Student Arts Societies Must Collaborate Against Exclusivity

Jelena Sofronijevic (Head of Arts at FreshAir.org.uk, Edinburgh’s student radio station) and Maisy Hallam (former Literature Editor at The Student) discuss their experiences of exclusivity and intersociety competition in the arts. Jelena describes her project to break down barriers in Edinburgh’s student arts scene, and the challenges she has faced along the way.

I am not an arts expert. As a humanities student from a small, working-class town, I’d visited only a handful of productions and galleries before coming to Edinburgh. My inexperience, and lack of internal connections, often seemed like obstacles against taking part in ‘exclusive’ societies. Despite an interest in playwriting, I avoided the Bedlam Theatre for three years. 

Trying my hand at academic and print journalism, playwriting and directing – and my beloved radio – I worked with knowledgeable and passionate students. In 2019, I was elected Head of Arts at FreshAir.org.uk, Edinburgh’s student radio station. My manifesto pledged to unite Edinburgh’s arts-enthusiastic students in a professional, accessible, and self-supporting community – The Arts Team. 

But competition, not cooperation, continues to define intersociety relations, even though many students are members of multiple societies. I’ve spent the year scouring society listings, reaching out to all arts-related groups and institutions to foster productive connections. Few responded at all – including the University’s own Talbot Rice Gallery – and fewer still with enthusiasm to get involved or promote Arts Team membership. 

Now one-hundred-strong, The Arts Team includes reviewers from a range of ages, disciplines, and interests, contributing to on-air and online (written) coverage. Outwith social media, we meet weekly to share upcoming opportunities and programme The Arts Show (TAS), a weekly live broadcast on FreshAir.org.uk. 

The Arts Show features exclusive interviews, reviews, and features from Edinburgh’s diverse (student and non-student) arts scene – from theatre to literature, film to the visual arts.  It’s also a model for how intersociety cooperation might create better, broader content. ‘The Week in Arts’ is a new, regular segment on TAS, co-presented by The Student newspaper’s Culture Editors. Maisy Hallam, former Literature Editor at The Student, explains how the segment helps to break down barriers:

‘When Jelena offered us a weekly segment on The Arts Show, it came as quite the surprise. Collaboration between media societies at Edinburgh? Unheard of. Nonetheless, we keenly agreed, never ones to pass up the opportunity to talk about the arts and slap The Student’s name anywhere and everywhere.

‘The Week in Arts’ has a simple premise: it is the listeners’ one-stop shop for Edinburgh’s upcoming cultural events each week. It suits our strengths. As the Theatre, Art and Literature Editors at The Student, not only are we cultural journalists, but it is our very job to know exactly what’s on in the city and publish accordingly. Coming on The Arts Show allowed us to break down the daunting wall of intersociety collaboration, and the benefit is mutual we provide the listeners with the look-ahead of Edinburgh’s cultural scene, and in turn, we can promote our paper and remind like-minded creative students when and where to pick up a copy.

There has never really been much collaboration between media or arts societies at this university, despite the fact we all have something in common and so much to offer each other. It’s a shame to see ourselves in competition with one another; it’s needless and detrimental to the work of all our societies, given what great content we can produce in tandem.

But it may be a long time yet before we see collaborative relationships between artistic types improve we are a notoriously proud group, after all. Even within The Student there was some amount of ill will, a result of a strange hierarchy we’d fostered between writers and editors. The way The Student is run means that the writers have limited involvement, writing articles mostly by editors’ command and only having to engage with them once a week at the writers’ meeting. But each passing semester, we worked on creating a fairer student society, where editors and writers collaborate rather than pursue a one-sided relationship. It was certainly something close to our hearts as Culture Editors. 

It seems pretty clear that collaboration between creatives, whether it be intra or intersocietal, is a fundamental part of producing amazing and engaging content that we can all enjoy together.’

Empowering students with opportunities – including complimentary press tickets – enables them to develop their cultural interests into practiced skills. Handfuls of press tickets during the Edinburgh Festivals enabled me to refine my reviewing and interviewing technique. Against the intellectual and financial exclusivity of culture, this debunks the myth that you need a thorough ‘education’ to appreciate or pass judgement on art. Enthusiasm, not experience, is the only condition for taking part in The Arts Team. 

Moreover, this model of creative collaboration is self-supporting. By attracting more, differently-interested, students, FreshAir Arts’ coverage is now broader – and louder – than ever before. Intersociety cooperation also enables students to support each other’s interests; as The Arts Team gains review and interview opportunities, student artists gain publicity and press experience. Indeed, most of our listeners and readers are students, and our stats spike for student arts coverage. 

As a result, FreshAir Arts has dramatically expanded in membership and coverage. I’ve worked to develop new relationships with a range of societies and cultural institutions, including the Cameo Cinema, Scottish Opera, and Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums. The Guardian’s Mark Fisher collaborated with The Arts Team to provide free review and interview training. Broadcasting highlights include a special in-exhibition feature with Alice Strang, Senior Curator at the National Galleries of Scotland about Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance, interviews with Richard Blair, George Orwell’s son, and colleagues from Capital Theatres. Our average Facebook reach – for reviews and weekly TAS schedules – has increased by fivefold from the same period last year, with our posts shared by some of Edinburgh’s most prestigious arts institutions. 

I was originally invited to write this article for a (different) student cultural magazine. After months of silence, it was cut from the final print, though the editor still hoped to promote their upcoming edition on air. As arts and media societies, we must collaborate to break down barriers against participation. Platforming different voices will only make the arts more inclusive and wide-reaching – giving us plenty to write about.  

The Arts Show airs live on Tuesdays, 6pm-8pm. Catch up and read reviews on FreshAir.org.uk. Keep up to date at @FreshAirArts on Facebook, or contact arts@freshair.org.uk.

 

Featured image: Aidan Jones / Creative Commons

 

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