My Journey

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Hear from fellow arts freelancers about their experiences, and perhaps you can pick up some tips to apply to your own journey!

The freelancer journey can oftentimes feel quite isolating, and perhaps you might feel pressured to somehow magically know how to make sense of it all. In this section, fellow arts freelancers share their reflections about their journey, along with strategies and plans that have helped them thus far. We hope their stories remind you that you are not alone, that how each of us approaches our freelancing journey is unique, and that freelancing is a pathway that can work.

Sharda Maxine Harrison

Sharda Maxine Harrison Life As An Arts Freelancer

In Singapore, being a freelancer is one of the more viable options and ways to pursue an artistic career. Unlike Europe, Australia and America, Singapore does not have many agencies that manage performing artists, such as myself. Initially, the task of having to manage schedules on my own was a disaster. I often double-booked appointments and rehearsals and caused much frustration for my employers. It was only a year into my freelance career that I slowly begun to fully acknowledge that I had become a self-employed artist, and that the roles I accept and the way I organise my schedule and lifestyle would be a reflection of the actor and brand, that is, ‘Sharda Harrison’.

Being a freelancer is akin to being an incorporated company without the official documents. It is daunting because there is no protection of an employer and no employee benefits to enjoy.  Five years into my career, I realised that I had to shift my mindset from ‘freelancer’ to an ‘artist entrepreneur’. That meant looking at my skill-set and analysing what might be my niche skill-set. I knew that movement work had been something that I enjoyed and thus I decided to pursue it fervently by attending all types of movement workshops and trainings. While gaining an insight into various ways of moving, I decided to link all the new-found physical vocabulary that I was learning as a performer to my acting training. Slowly over time, I had gained a practice, which in itself, turned into my own methodology of actor training, which in turn, became a valuable source of income. This niche skill-set of being a movement-based performer allowed me to engage in an arts-based pedagogy practice. Over time, my personal branding shifted from just a theatre-actor to movement artist, actor, host and teacher. The more skills I acquired, and the more I linked these new skills to my actor training, the more confident I grew with managing my income, my own monetary benefits and my long-term health and wealth insurance. I cannot stress enough the value of creating a “rice bowl” and being able to sleep at night knowing that one has a roof over one’s head and food in one’s stomach.

It is harrowing to note how certain artists still believe in the notion of the “struggling artist”. Personally, I think that perhaps the word ‘struggle’ has been misconstrued for generations. It is a given that every artist struggles – we struggle to understand humanity, struggle to put a piece of art together, struggle to form community and outreach with the messages that we want to convey to the public. However, to financially struggle in order to make art, in my opinion, should be reserved as a myth. The biggest lesson that I have learnt as a freelance artist is how to make art that is authentic, honest, and still able to make an income from it. This does mean that we have to build on our skill-sets and focus on a myriad of ways and approaches to art-making. Perhaps we too, as artists, must become more demanding and savvy in how we handle our contracts and negotiations, because no matter how old or young we may be, an artist deserves to be able to live a rich, wealthy and abundant life.

I look forward to the day when we artists begin to speak more on how art and a decent income come hand in hand, and the myth of the struggling artist remains just that, a myth. 

 

Jeremiah Choy

Jeremiah Choy Freelance Sustainability – Myth or Reality?

It is a dream to be able to earn a living from a hobby or a passion. And to do so as a freelancer is an even bigger dream. So is it a myth or a reality?

After being a freelancer, on and off for about 20 years (since 1997), I can proudly say it is a reality. However, it does take a mindset change.

First of all, that hobby or passion has turned into a means for your living – you have to earn enough to sustain your day-to-day expenses, cater to your needs and wants and plan for your future. It is no longer doing it “just for fun”. 

Secondly, you need to have a strategy – a business and marketing plan. What will set you apart from the rest of the market? Who are your target consumers or buyers? How do you expand your market?

Thirdly, what are your long-term plans? How do you keep up with market demands, be ahead of the curve and be in constant demand? How are you relevant to the market? What are your skill sets? How do you sell them?

