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Advice post - Milking Mentoring by WCCD Supporter, Beth Hughes

Having a mentor can be a great way to renew your energy. An artist’s life can include a lot of self-doubt and, as well as providing practical advice, a mentor can help give you some perspective and peace of mind. I’ve had some great mentors and had the opportunity to mentor a number of artists so I thought it would be useful to share what I’ve learned along the way.


When I first approached a mentor I was very apologetic about it but I’ve since learned that being asked to be a mentor is a huge compliment. While a mentoring relationship is by definition hierarchal with the majority of the guidance going one way there is a level of reciprocity, particularly when participants are from different roles. I mentor artists who are earlier in their career and as my research centres on an equitable approach for early career artists from working-class backgrounds connecting with more and more artists in this position builds on my research too.


When you are thinking about who you would like to mentor you ask yourself what would help me right now? You could have a very precise answer to this, something like I need help writing a funding application, or it could be more general like I’m feeling lost and I need some focus. Try to articulate this when you approach a possible mentor so they can visualise how they might help you from the off.


Keep your expectations realistic. The question I am always asked is ‘I want to get galleries to show my work, how do I do that?’ And there is no solid gold answer to this question, especially in this ever-tightening climate, although there are definitely tips and tricks as to how to present your work to venues. It is unlikely a mentor is going to be able to answer all your questions, and they certainly can’t do the work for you, but a good mentor will share their experiences with you to help you plan your next steps.


You don’t have to just have one mentor so don’t put too much pressure on choosing the ‘right’ person. I would encourage you to be bold in who you ask, they can only say no, in which case you can move on and ask someone else. Think outside of your geographical region unless there is a good reason not too, think outside of the sector especially if you are looking at business skills, it may be someone who is where you would like to see yourself and you want to understand their career progression.


As in all of life boundaries are helpful. When approaching a mentor try to quantify what you are asking for. When I first approached a mentor I wanted to make it clear what level of commitment I was asking for, even if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to achieve in that time, so I asked for six sessions, about 1 hour each, to help me think about the next steps in my career. This was before the world went online it is much easier now to set up meetings in a way that is that is convenient for all parties.


The best mentor I had made me feel uncomfortable at times, they were quite blunt with me and challenged my preconceived ideas. I approached them sure of the direction I was heading in and they helped me realise I had set my sights too low. If your mentor is asking you uncomfortable questions, within reason that is, they are clearly invested in you and want to see you grow.


And finally, rinse their contacts. Artists with a high level of social capital have an advantage in the art sector as it revolves around networking and relationships. Research the organisations that align with your work and ask your mentor who they know there, ask them about previous funders they’ve worked with, their advice on good art writers and who you should be inviting to come and do studio visits.



Beth Hughes

Independent Curator & Researcher

June 2024

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