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Listening to Artists by Susan Coughlan

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For the past 5 years, I have had the privilege of working closely with Wicklow Arts Officer Jenny Sherwin, and more recently, with Arts Services Co-ordinator Síle Stewart, to develop new approaches to artist support. When we started in late 2019, Wicklow was changing. More artists were moving into the area, and there was a need to help artists have a better sense of the range of arts practice in the county, to connect with each other more, to increase local collaborations, and to provide learning opportunities that would directly meet artists’ needs.   
We discussed possible approaches and settled on the idea of Artists Connects, of which the first initiative was creating a facilitated Artist Panel to address those issues and to provide a mechanism for artists’ voices and perspectives to inform the design and development of supports.  
The pilot Artist Panel was established in Jan 2020 and ran to 2021, and the second panel from 2022 to 2023. The first panel included 6 artists working across a range of art forms and backgrounds. My role was to co-design the overall Artists Connects initiative with Jenny, and to facilitate and support the Artists Panel’s meetings and work. The approach we took was to invest time in listening directly to artists about their experiences and, to see them as partners in the development of solutions and responses in an emergent way, extrapolating from what was shared, to better understand the broader needs and issues. Who could have predicted at that time, that we were just a couple of months away from the first Covid lockdown? In many ways the impact of Covid is imprinted on the four-year lifetime of the two Artist Panels. Thankfully, the approach we developed was not only highly adaptable to the new reality of online meetings, but also answered the isolation from peers, and the disruption to work practices, that all artists were abruptly faced with from mid-March 2020.  
For artists living in Wicklow now, you have likely benefitted from the work of the Artist Panels. In the past four years, a suite of artist supports has been developed by the Arts Office with the voice and perspective of artists at their heart.  Funding clinics, salons, artist coaching, Creative Places Baltinglass, Wicklow Creative Network Facebook group, artist blogs and the monthly newsletter are some of the important initiatives that the work of the panel has helped to initiate, shape and design in ways that are meaningful and impactful to Wicklow artists. 
I am grateful to say that working in Wicklow and facilitating the Artist Panel has deepened my understanding of what it means to be an artist and a practitioner and profoundly informs my work as a facilitator, coach and consultant working in the arts sector. I find the word ‘practitioner’ is an interesting and important word to me. I use it a lot in my work with artists, arts and culture leaders, social innovators etc...and see practitioners across those areas as having many things in common; a tendency towards experiential learning (or ‘learning by doing’); an orientation (or way of seeing the world) that is informed by the artform or area of practice. In my case, my practice areas are coaching, facilitation, action-learning, improvisational clowning and consulting on navigating change in complex contexts and times. This is an unusual mix or blend you might be thinking, and that’s another thing practitioners can have in common: all of life connects to their practice and there are no clear lines as to where one ends and the other begins. Practitioners tend to be questioners, observers and perennial learners – curious and open. Many in the arts are also self-employed, creative, innovative, and living with far fewer supports – tangible and intangible - than those in other worlds or sectors. I think sometimes, the art form forms the person as much as the person forms the art form.   
After two decades of working in the arts in many capacities, from theatre production to Arts Council Officer to self-employed arts consultant, I met personal burnout more than once. Seeing the same capacity issues repeatedly arising for people and organisations and the same solutions being applied without creating lasting transformative shifts was draining me. To refresh and renew, I invested my SSIA savings (a Government savings scheme) in doing a a Masters in Organisation Change at Ashridge in the UK . What attracted me to there were their central principles regarding how to create lasting change. They talked about the need to shift our mindset, or paradigm, from one that thinks of people, organisations and systems as like machines that we divide into parts, to take apart and fix, and rather to think of them more organically, as living systems, made up of people in relationship and networks. This mindset shift was the ‘aha’ moment I was searching for. It provided the theory to underpin what I already experientially knew as a practitioner. That is, if you take the time to listen to people where they are at, develop trusting and authentic relationships with them and trust them to be the experts in their life and work, things will shift. And the power of this increases when you do this in community. 
A core element of that programme was being part of a professionally facilitated learning group of peers myself, and that was a truly transformative experience for me personally.  It was like pouring water and nutrients onto a plant that was slowly dying but didn’t understand why, or know how to help itself. I began to be able to see and accept myself more fully – not how I thought I was but how I actually was; what I actually needed and so on.  
It’s funny how, I can provide a listening space for others, and not realise how badly I needed it myself! I think this is something else that practitioners can have in common – a tendency to miss seeing ourselves, to focus almost all our time and resources on the practice or the work or audience and miss our practitioner-selves, underneath.   
Because of the transformational benefits to me from these ways of working, I’m passionate about ensuring similar opportunities are available to artists/practitioners and leaders in the arts. I see this as key to the shift needed.  
I adapted my practice since the MSc course; now it is centred on facilitating and holding receptive, non-judgmental, safe, listening spaces in the form of learning networks, coaching etc.. that help practitioners see for themselves what they need and tune in to their personal agency and choices as ways to answer those needs. In addition to the Artist Panel and being one of the coaches on the Wicklow coaching scheme, current other examples of this work are facilitating Branar’s Meitheal - a network of producers and artists making work for children and young people; and Upsource a network of leaders or arts organisations. The work can seem deceptively simple:  yet it is complex and requires commitment and habit change. To give ourselves permission to stop, pause and make time to see and hear ourselves as we really are and take our human needs seriously is, in itself, a creative disruption and a vital undertaking in my view. Traditionally, this is not something that we in the arts world have been good at doing. It is being the change we want to see.  
So, my work with the Artist Panel has been informed by and modelled on these principles and approaches. It’s an extraordinarily powerful and empowering thing to gather with professional peers and mentors, to listen deeply, and to reflect back, not to try to fix but to accept and give space for complexity and challenges to be shared and named, and to be relieved for a moment of the strain of carrying them as solitary burdens, and be reassured that meeting challenges like this is an innate part of being an artist. What this looks like in practice, is individuals prioritising showing up and taking time at every meeting to check-in with some variation of open questions like: how are you (distinct from how is your work), what’s difficult right now, what’s a win and what’s alive in you/giving you energy?   
Unsurprisingly, artist resilience and well-being were consistent themes at our meetings, but never more so than after the first Covid lockdown. Never was it clearer to see how our arts system tends to support the art practice and hopes that the artist will take care of their human needs. No other sector operates like this. Wellbeing at work is something to be invested in and prioritised. Panel members shared the many benefits the Artists Panel meetings had for them, always emphasising how reviving and nourishing it is to share with peers. It seemed to surprise them, and like me, met needs they perhaps didn’t know they had or were not prioritising. 
Panel members and artists who have participated in the Wicklow coaching programme consistently feedback how much they value being listened to and the reassuring, anchoring power of knowing you are not alone and that others share your challenges and experiences. Investing in processes that prioritise these nurturing spaces for artists’ connectivity, learning, and sharing are key to change and change-making. We may say this in the arts but habitually they are not invested in it to the detriment of all. The Wicklow Arts Office invests in and values these processes and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of them. I’m very happy for readers to get in touch with me at with responses to what I’ve shared or to sign up for occasional newsletters at 



Susan Coughlan is an experienced independent facilitator, coach and consultant in the arts and cultural sector. She has worked with over 100 Irish artists and arts organisations over the past 25 years. Through her business, Art of Change she helps individual practitioners, arts organisations and teams to create and navigate change and transition. She is a qualified Relational Dynamics 1st coach, Enneagram Coach, Action Learning Facilitator and organization change consultant.  Susan has formerly worked in arts development, philanthropy, community arts, theatre production, youth work and community development. See for more information about the enneagram and Susan’s approach.