You need to realise that your freelance choice is now your Career!

Since the start of my freelance career, I am mindful of the 4 Cs: Concept, Copyright, Cash and Contract.

As an art-maker, my Concept is my asset. There is a difference between a brief and a concept. A brief is skeletal information of what the client wants happen. The concept, on the other hand, is a detailed thought process that I will share with the client. I earn my money through the concepts I generate. My thought-process is my cash cow.

As a creative person, I own the Intellectual Property (IP) rights over the concepts I have created, especially Copyright. I lay claim to these rights and make sure that I make money through them. If any client wants to take over any or all of my IP rights, they can either pay me a lump sum to buy the right/s outright from me, pay a licensing fee or pay me royalty fees.

Cash is important. There is no point rushing or doing a project for a client if the client does not pay my fees on time, or in full or at all. I make sure I get paid by carefully planning milestones or periodic payments. Having a good cash flow plan is necessary for a freelancer as I do not know when my next project or pay cheque will come. I do suggest having 3 to 6 months cash in the bank to ensure there is no necessity to do underpaying jobs just to meet financial emergencies.

Finally, I always insist on a Contract. This is to save me time and effort should either party default on the agreement as a contract spells out the rights and obligations of both parties. If I do not get a written contract, I will put in writing to my client to confirm the details of our discussion, state my fees and deliverables. It will become evidence should there be any dispute later on.

As a freelancer, my reputation and integrity are important. And very often, it is these two virtues that bring clients back again and again.

As a freelancer, I set my rules. My resources are limited, so I have to make many difficult choices on how to use them strategically to generate income for myself.

And with this mindset change, sustainable freelancing can be a reality. I have been living my dream and am happy that my passion is my work and my work is my passion.

 

 

Chan Sze-Wei

Chan Sze-Wei Babies = Doom?

When I decided to start a family, I knew that it would impact my art-making as a choreographer, film maker and performer. My partner and I had weighed this choice on many fronts for many years, but it became clear that this was something very important for us to do. As I am writing this, my baby is 9 months old. I am typing next to him in the dark while he sleeps. It is midnight.

I was, and still am, a little afraid. Art-making is so much a part of my identity that it is frightening to imagine that I might lose this part of myself because the neediness of a child is overwhelming. Art is a necessity to me. I am not sure I would be sane without this outlet for expression and the satisfaction of its challenges.

You could say that I have had it easier because I practice as an independent, and have done so for the past 8 years since I completed my dance diploma. I choose projects, collaborators and roles according to my own interests and the changing facility of my own body. I do not have a company or director’s schedule to conform to, or the need to stay at a specific level of fitness for a particular repertory or style of movement.

I am a planning maniac, so I made sure that I started my first career shift a couple of years before getting pregnant. I moved towards directing my own dance films and video installation projects instead of performing for others, cutting down on my own ‘live’ creation projects. I figured that this would allow me to choose a relatively intensive but short windows for production, leaving me more flexibility to handle pre- and post-production at my own pace. I currently do most of the producing and editing work myself. Showing film work does not usually require me to be present at screenings too, especially if they are overseas screenings, so I just send my screeners over and not have to worry about planning or budgeting for tours.

In the meantime, I do still keep up a physical movement practice and creation, but on a much smaller scale, with improvisation or other movement styles that I can handle with a post-partum body. So far, I have been lucky to find a residency and an overseas training that allows me to bring baby along.

I tell myself that this is the plan for the next five years or so. I will work it out as I go along. It has been mad, but satisfying. Making art feels ten times harder now than before, but at least I am still doing it. Of course, I am afraid. Afraid that my reduced output will render me invisible as an artist and that I will lose opportunities. Afraid that with the crunch on time I will not complete the grant or festival application or visit the arts markets that my peers are doing. Facing the pressures of massive sleep deprivation and fatigue, a really tight schedule, and the imperative to make sure I earn enough, I listen to horror stories from parent-friends about primary school balloting, tuition, homework responsibilities and I get more stressed.

