On Precarity: Reflections on the Situation of the Art Graduate

Precarity is a state of being with which many of us will have become familiar over the past two years. Since March 2020, many things we once considered fixed and stable have been rendered uncertain, fluctuating, derailed.

In fact, for some of us, precarity has been the norm since long before the pandemic began. Certain groups have existed in precarious positions for many years. Artists and art graduates represent one such group. The art graduate in Ireland has to grapple with a number of uncertainties, including work, finances, availability of housing, and studio space in a competitive and shifting landscape of rare opportunities and unaffordable rent. They do so often on the periphery of what can seem an elusive ‘art world’. This situation is not exactly new within the visual arts, or exclusive to Ireland, but it has been exacerbated in recent years by a global shift towards precarity; the pandemic created further obstacles and burdens, removing the immediacy of the encounter with artworks and peers, closing studios, and forcing exhibitions online. Now, as social life begins to recuperate and restrictions begin to be eased, in Ireland at least, a new set of conditions starts to make itself clear.

PVA asked four writers who have some experience of the conditions and challenges for art graduates to write short personal contributions on the subject.

Siuán Ní Dhochartaigh – How to Fail

After graduating, I tried to hack a lifestyle, picking up casual work that would mitigate the effects and commitment of a job, hoping to find an alchemy that would give me more free time and alleviate burnout. I was in search of clues. I began to take photographs of myself restaging the illustrations I found on the WikiHow page, ‘How to Fake Your Own Death’. The images on the site illustrated various steps to build a new and credible identity. Every time I refreshed the page, new illustrations had been added to fit the narrative or new tips had been polled. Today, the page includes advice such as ‘Leave everyone (and everything) behind’ and ‘Find a new way to support yourself’.

In terms of how to survive the transition from art college to …? advice from mentors was decidedly vague. I was told, for instance, to just ‘stick around for forty years’. Survival seemed to depend on casting nets further. During this time, I would dive down internet holes reading about master’s programmes, reconfiguring my life plan to fit whatever course seemed most appealing. I found the MLitt Art Writing course at the Glasgow School of Art. It was the first thing I’d applied for since graduating that didn’t feel like I was reshuffling my stock photos to create an alternate reality. I decided to move to Glasgow primarily to study there, among some other less concrete motivations: I thought a change would be good and didn’t want to seem desperate to the person I was dating at the time.

After starting at Glasgow School of Art, I was paranoid that I had been admitted through a bureaucratic error. Consequently, I wrote about similar institutional accidents, mostly conspiracy theories about me: that I’d never actually made a piece of art; that I was engaged in a complicated performance of being an artist; that I was on a secret strike, but with unclear demands. As an introductory presentation for the MLitt, I offered up potential art statements including ‘My work has been many things but not any of these things very often or for very long’ or ‘My work is opportunistic’. None of them stuck. Uncertainty and ill confidence can be charming in the context of a long-standing institution. Protecting a practice that doubts itself means leaving room for ambitions to falter. In Ireland, this luxury is in short supply for art graduates. It’s not that there isn’t a dynamic and friendly art scene; I feel like fellow practitioners genuinely want one another to succeed. But in Glasgow, there’s more potential for failure. It’s the perfect place to study art writing, a field that is hard to define. An embrace of the imperfect and experimental means there is support for the artist who writes and the writer who draws, and the temporary use of someone’s flat or the train station as an art gallery is welcomed.

However, these spaces in Glasgow are at risk too. In recent years, the acceleration of the property market has seen an unprecedented rise in competition and rent. The ecology for doubtful practice has been disrupted. Watching these familiar neoliberal and destructive processes take hold in this city has been sad and scary. Incomplete projects and evasive artist statements are still the best representations of my work. Artists are often given support on the condition that they succeed, but support should also act to alleviate the external factors that can cause a creative practice to wobble – no strings attached. Art needs to be able to fail.

Mark O’Gorman – Find a Space, Show Work, Document It

When I think about recent graduates in Ireland and the current situation in which they find themselves, I can’t help but recall my own experiences. During my final year in NCAD (2016), I had romantic notions about finishing college, staying in the city, meeting new artists, creating new work, and taking advantage of the opportunities that would surely follow as a result. I was lucky to find myself a large warehouse studio, but after a few weeks there I realised things weren’t going to pan out the way I’d hoped: I often felt isolated and cold. Spending time in the studio without immediate or foreseeable gain became hard to justify. I’ve found this long, solitary slog can break the will of many emerging artists. In hindsight, it seems like some sort of crappy initiation period. It’s tough, and when I think back on that time, I feel torn in many ways because I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in today without it. Keeping my hands warm by constantly refreshing the VAI’s ‘Jobs & Opportunities’ webpage eventually led me to establish an artist group, Stream, along with Paul McGrane and Rónán Ó Raghallaigh. Our goal was to exhibit our work with other emerging artists we admired, build a community, and fill a gap that needed to be filled – and still needs filling.

These actions led us to The Complex where the Artistic Director, Vanessa Fielding, was supportive and willing to provide a space for us to build this community. For me personally, I was in the right place at the right time and The Complex took a chance by offering me a part-time position as Visual Arts Assistant. Paul McGrane and I began to curate exhibitions at the organisation’s Ground Floor Gallery soon after. Since then, the gallery programme has aimed to bridge a gap between established and emerging artists, providing space and support to encourage artists from various stages of their professional arts practice to collaborate and present work together.

