Culture Collective is a network that places fair work for artists and freelancers at the heart of each of its projects. With over 300 roles created for practitioners so far, it’s vital that we’re constantly reviewing and assessing recruitment processes to ensure that we’re attracting as diverse a range of applicants as possible.

Last year, we asked three of the Culture Collective projects to share what they had been doing to try to make their recruitment processes more accessible. Mhari Robinson (Independent Arts Projects, Sensory Collective), Natalia Palombo (Deveron Projects) and Katharine Wheeler (The Stove Network, What We Do Now) kindly shared their learnings to inspire others that may be thinking about widening access and testing accessibility.

We’re now delighted to share a blog from Victoria Beesley, Associate Director, Learning & Engagement at Perth Theatre and Perth Concert Hall, who was involved in selecting the second round of commissions for Creative Dundee’s Cultivate project. Here, she shares her thoughts on the selection process and what she took away from being a part of the panel.

In Autumn 2022, I sat on a panel with Claire Dufour (Creative Dundee) and Matthew Hickman (Culture Collective) to select four creative practitioners for Creative Dundee’s Cultivate project. These practitioners will partner with communities across the Tay Region to collaboratively explore new ways of embedding creativity at the core of collective action for climate justice.

It was one of the best selection processes I’ve experienced. It’s got me thinking much more about making selection processes not just a way of choosing individuals to collaborate with, but as opportunities to build relationships, to instil value in people, to encourage and to learn.

Here’s how it worked

There were four commissions in total. Three focused on partnering with specific communities; one was for a practitioner who would tell the story of the whole project.

There were three stages to the selection process:

1. Initial application

Practitioners could apply in writing, audio or video. There was an opportunity to tell us about their work, provide examples of their work, and to outline their motivation for applying.

We used these applications to shortlist, selecting three practitioners to meet and interview for each commission.

2. Interviews

We met with the shortlisted practitioners to find out more about their work, their motivation, their connection to the communities they would be working with, their commitment to working collaboratively, and their interest in climate action.

These interviews happened over Zoom, applicants were sent the questions in advance, and were asked to begin with a short presentation about their work and reasons for applying.

As a panel, we did not discuss our reflections at this stage but waited until after the final stage to discuss each applicant.

3. Submission of a proposal

After the interview, practitioners were asked to send a proposal for how they intended to approach their chosen commission. This could take any form; and we received written proposals, images, PowerPoints and videos.

All of the practitioners were paid £150 to work on this proposal, as a recognition of the time it would take. References were also sought at this stage.

We, the panel, then looked over and assessed each proposal individually, before meeting together to discuss who would receive the commissions.

The process felt thorough and clear from start to end; and the different stages meant we got a really good insight into who the practitioners in front of us were and what they would bring to the project.

Key bits of learning

At this point I think it’s useful to say that I can only reflect on the process from my side of the process – as someone on the assessment panel – although Creative Dundee received a lot of positive feedback from the applicants too.

Here are the things I will take away from this process as being particularly useful or something to learn:

  • Unsuccessful applicants were offered feedback at all stages of the process; an important acknowledgement of the time they’ve put into applying and the value they have as practitioners
  • The length of the initial applications (500 words about your practice; 500 words about your motivation for applying) meant we felt like we had a good amount of focused information to make a shortlisting decision without feeling overwhelmed
  • Flexibility of form in which to apply – written, audio, video – meant applicants could express themselves in a way most suited to them and it helped applications
  • Creative Dundee set really clear criteria for us as a panel (and I think for applicants too) which meant we knew what we were looking for and shared a language in our discussions. We scored applications in line with that criteria, but there was also an opportunity to share additional reflections on the applications that didn’t neatly fit into the criteria
  • The aim was to make the interviews as informal as possible. This is an acknowledgement that that is a really hard thing to do, especially over Zoom! Applicants are understandably nervous, they know they’re being assessed, and if you want to make sure there is a parity between all interviews – so all applicants have an equal opportunity – then you have to stick to the same structure, and ask the same questions
  • Sending applicants the questions in advance meant we got better answers; nobody was thrown by the surprise of a question, and everyone had time to think through an answer that felt true to them. There were a couple of additional questions we added to the end as we realised these would be useful in our first interview
  • The opportunity to hear from applicants in different forms – as a written/spoken application; then in an interview; and then in a creative proposal – was so interesting. Different applicants excelled in different areas, and it really felt like we got a fuller picture of each practitioner than I’ve felt in any other selection process I’ve been part of
  • Receiving references alongside the final submissions was useful; often we wait until the role has been offered to seek references which seems a wasted opportunity
  • One of the commissions focused on working with people of colour in Dundee. Of the four commissions, this is the only one creative practitioners of colour applied to. This left us asking questions about why this might be. Did practitioners of colour feel like this was the only role they should apply for? Or were practitioners drawn to this role because this was an opportunity to work with communities they identify with? What more could have been done to make the other roles more accessible?
  • Paying applicants to complete their final submission meant that the quality of these proposals was great, as practitioners could give it time, and it demonstrated the value we placed on them
  • As well as the four commissions, Creative Dundee had put some budget aside to support early-career and underrepresented creative practitioners we were particularly impressed by and wanted to support, but had not been successful in receiving one of the four commissions. It felt really positive to be able to continue building relationships with these artists.

The forms our selection processes take are so important. Done well, the process of applying for a commission or a job can be beneficial, positive and enjoyable for both applicants and selection panels, and it can be part of forging really positive relationships.

I’m certainly going to keep thinking about what more I can be doing to create a positive recruitment process going forward, and I’m thinking about the ways I can go even further with this process.

What if everyone got a second shot at an interview if they weren’t happy with their first attempt? What if all interviews began with the applicant talking for ten minutes about any subject they were passionate about, to settle their nerves and to help the panel understand more about them as a person? What if everyone received a fee for the second-stage of a selection process? What if we spend more time curating the physical spaces we interview in to make interviewees feel as comfortable as possible? What if there was an opportunity for the interviewee to interview the panel as well?

Plenty of food for thought.

Victoria Beesley is Associate Director, Learning & Engagement at Perth Theatre and Perth Concert Hall; she is currently a Clore Fellow.