However, I gained some courage at the dan:s lab hosted by the Esplanade and Daniel Kok in October 2018. Themed “This Woman’s Work”, it brought together over 30 female artists from Singapore and the region to talk about our work and to explore what themes of common interest would appear in an all-female context. The convenor allowed me to bring along my three-month-old baby and its presence triggered beautiful sharing amongst artist-mums and artists-who-want-to-be-mums. Practical advice was given, on how women can continue art-making with a child in the studio or performing with a baby in the wings, and how drawing on the experiences of childbirth and motherhood can make our work so much richer. From that moment on, a network of artist-mums reached out to support me as I crossed the bridge into motherhood. Recently, dancer Faye Lim initiated a series of multi-disciplinary conversations with artist-and-producer-parents on how we can make the arts in Singapore more family-friendly for ourselves – the practitioners. A lot of information and support that was previously invisible to me has become available because I took the step to reach out. So now, although I am still a little afraid, I know I am ok.

For artist-moms who are freelancers, do check here for more information on Government-Paid Maternity Benefit.

 

 

Michael Lee

Michael Lee Five Things I Learnt About Communication

I am having breakfast when my phone receives an email notification. It is Tay Tong, who wants me to share about my life as an arts freelancer for this article. His email puts a smile on my face. Other than communicating a clear intention, the email also states the essay’s word count, deadline and honorarium amount. I am not left wondering if this is another pro bono request. I have all the information I need to consider the invitation.

Just like managing expectations and creativity, good communication skills make a freelancer’s life more tolerable. I hope my list of tips here – gathered from some of my experiences – offers a guide, or at least, some consolation.

 

1. Take care of yourself.

Meeting people who could give you a museum show is an important opportunity. But when you get so stressed out and start to sound incoherent during the meeting, you become someone even you do not want to hear from again. The key is not to try so hard to be someone else. Know yourself towards and through self-care. Know when you are nervous and speaking too fast, and slow down. Know when you are rambling, and consciously pause or ask if your listener is following. Self-care is about protecting yourself and creating optimal conditions where you can shine.

2. Try and try again.

If you struggle with communicating in a certain way, try a different way. Try all ways. Try your own way. And if all of that does not work, there is one thing you should never forget…

3. We are imperfect, but a strong work ethic is still important.

We must recognise our own flaws, some of which could be hindering our development while others are actually blessings. A fellow artist shared with me that a collector bought his work because she found his anxiety during his artist talk to be a sign of authenticity.

Yet, using the ‘imperfect’ card too often is not sustainable. If you know you won’t be able to meet a deadline, request for a slight extension of time before the deadline looms too close, not after. Alerting issues ahead of time spells maturity. Apologising for unpunctuality is bad excuse.

4. Don’t get too personal.

There is a running joke that the best way to start a meeting is to gossip or engage in small talk, and there is some truth to that; asking “How’s your day?” is a good way to gauge the other person’s current frame of mind. However, overdoing it can complicate matters. Saying negative things about someone who is not present to defend himself or herself is unfair and risky, and your listener may turn out to be a fan of the subject of your rant! Base your opinions on facts, and strike a balance between acknowledging strengths and weaknesses if asked to opine on works you did not create. Not getting too personal at work does not mean stopping your personality and unique visions from coming through. It simply means you need to prioritise the task at hand rather than allow personal issues like self-doubt and prejudices to overwhelm the work. You are hired to solve problems, not add to them.

5. Keep the communication channel open.

In a committee situation, there will be disagreements. You know some things are wrong, or you realise someone in the team is free-riding, not pulling his weight, or being malicious. You feel obliged to call this person out. Yet, as soon as you raise your concerns, you get screamed at for telling the expert how to do his job. And you thought you were saving the day! When the truth must be told, there are ways to do so, such as to agree first and then to disagree, for example, “I get where you’re coming from, but—” This way, you keep the communication channel open and avoid turning it into a battlefield.

I half-suspect that the one reason I still get to do freelance gigs is that I am able to deliver them as competently and truthfully as I can without leaving a trail of burnt bridges.