There are artist-run organisations throughout Ireland that work hard to support emerging practices, but there’s no doubt that there is a real lack of space and opportunity, an issue that Covid-19 hasn’t helped. However, it’s important for recent graduates to know that a local visual arts culture doesn’t begin and end at the entrance of its established gallery spaces. Online platforms have demonstrated the power of the off-site exhibition; one such platform worth following that has championed this movement in recent years is TZVETNIK. If the context makes sense for the work, I’d get excited about viewing art in someone’s toilet, never mind a gallery. Off-site exhibitions are a way for emerging artists to develop their own scene, which wider arts audiences will inevitably gravitate towards. In turn, local institutions have an obligation to pay attention to what’s going on at an emerging level and support it. It is important for young artists to foster their own community, find a space, show work, document it, and present it to the right audience. Opportunities will come.

Kate Murphy – In Pursuit of Collaboration

Dublin has always been a special place to me and yet I’ve always felt a pull to leave. After graduating with a fine art degree from Technological University Dublin, I felt instant pressure to either emigrate or put down roots. Despite receiving a residency in the Fire Station Artists’ Studios, I couldn’t shake the feeling of isolation and a pressure to produce. I felt the absence of support from my adored university cohort and the lecturers I had grown so accustomed to.

When lockdown hit, acting on the impulse to go elsewhere, I began searching for new opportunities that could ease the encroaching isolation. I started with an internship at the Sarah Walker Gallery in Cork, which gave me insight into developing professional and personal skills and living independently. This led me to enroll in a year-long International Curatorial Program at Node Center in Berlin. Here I took part in some really interesting discussions around collaboration and the act of sharing. It motivated me to develop a curatorial project, Non-Events, featuring a group of recent art graduates engaging in site-oriented collaborative research projects. With the help of an Arts Council Agility Award and the support from a local arts office, I was able to share and distribute some funding, pay the artists, and commission a designer to produce a publication. I had begun to develop and nurture a practice centered around sharing and discussion.

This search for collectiveness continued and led me to Belfast where, as I discovered, is the land of the artist-led. I’ve never been somewhere in which so many of the studios, galleries, and initiatives are artist-led and managing to thrive. I’m halfway through a two-year directorship with Catalyst Arts, which relies on a board of unpaid directors to skill-share and manage the gallery’s programme, funding, PR, and operations. Catalyst simply wouldn’t be operating without collaboration (and hard work). It has been kept alive by new rotations of directors ever since its conception in 1993. The Board of Directors and Members has featured a melting pot of artists, writers, curators, musicians, performers, academics, and designers over the years. It’s the perfect recipe for exchanging research, learning from others, and engaging with groups and practices you previously wouldn’t have encountered. All of these opportunities have helped me to develop skills that have, in turn, led to paid freelance opportunities that allows me to afford to live here. For now, rent and studios are affordable in Belfast; as a result, there are many pockets of artist communities and an energy that is focused on collectivity rather than competitiveness. I feel lucky to be a part of it.

Davey Moor – Aura & Hustle: The Work of Grads in the Age of Viral Reproduction

The phrase ‘lost generation’ keeps ricocheting around my brain when I think of the classes of 2020 and 2021. Too melodramatic perhaps, but certainly opportunities for these graduates emerging into a shuttered art world, have been discounted by virtue of the pandemic. I’d like to look at two words in relation to this deficit: aura and hustle. The former you’ll almost certainly hear echoing around college corridors (thank you, Walter), [1] the other not so much, despite being one of the most important skills to understand during a career as an artist. The ability of technology to provide an online analogue of the exhibition experience has a long way to go, and this has been thrown starkly under the spotlight in the last couple of years. In engaging with an artist’s work in situ under normal circumstances, we have met a subconscious version of the character that creates the work, if not the personality that makes up the individual behind it. When a distance is placed between the graduands and those they seek to impress, it’s difficult for either side to subsequently bridge that gap. Art transmits its message to a viewer best when they are in physical proximity, rather than mediated by digital means, and the same can of course be said of art makers. Compounding this, in the lead up to their final presentations, these student makers have also been distanced from their tutors and peers at times vital to development. Art colleges are not repositories of certified information from which the student simply makes withdrawals. They are about tempering your inevitable failure, and this is only done by interaction.

It’s said that progress in the two years after college is key to discovering if it’s worth ploughing on. Making art can, of course, continue in the social vacuum of a pandemic, but must, in the last two years, have increasingly provoked a feeling like the proverbial tree falling in the woods. So, what for these new artists? The market is more distant to them than before. Most commercial galleries in Ireland have been enthusiastic about brisk business since March 2020, but with known stables of artists. Graduates must bide their time and hustle a little longer in an attempt to secure investment from their forerunners. I don’t have solutions for the recent batches of art-school alumni, and if I did, they would likely read like platitudes, so instead, it might be worth noting that the increased isolation of your latter college years might steel you for a future punctuated by the myriad periods of solitude such a life must entail.


[1] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935). Benjamin wrote about the authenticity and actuality of original artworks having aesthetic authority over reproductions.

Siuán Ní Dhochartaigh is an artist and writer based between Glasgow and Dublin.
Mark O’Gorman is a curator based in Dublin. He is currently the Gallery Manager of The Complex.
Kate Murphy is a collaborative exhibition maker, based in Belfast and current co-director of Catalyst Arts.
Davey Moor is an independent curator and a registrar of the State Art Collection.

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