Is the grass greener across the English Channel?

MChabocka Europe map

I have recently returned from a really good holiday in Poland. So good, in fact, that I discarded the original return ticket and stayed for another week and a half.

My definition of a great holiday is one that allows me to recharge physically, emotionally and intellectually so that I come back home with new energy and ideas. This trip provided more than enough food for thought and the fact that I was in another country enabled me to get some distance and re-evaluate my UK life.

Now, Poland isn’t exactly “abroad” – it’s my second home. I feel equally connected to people there as I am to my UK friends and colleagues. After several years of travelling between the two countries (I did my foundation and BA in London, and my MA in Warsaw), I can honestly say that I feel at ease in both. There are certain cultural differences, but fundamentally people here and elsewhere really aren’t that much different. In today’s world of ever-growing technologies which allow for effortless connectivity with the rest of the world and easiness of travelling, people’s mentality, dreams, plans, interests etc. are less and less anchored in the geographical location. And similarly, location no longer dictates whether an artist can reach an audience or find a career opportunity. With Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Behance, Tumblr, and many other online platforms, one can showcase their work, present their personality and opinions to people around the globe without having to leave the house.

Of course, the process of being discovered on the internet is entirely random, and there are no guarantees it will happen (best to assume it won’t). But at the same time, the same randomness is taking place in the physical world of job-hunting and self-promotion. If the supply of services offered by creative and talented people seriously exceeds the demand, and there are often no objective criteria to use when choosing someone, the process of finding a job, commission, getting an agent, gallery, publisher is completely subjective and unpredictable. And this randomization is likely to affect artists’ careers more and more.

This is why there are lots of extremely talented people working in fields unrelated to their background, and doing creative work in the privacy of their room, in the little spare time they have. This is one strategy. Another option is juggling several different freelance jobs, an example of which you can see here. Some people spend their time writing applications to the Arts Council, determined to obtain public money, despite increasing cuts in art funding. Nothing wrong with that, except that it often results in their work being driven by the needs of ACE criteria. Another option might be looking for a place with a smaller supply of artistic services, i.e. smaller competition, though this is something people tend to rule out. Artists (myself included) remain attracted to cities which on one hand provide cultural fuel, excitement and inspiration, but on the other – have the highest rents and the highest number of fellow artists. David Bowden covered the topic nicely in a recent Ideas Tap column, wondering whether London might simply be overrated as a place for artists. At the same time, in her article about living in the country, Hazel Davis quotes writer Heidi Scrimgeour, who lives in rural Northern Ireland and says: “I’m the only freelance writer I know of for miles around and word travels fast in small towns so people come to me when they need something I can help with. It’s effortless. That would never have happened in London.”

Yet the notion of London’s superiority over life elsewhere, including other European capitals, is strongly embedded in people’s minds. As someone who grew up in Kielce, a mid-size city in the south of Poland, then spent 5 years in London and 2.5 years in Warsaw before returning to the Big Smoke in 2012, I feel lucky to be free from romanticizing about the greenness of the grass on the other side of the English Channel. ­The trip I’ve just come back from only helped me gain a more objective perspective.

CSM, King’s Cross London | Photo by Francisco Huguenin Uhlfelder

There are nearly 40 art schools in London, all of which offer numerous foundation, undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses with often hundreds of students on each one. At the same time, in Warsaw there are 3 art academies. The most reputable one is the Academy of Fine Arts, which has similarly demanding entry exams as the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford, and takes approximately 10-20 people on each full-time course. Warsaw has 1.724404 million people, while London has approx. 4.7 times more. You can do the maths.

Among my London friends and acquaintances, there are people who do interesting things, are getting some recognition or at least a foot in the right door. But unfortunately, I know many more who are struggling to find any work and are gradually losing enthusiasm to keep swimming against the stream. This is why my trip to Poland was so interesting – over there, both in Kielce and Warsaw, I talked to various people who are, by London standards, quite successful. They are interior designers, graphic designers, art directors in agencies, architects, copywriters, media and PR people; they are employed, they are freelancers, or they run their own businesses. Some are more and some are less successful but none of them work at a call-centre or Tesco. They might worry that they’re not doing exactly what they want to or feel most passionate about, and that they’re most certainly not getting enough money, but the mere fact of working creatively and getting paid for that work is a success. The trouble is, until you have tried living and working elsewhere, especially in a city as aggressively competitive as London or New York, you might always feel like an underachiever when visualizing the scintillating career one could have in that dream foreign city. I would like to say to people: the grass is exactly the same over there, and if anything, it’s more trodden on. I would like them to enjoy the fact that they have jobs, time to see friends and family, go out, spend a weekend away. These things shouldn’t be taken for granted. It is also worth stressing that working in a small city equals smaller income but also smaller expenses, something to keep in mind when comparing your income to those from a Big City who have to pay proportionally (or often disproportionally) larger rents.

Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts

Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts | Photo by Marek & Ewa Wojciechowscy

“Let’s fill this town with artists!,” says a banner outside Cass Art, one of London’s largest art shops. Every time I shop there and see that sign, I feel the bitterness of its seemingly cheerful slogan. London is already filled with artists – many of them being unemployed and unhappy. When I was studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, I loved their methods of teaching, with an emphasis on developing one’s creativity and originality, exchanging ideas with other people, collaborating and experimenting. I used to be critical of the Polish system of Academies of Fine Arts (there are seven of them in the country), due to its harsh attitude towards both applicants and students, an insane amount of lectures, workshops, classes etc., and simultaneous project deadlines with practical and theoretical exams. But now I think that perhaps there is something to an art institution which takes on very few students and puts them through an ordeal. The stubbornness and determination they need to demonstrate in order to complete the course are what they will need once they’re out of school, in order to stay in the industry. London art schools are these wonderfully friendly places where hundreds of students from all over the world are encouraged and inspired to do what they care so much about, and made to believe that others care about it too. The truth is closer to what Hugh MacLeod says in his book Ignore Everybody: “Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.” (He then adds: “Making a big deal over your creative shtick to other people is the kiss of death.” As harsh as it sounds, it is probably true.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love London and I won’t deny that this city has given me a lot, and that I enjoy living here. I’ve met some truly wonderful people and done really interesting jobs and projects. To paraphrase a song by a late 90s British indie band, Black Box Recorder, London made me. But I strongly agree with David Bowden who says that: “In an increasingly global age London cannot afford to rest on its laurels as a centre of the artistic universe. Maybe artists should look on this as an opportunity to embrace the shock of the new, rather than trudge desolately back to their parents’ doors.” The quality of life one can lead and satisfaction from one’s own work are far more important than being in a place which millions of people consider most desirable.