(photo courtesy of Singapore Art Museum)

 

Hasyimah Harith

Hasyimah Harith My Promise To Myself

My journey as an arts freelancer started in my early twenties when I became curious about Malay traditional dance form and its purpose within our community, so I volunteered in many different activities to fuel this interest.

As a performer, I learn about discipline and what a culture-embodied practice is. As an instructor, I advocate and model a consciousness of knowledge-sharing between young and old practitioners. As an arts manager, I push for the infinite possibility of staging works premised on one’s artistic goal. 

As I reflect on my past ten years as an arts freelancer, I see the bittersweet moments as vital to building my tenacity and confidence. I once produced a dance work with a collective which questioned the leadership system in traditional dance collectives, as well as critiquing the culture and platforms of local and emerging choreographers. It was really hard work as I had little experience in pitching ideas, writing proposals, budgeting and bringing people together to make art. Although I had experience in event planning during my school days as a student leader, this time, a vastly different skill-set was needed. I was constantly challenged by my lack of awareness and sensitivity towards local art forms, and I was a stranger to local artists, producers and funding bodies as well as to the arts-going audience.

Yet, the adrenaline junkie in me was drawn to this unknown territory, and I decided to upgrade my skills professionally in an arts management course which taught me to decentre my ego by questioning my purpose as an arts manager. Till today, I practise a growth mindset by seeking knowledge from experienced arts practitioners and experts in their field.

Looking back, many of my friends were concerned and even sceptical of the long hours and hard work I had put into laying the foundation stones of P7:1SMA. Perhaps there is still a stigma towards freelancers as careless individuals with a lack of vision, stability and sustainability. People do fail to see freelancers as determined individuals bent on taking the road less travelled to pursue an ideal they believe in. I am happy to say that my determination in mastering dance, and finding the relation of dance to my life philosophy, is now underway in full swing! This “dance hobby”, which started off as a passion project, is now my full-time passionate career. I believe that the arts have the power to balance the opposing pull of our heads and our hearts, and dance has the power to investigate humanity. When I produce a dance work, I always aim to establish a symbiotic relationship between the manager and the artist, to respectfully challenge each other’s assumptions through constructive criticism.

Of course, there will be times when the going gets tough, and in these moments, I keep my family close to me. I believe in being with my loved ones to celebrate both big and small successes, together. To me, sharing is effective healing. My biggest motivation in fulfilling my artistic dream is to do so under the constant guidance and cheers from my family.

Another self-care method I practise is to promise myself to protect my time. This is a daily promise I make to ME. I advocate this to all my fellow freelancers – always prioritise your physical and mental health as well as your emotional well-being. Remember that there is freedom in deciding a purpose for each and every day, but have a system of setting tasks, especially routine ones, and ensure you deliver on what you promise. It is paramount to be trustworthy – the foundation of being a professional.

 

Teo Swee Leng

Teo Swee Leng Stay On The Path and Stay Focused

I started my arts career in theatre in 1985 as a volunteer stagehand. I was introduced to TheatreWorks by my late brother William Teo who was co-directing the production of ‘Rashomon’ with Lim Siauw Chong, the former artistic director of TheatreWorks. From there on, I ventured readily into administration and production work, creating a slew of theatre productions from the mid-1980s till I was offered the job as Festival Director of the Singapore International Film Festival in 1991.

To move from theatre to film was serendipitous, to say the least, and I am grateful to this day to have been able to work with many talented and passionate individuals like Philip Cheah who dared to push boundaries and to redefine the norm. After 16 years with the film festival, I ventured yet again into new territory – this time into the world of visual arts.

I was blessed to have had the privilege to project manage exhibitions like the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) in 2008 and the 2015 Singapore Biennale. I was also given the opportunity to set up the film programme at the Singapore Art Museum and to work on film retrospectives and film restoration with the Cinematheque team of the National Museum of Singapore. With each project I took up, I had the honour of working with more and more dedicated arts practitioners – from the National Gallery to the “pioneer team” of the revamped Singapore International Festival of Arts, where I served in four festivals from 2014 to 2017.

