Julie Freeman: the artist as influencer
Julie Freeman is an artist working with technology with a focus on translating nature to enable deeper appreciation of the natural environment. She was part of the Method pilot programme in 2009, which brought together her artistic practice and strong interest in business and strategy. She feels passionately that artists should have an influence on policy and decision making, and says that being part of the Method offered her time to reflect; a new network of peers; clarity in regard to her artistic practice, and increased confidence in her ability to assess opportunities and move forward.
Julie Freeman is an artist who uses technology to explore and discover rhythms and patterns in predictable and unpredictable systems through audio, space and visualisation. Linking art, nature, science and technology, she experiments in transforming complex processes into sound compositions, objects and animations. Her focus is on translating nature to enable deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural environment.
Julie also has a strong interest in business and strategy development and feels passionately that artists should have an influence on policy and decision making in the cultural sector. For her, signing up for a leadership development programme was about bringing together her business and artistic skills and strengthening her ability to influence. ‘I feel my progress as an artist is more purposeful now and in turn that has made me better able to explain my work and influence people.’
When Julie arrived at the first session of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s Method pilot programme in 2009, she sensed that many of the artists and practitioners were slightly embarrassed to be there.
The concept of the artist as leader was an ego thing that most of us had to struggle through at the beginning. People think leadership is about getting people to follow you. But actually it is about facilitating, making things and thoughts happen. As an artist you want to make work and then have other people interpret it in their own way. Creating the space for interpretation seems almost diametrically opposed to the traditional concept of leadership.
Julie describes the concept of leadership as ‘slippery’. It’s a word that she understands well. She has done a lot of work with fish and used technology to enable them to make music. She understands why a shoal of fish will suddenly change direction. They do not have a single leader at the front. Rather, the fish pick up information through a lateral line and change direction based on secondary information – you could call it a more subtle form of influence.
Alongside her involvement in creative experiment, Julie has a strong interest in building businesses and business models, something she inherited from her parents. She started her own business, Studio Fish, early in her career. It was her interest in business that first led her to identify the Cultural Leadership Programme as a potential resource, although she was surprised that they hadn’t developed programmes aimed at artists earlier. ‘Without artists, there wouldn’t be a cultural sector to lead!’
She decided that the Method programme was likely to offer her the opportunity to develop and hone some hard practical skills and also provide a space to reflect on her creative practice. She also wanted to build her confidence.
I knew my interest in the business side of art was a strength but it also worried me. My parents swayed me to do technical drawing instead of fine art and I still worried that I hadn’t got the history of art side covered. I didn’t really study art properly until my MA. And my career is an unusual mix of art and technical and financial experience; I spent 18 months working at PwC Consulting before my NESTA fellowship. Even after 14 years, I was still struggling with the concept of calling myself an artist.
She found that just being selected for the programme gave her additional gravitas and helped build her confidence. She was relieved to discover this was true for many of the artists on the programme with her.
It was great to be able to share anxieties and problems with other creative practitioners. It was helpful to realise that, although we were all quite ambitious, we were all struggling with similar things. We all felt that our careers were fragile.
However, Julie knew that she thrived when she was in a position of responsibility and she recognised that a number of her skills as an artist were transferable to a leadership model. Her art requires a great deal of negotiating and partnership building. She initiates projects, builds a team to deliver them, leads the team and ensures that the project is completed successfully.
She takes quite a tough view on leadership and doesn’t subscribe to the view that ‘we can all be leaders now’. She believes that there is such a thing as a natural leader and although you can learn certain skills and these will be helpful, if you don’t have what it takes you won’t be able to influence.
It is a challenge for any artist to take unpaid days out of their creative practice – a challenge that many simply cannot afford. However, Julie felt that, although it is a high-cost model the Method programme provided a good return. ‘We invested our time and they invested in us.’
Each participant had a coach, a critical friend, and a mentor. Julie chose someone from Goldsmith’s as her mentor as she wanted to build her academic and writing skills. She found the sessions with her mentor particularly helpful and remains in touch with her. She used the time with her coach to reflect and test the alignment of her artistic and business skills, focusing on these as a positive strength. She has also remained in touch with the ‘critical friend’ provided by the programme.
Looking back at her time on the Method programme she says,
it has given me a legitimate reason to question and evaluate my position, and permission to ask others for advice and consultation about my practice and my ideas. Through peers, the mentor, the coach, critical friend, external help (past mentors, colleagues, friends) and my own endeavours I have moved forward with my plans in a thoughtful way rather than an impetuous one. This shift from running to walking (with occasional sprints) has left me with an overall sense that my progress is more purposeful, which in turn has equipped me with a better way to understand and explain what I am doing.
Julie feels that she is now more confident in her influencing skills and is increasingly invited to take part in events and debates, such as a recent meeting of the BioCentre symposium in the House of Lords. They are keen for her to show her work at a future session on nanotechnology. She is also continuing to work with the Cultural Leadership Programme and was part of the delivery partner selection panel for its next artist/practitioner programme.
The Method programme has given me time to reflect and act on my personal and professional development; a new network of peers; increased clarity in regard to my art practice in a greater context; tools for productivity; an increased confidence in my ability to assess opportunities and move forward; and a renewed sense of value for my work and ideas. I feel like one of many who started a journey some time ago, and have now arrived at a turning point. I feel I now have some tools to help me converge the two paths that I've been on over the last 15 years or so.