on rejection & creativity

the-phone-book Limited

Eight years before moving to Australia I co-founded an arts organisation called the-phone-book Limited with my then-partner Ben Jones. We had a grand mission statement – “create a sustainable source of revenue for the creative sector through mobile platforms and emerging technologies”. Sadly we were seven years ahead of our time in terms of commercially sustainable mobile markets (& crowdfunding didn’t exist like it does today), but that’s another story.

For the sake of sounding like an official commercial company we had job titles; his was “Creative Director” and mine was “Production Director”. Despite these titles we collaborated and created all our projects together, as artists. Even when I did freelance work elsewhere I generally only produced work I was creatively involved with, rather than just making other people’s ideas come to life. I basically considered myself to be a Creative Producer and didn’t think much more about it.



[NB: I closed the-phone-book in 2008. I haven’t gotten around to properly archiving those projects yet, but traces exist all over the internet. A bad clumping of those projects can be found for now at http://fonebk.com… excuse the mess].

Creative cravings

You can’t just rock up in Australia and expect to be able to live and work here independently, especially as an artist. So I got visa-sponsored employment through ANAT and then the Australia Council as an arts administrator with a creative bent. I created projects that enabled artists to make and share their own work. It was all a bit similar to what I’d been doing with the-phone-book Limited except I had less freedom & more money :)

The Australia Council work in particular was very administrative, as you’d expect. I’d found some space to be creative with the program I had built (Geek in Residence, Digital Culture Fund, etc) but I think there was a pressure-cooker scenario building. The less creative I could be on a day-to-day basis, the more my creative urges grew.

It was only in 2010, while running a locative media residency in Banff, that I realised I even wanted to be considered an artist.

By early 2011 I knew my contract with the Australia Council was coming to an end and had been in the country long enough to apply for permanent residency. I was pretty confident I could get another job, especially without that employer having to go through the long and painful process of business sponsorship visas. Or I could go freelance again. I figured I could probably find enough bits of work to keep a roof over my head, but I couldn’t ignore this little voice in the back of my mind, a creative craving. I wanted to make things again.

And so reallybigroadtrip & my new life as an independent artist began.


In February this year, now a permanent resident and freelance again, I applied to NAVA (National Association for Visual Arts) for Professional Membership as an artist. They rejected me – and on Valentines Day too, the meanies!

I must admit to being more than a little hurt. I had been rejected from funding applications before, but this was different.

NAVA rejection

NAVA rejection email

Despite several requests for feedback I still haven’t been told exactly why I didn’t meet the professional criteria (I certainly answered them all).

During one phone call I was told that I might be interested in a new administrators membership option. I wasn’t. I explained that I had definitely been more administrator than artist for the last four years, but that my application had also included a portfolio of work from the-phone-book Limited and beyond. That nice young lady promised to find out more about my application and have someone call me back. That feedback has never come, but maybe this post will encourage them to explain what I did wrong!

I did as I usually do and went to social media. A fascinating conversation ensued (here’s a few snippets)…

snippets from NAVA rejection conversation on Facebook [1]

snippets from NAVA rejection conversation on Facebook [2]

snippets from NAVA rejection conversation on Facebook [3]

snippets from NAVA rejection conversation on Facebook [4]

So I was left wondering, who gets to say whether or not you are an artist? Does the right to call yourself an artist have a limited duration? When does it expire? Does creating spaces where other people make content still constitute an artwork, and who within that process are the artists?

Who gets to decide what is or isn’t art, and who is and isn’t an artist?


On the Queen’s birthday in June this year I was invited to give an artist talk at Vitalstatistix Theatre Company‘s residency, #Adhocracy2012. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to throw around some of these questions, and offer myself up to the crowd to decide: was I an artist?

artist talk description, #Adhocracy2012

This talk, and my process leading up to it, resulted in a slight – but vital – shift in focus for reallybigroadtrip as a whole. I’m therefore sharing my presentation slides for am i an artist? & a storify archive of the tweets that happened around it.


My talk was recorded so one day I’ll publish an edit of that, but until then you can watch a lovely mini-doco about the Adhocracy event as a whole:


It turns out that had NAVA not rejected me I maybe wouldn’t have had such an intense reaction that became a raging desire to question my own creative value. I wouldn’t have felt the need to prove to myself that this was what I really, desperately, wanted to be. So I guess I have a lot to thank them for.

I also have to thank my social media friends and colleagues for listening to & supporting my impassioned rambling rants. I should especially thank Emma Webb and Jason Sweeney (and all the artists at Adhocracy) for giving me the platform to say what I needed.

It helped.

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