Looking back at my 30-year career from the mid-1980s to the turn of the millennium to now, to see the swift advances in science and technology and how this digital age has a synergetic relationship with the arts, I am inspired and humbled to be able to work in the arts in Singapore. Like many arts practitioners of my generation, I feel that we have come a long way. I believe there are few regrets, and more would say like I do, how grateful we are for our supporters and patrons, the growth initiatives of the government, and to the community itself for its vision, resilience and dedication. I am not surprised that I am still eager to contribute to our arts community, and to make a difference wherever I can.

I hope, in the near future, our arts industry will be like any other industries such as education and healthcare, where making a livelihood is not so daunting because practitioners are paid reasonably and not asked to work for free; where many are more able to support their family and to take a holiday, and still have enough to put towards retirement. I urge our younger generation of arts practitioners to never stop learning and upgrading yourselves; to risk and venture into new territories to create projects; to take on challenges head-on including the confidence to negotiate contracts with fair remuneration; and to believe in yourself. 

Work hard. Bring to the table only your BEST work. Be committed despite challenges and failure. Know your worth and your value. Stay on the path. Stay focused.

 

Dawn-joy Leong

Dawn-joy Leong Being a Freelance Artist with Disability in Singapore

Autistic people are given many different labels by the non-autistic world. The medical model of Autism, created by non-autistic observers, paints Autism as a bleak and barren existence devoid of empathy, lacking in social reciprocity, and mired in rigid, meaningless repetition. In truth, the autistic’s world is a rich, thriving ecology of multisensory experiences and insights, amidst juxtapositions of acute challenges, unusual abilities and everything else in between. How can autistic persons across the spectrum grow and thrive, not despite autism, but because of the unique features? And what can society learn from autistic people? 

As an autistic artist that experiences hyper-sensory perception of sound, smell, light, and movement that can often be overwhelming, I choose to use my experience to inspire my material practice. My immersive works invite my audience to step into my domain, and through my art, I share how everyone may thrive through natural autistic ways of appreciating the world. 

Oftentimes, we see art by disabled artists being cast aside for being “niche”, or as an “afterthought”, but instead, let us imagine a world in which different kinds of minds come together to share unique strengths and inspiration. Imagine safer, inclusive communities where each individual is a dynamic part of a whole, and the whole embraces the individual. Imagine a Neuro-cosmopolitan culture of empathic vibrancy. And that is what having more voices with disabilities in the art world can do for the fabric of our society. Art carrying the voices of artists with disabilities enriches the world, not despite our disabilities but BECAUSE of our disabilities. A major paradigm change is thus urgently needed. 

Being a freelance artist is difficult, but a freelance disabled artist faces additional complexities unknown to the non-disabled world. Disability is expensive, a fact that profoundly affects all disabled persons. Sign language interpretation, assistance dogs, specialised transport, specific supports and medical costs are the most common examples that spring to mind. Not only does the freelance disabled artist have higher bills to pay at the most basic level of survival, we also face social stigma and discrimination when looking for work. 

Returning to Singapore from overseas study, I have had to navigate a myriad of challenges including exploitative contracts and being told that I should work for “exposure”. However, what I grapple with the most are when organisations approach me, wanting an actual disabled artist to speak, in the spirit of “inclusion”. When asked about payment, they proffer a subtle lecture on experienced artists doing good deeds. Despite enjoying corporate sponsorship, they make the usual excuse about having no money. Why do they not ‘include’ payment for disabled speakers at the very beginning in their funding proposal? Why this afterthought? What kind of testimony would I, a known disability advocate, be giving were I to support this kind of “inclusion”? Whenever I ask such pointed questions, I am met with wobbly excuses or resounding silence.

It is time to move away from such tokenistic ways of thinking about disabilities. There is a growing need in Singapore for disabled artists to find a stronger voice and appropriate avenues for skills enrichment through dedicated mentorship and support. Together with other experienced artists who identify with disability and supported by the Disabled People’s Association and other like-minded organisations, I have begun a collective of freelance disabled artists.