Frieze or Faculty?

This piece, written for Guardian professional, appeared on

A woman is reflected in one of Anish Kapoor's stainless-steel sculptures
Photograph: Johnny Green/PA
Six weeks ago, an unusual request landed in my inbox. A Swiss-French filmmaker I’d not heard of before, Benoît Rossel, emailed me out of the blue to say he was looking for a London-based character-cum-situation hunter to assist him with a documentary film about artists. Someone close to the wheels of power in the art world, who, like me, had participated in Tino Sehgal’s These Associations at Tate Modern last year, had recommended me for the job.

Since leaving a full-time, secure position as a university lecturer (a job for which I wasn’t temperamentally suited) in 2008, I’ve tried my hand at a number of volatile occupations – the more outlandish the better. Like sharing confidences with perfect strangers, and running up and down the Turbine Hall in an interactive artwork that earned the Berlin-based but London-born Sehgal a nomination for the Turner Prize.

Art criticism is something I fell into by chance. Following the break up of a long-term relationship, I moved to London to take up a job in the French department at Queen Mary University of London in Mile End, and start anew. For a while I shared a flat just off Brick Lane with a BBC finance journalist aspiring to become an artist, who introduced me to her arty friends (some of whom will now feature as ‘characters’ in the documentary film I’m helping out with). Eventually she also left her BBC staff position, initially to do a course at the Prince’s Drawing School.

Neither one of us has looked back, despite ongoing challenges, financial insecurity, and an uncertain future. That someone with an academic background in Renaissance intellectual history and French should end up writing about contemporary art and film for a living may seem random. But such leaps are not uncommon. When I started reviewing art and film, I had no specialist knowledge of either field but was assured, on more than one occasion, that this can be positively an advantage.

As a former academic dabbling in journalism, you inevitably face some prejudices. For one, you have to prove that you can write in a non-academic way, that’s to say engaging, accessible, wearing its knowledge lightly – all things good academic writing is anyway. A PhD in humanities is not exactly an asset either when it comes to getting a job outside of academia, or even an internship or work experience for that matter.

I was recently introduced to the director of the Chisenhale Gallery in East London, a short distance from where I used to teach at Queen Mary. After taking me round their current show, which I’m reviewing for a magazine I contribute to, she politely asked me what else I did for a living. The question was simple yet revealing. Few people live off art reviewing alone.

While ‘art writing’ may be a burgeoning (academic) field, the dwindling opportunities in arts journalism mean that it’s no longer a viable career option. Unless they’re one of a handful of critics with staff jobs, whose longevity is impressive, art reviewers will typically do some editing, curating work or teaching on the side to subsidise their other less-than-lucrative activities.

But if English is not your first language, you’re doing everyone a favour by steering clear of editing. If curating doesn’t appeal to you for whatever reason (besides being at odds with what you’re called on to do as a critic), and if you’ve left academia to do something else, then these options may not be open to you. Luckily there are others: character hunting and the like. They may not help your long-term prospects but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of taking the path less travelled.

Academia and the art world, despite appearances, have a great deal in common, not least that each is peopled with eccentrics and cultivates its own brand of eccentricity. On the eve of another Frieze week, as I’m being plied with food and drinks in the run up to the yearly London marathon of art openings, talks, concerts and parties that glamour-starved academics could only dream of, I cannot help the gnawing sense of having swapped one bubble for another.

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