This collective of illustration agents is diversifying a white, middle class industry from the inside

Ciara Phelan, co-founder of Grand Matter, writes about her own experiences and impetus for spearheading the Agents for Change initiative.

30 March 2021

I was very naive coming into the creative industry as a person of colour, and navigated the barriers without really acknowledging that they were there. I come from a single-parent family and grew up on a council estate in Southampton. I was used to rejection, racial micro-aggressions, feeling out of place in established institutions and seeing affluent peers progress ahead of me. My childhood experience inadvertently equipped me with the determination and hard shell needed to get into the industry. After a successful career as an illustrator myself and as the co-founder of illustration agency Grand Matter, it’s only now that I have a stable career that can I reflect on how wrong this is. The industry shouldn’t just be open to those who are affluent and educated, and through Agents for Change I want to genuinely change this.

It started with an email to the agencies that had posted a black square on social media last summer. We shared our thoughts on how we passionately believed that now is the time for some solid action and we wanted to move beyond activism on social media and implement systemic changes that will have a positive effect on the industry for generations to come. The email also recognised that this is obviously a daunting task for any individual, and how we felt we could be most effective together. As a gatekeeper to the industries, we invited them to join us in a cross-illustration agency collective to discuss some actionable changes we could make as agents, to increase diversity throughout our rosters and the wider creative industry.

We had a tremendous response; the agencies who replied and are currently involved include Everyone Agency, Jelly, Roar Illustration Agency, B&A, JSR, Handsome Frank, Folio Art, The Artworks, Debut Art, NB Illustration, Outline Artists, AOI, Artist Partners, Arena Illustration, Phosphorart, The Bright Agency, Studio Pi, Big Active, and of course Grand Matter. Collectively we represent 1,154 artists which is approximately nine per cent of the industry.

“We wanted to move beyond activism on social media and implement systemic changes”

Ciara Phelan

As part of setting up Agents for Change we created a diversity survey to share with our collective rosters to help establish how representative they are. The idea was to find the areas that need improvement and to repeat the survey each year so we can hopefully show progression. We found that across our rosters, 19.9 per cent of our artists categorise themselves as being from a BAME background. The feeling is that our rosters are not representative of the industry as a whole, which is much more multicultural, and in turn the industry is not representative of the UK.

The next question is why? The main barriers to entry are financial, educational and cultural with the reasons for this being complex, deep-rooted and systemic. To establish yourself in the industry, you often have to work for free or below minimum wage and many people simply don’t have the funds to support themselves in the early stages of their careers. This means that individuals from wealthier families can afford to pursue a creative career and these families are predominantly white, from middle-class backgrounds. Additionally, pursuing a career in the creative industry is often not seen as lucrative – the “struggling artist” trope prevails. This often dissuades young people from even considering the arts as a viable career path as they aren’t knowledgeable about the opportunities that exist. There are also confidence issues; it can be daunting putting yourself out there, as art is very personal and it can be hard to know how to present your work for commercial success.

When I co-founded Grand Matter in 2017 with Dorcas Brown, I was very focused on creating an agency that I would want to be a part of as an artist. The emphasis was on supporting an artist’s career development and creating a space for them to express themselves creatively alongside their commercial practice. We also wanted to champion important causes through collaborative projects and our focus was on diversity but also climate change and mental health. When we launched I was proud that the artists on our roster were chosen for their work alone, regardless of background, colour, socioeconomic status etc. But I now realise that this was wrong. We need to be proactive in seeking out artists because of their background, and making sure there are diverse voices and styles represented. I was ignorant of the barriers to entry and believed that if you were talented enough, you would find a way to succeed, as I had.

The events of last year were 100 per cent the catalyst for Agents for Change. After the tragic death of George Floyd, I received numerous texts from well-meaning friends asking if I was OK, and this really took me by surprise. Suddenly, I was hyper-aware of my own skin colour and how I was perceived by those around me. The space in our lives created by lockdown gave me a chance to really reflect on my own journey and the challenges I have faced due to my ethnic background, socioeconomic status and gender. It was a difficult time because sometimes you don’t want to acknowledge your own hardships; it’s easier to be ignorant of how cruel the world can be, rather than wrestle with the injustice.

“The illustration industry has the power to help spread a positive message of diversity”

Ciara Phelan

I found the passion and energy of the Black Lives Matter movement to be infectious and it galvanised me to be bold and push for systemic change. I could see other agencies posting black squares on social media and that was a great signal that they were also feeling the same and open to having the difficult conversations needed about diversity in our industry.

So after the initial reach-out, the agencies involved met over Zoom to debate what the perceived issues are within the creative industry and how we might collectively tackle them. We took time between meetings to do research and reach out to contacts who might help grow our knowledge. What struck me during those early meetings was the willingness of everyone to recognise there was a problem. I’ve seen other group discussions on diversity that have been stuck on whether there is actually a problem, so I found it really encouraging. One of the biggest challenges we faced at Grand Matter was giving everyone a chance to be heard and reassuring people that it was a safe space to voice your opinion. People can be reluctant to talk about diversity as it is a sensitive issue and it isn’t always easy to articulate yourself for the worry of offending someone by using the wrong terminology. Our most recent meetings have been really positive and I can see everyone relaxing into it.

Our efforts are solely focused on those from underrepresented groups and we’ve spent a significant amount of time drilling down into which ideas will have the most impact. Although we have lots of plans for the future, we have decided to put in place a few key initiatives for the launch. Our focus is to improve pathways for those making their way into the industry by providing mentoring and guidance, with special care to be mindful of barriers, whether that’s financial, geographical, cultural or due to a lack of information.

We’re keen to facilitate dialogue and give feedback and advice to aspiring artists. To do this we will be running monthly events that include portfolio feedback sessions, Q&As with agents and artists, and live Instagram sessions.

We want to demystify the industry structure and make it easier for school and college students to understand what a career in the arts might look like. To do this we are building a network of teacher contacts so we can visit schools and deliver presentations. We’re also interviewing established artists from underrepresented groups and asking them to share their story with the hope that this might inspire others.

The illustration industry has the power to help spread a positive message of diversity, and as agents we are in a position to affect change in the industry. We want our rosters to reflect society; they should be made up of diverse voices and styles. We need to move past tokenism, we need authentic representation so commissioners can hire illustrators with the appropriate backgrounds, who can tell authentic stories with nuance and understanding and also allow different aesthetics and voices to thrive in the industry. We’ve a long way to go but I hope group initiatives such as Agents for Change can do their bit to help us progress.

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About the Author

Ciara Phelan

Ciara Phelan is co-founder and creative director of artist agency Grand Matter.. With a background in design, Ciara established her career in the creative industry working as a collage illustrator, her clients include the V&A, New York Times and Vogue.

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