40 minutes away on the train, adult audience members were paired with child performers who guided them in conversations about the present and the future of the town.
We tend to only read reviews about exhibitions and events we are familiar with, and maybe that’s part of the reason we stay put. Reading reviews of happenings elsewhere can make the world feel richer, and maybe help lead you to new places.
Illustration by Lucia Pham, an illustrator based in Hanoi