Careers in the arts: Hilary Copeland

Madalyn Williams interviews the Irish Writers Centre’s Acting Director about carving your own career path and making each day count

As ironic as it might be, the beginning of the academic year often serves as a reminder that eventually we will be making career choices which will push us out of the bubble of our chosen course, and into the real world. These decisions can be especially daunting for arts students, whose career options can seem surprisingly muddied when outside the realm of teaching and research. The diverse skill set many people in arts industries require can make it difficult to even know where to start, especially in such a rapidly evolving industry.

Luckily, many have walked this path before us. Hilary Copeland, Acting Director at the Irish Writers Centre, spoke to Trinity News about her own journey into arts management, how she managed to build the varied skill set the job requires and what this allows her to do today.

Starting out

Arts management is a career that has only really begun to define itself in the last 10 years or so, making aiming for such a career trajectory intimidating. When graduating from university, Copeland had accumulated an assortment of experience ranging from “volunteer and charity work” to “short-term temping roles during summer holidays and part-time positions during term-time.” 

A part time job as a box office assistant provided a glimpse into arts venues, but it was while volunteering at a poetry festival that she began to understand the possibilities in arts management. “I had never heard of anything like a poetry festival before and was amazed to find out the scale and effort that went on behind the scenes to make it happen. After graduating, I applied for a temporary front-of-house position at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and was astonished that I was getting paid to be there! I was really blown away at seeing all these people in the same place because of a love of books and literature.”

“The decimation that has occurred from systematically defunding arts organisations in Northern Ireland over the past decade has left the sector in a shockingly critical state.”

From there she acquired experience at Culture Northern Ireland, Young at Art, NI Science Festival, and Belfast International Arts Festival until joining the John Hewitt Society, a “small arts charity in Belfast” where, beginning as a freelancer, she moved on to a part-time role before running the company full-time.

Then, this year, Hilary moved to Dublin to begin her term as Acting Director of the Irish Writers Centre during her predecessor’s sabbatical year. She is certain of the value her varied work experience has provided her, as it was “important in developing skills I use every day” and looks for this experience in potential hires as well. “If you want to be an event manager, you should know how an event works, at every stage. I think the best managers are those who have been in the roles of the people they manage. If you have experience in bars, catering, reception, taking phone messages, etc, all of that is useful. Lots of my short-term jobs – in admin and customer service for example – really helped me in terms of getting used to working with other people. Operating a switchboard, learning how an office runs, seeing how small businesses worked – these all helped me with organisational skills and time management. If I’m looking at a CV I am keen to see experience in customer service roles as I know that person has developed skills in diplomacy, empathy, communication skills, developing a positive attitude, and working in a team.”

Directing a non-profit means overseeing all of the different aspects of the organisation, which requires flexibility, creativity and people skills. The Director finds themself both managing internal staff as well as the external projects. When it comes to addressing everyday responsibilities, it’s clear that you can only expect the unexpected. Copeland says the key to managing the range of tasks is “balancing effective forward planning with reactive problem-solving”, since she must be “both adept at planning and managing time as well as thinking on [her] feet.” While this might seem confusing at times, Copeland is positive that these elements of the role “are complementary rather than contradictory”, well suited to her excitement in planning and organising engaging events. In other words, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail!”

The challenges and rewards

Because the role requires a delicate balance between immediate management and long-term planning, “trying to implement change and learning all whilst balancing the demands that come from many different sources” can be exhausting and occasionally impossible. Especially when working with such diverse sets of people, ranging from “staff, our board of trustees and volunteers, the artists we employ or the public who engage with our services”, “making sure people’s difficulties are heard, recognised and addressed” is as difficult as it is important. Copeland assures that the work put into acquiring this feedback is invaluable and “key to growth.”

“She believes creative writing… [can provide] a safe space to consider difficult topics, new ways of seeing the world and developing self-confidence, as well as satisfaction on a personal level.”

Another eminent challenge is the chronic lack of funding in the arts, and how much “artists and organisations deliver on so little”. Having worked in Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin, the most striking change Copeland has observed throughout her career in the sector has been arguments for and against public funding for the arts: “The decimation that has occurred from systematically defunding arts organisations in Northern Ireland over the past decade has left the sector in a shockingly critical state.” In addition, Copeland strives to improve accessibility in the arts sector, as “the cultural life of the sector in Ireland should be reflective of the communities who live here, and there is a lack of diversity represented in the arts generally.” Attempting to navigate such a sector can be demanding, with Copeland describing her biggest challenge as “looking at how we can tackle the barriers to both engagement in the arts and avenues to employment whilst acknowledging the structural challenges that underpin the entire sector”. 

As difficult as the balance can be, ultimately it is working with her team that Copeland prizes above all. Being able to foster a social learning environment, “learning from the team, how the organisation here operates, and identifying ways I can support each team-member individually is very satisfying” as well as “getting their input and ideas and helping involve everyone in the success of the organisation”. 

It can be equally rewarding to witness the impact organisations like the Irish Writers Centre can have on people outside the management team. This allows Copeland to stay in touch with how her work matters to people. She believes creative writing can provide avenues to explore one’s own values and motivations, a safe space to consider difficult topics, new ways of seeing the world and developing self-confidence, as well as satisfaction on a personal level.

Making your degree work

It’s likely that many humanity students can relate to how Copeland entered university unsure of exactly where her course would take her. In school, she’d enjoyed many subjects, from art and drama to history and English literature. Although unsure about how to narrow her focus so quickly, she ultimately decided upon English. This was informed by Copeland’s love of literature, yes, but also because she prized the breadth and diversity of the humanities course. Through English she got the chance to explore “philosophy, religion, anthropology, history, critical theory” while ultimately centring on individual people, their “lives lived, imagined and real”. This attachment to people themselves is still what drives her work today. 

“Through English she got the chance to explore “philosophy, religion, anthropology, history, critical theory” while ultimately centring on individual people… This attachment to people themselves is still what drives her work today.”

Nevertheless, Copeland admits that she herself found career advice both “narrow and limited” and so struck out in her own direction, gaining experience from jobs across sectors and eventually carving out an impressive resume in arts management. In this sense, what you manage to take from your degree matters more than the course you choose. Your choices after graduation and your experience in the working world can always be filtered through a unique and useful academic lense, but you can’t have one without the other.

Advice from an expert

Regarding pursuing such a career, Copeland is pragmatic: “The work is comparatively underpaid compared to say, opportunities in the private sector, and there is a salary ceiling for the majority of roles available. Arts organisations are generally small in scale so there are fewer roles, and the lack of internal job mobility can be frustrating.”

She stresses how funding influences every aspect of the jobs provided, as changes can lead to uncertainty in aspects like job security, and “because underfunding is so commonplace, most organisations rely on volunteers.” But Copeland resists pessimism in favour of a passionate pursuit of arts development across the island of Ireland: “…if you consider all these things and still want to pursue a career in the arts, I would still highly recommend it!”

What can students do day-to-day to build experience in such a landscape? Copeland is hopeful: “In the arts generally, but especially in literature, there are a number of free events and activities that are available so make the most of those opportunities – go to events on your own, attend a show or gig you haven’t heard of before, attend launches. Get to know who runs your local bookshop. Booksellers know what books are being released soon and have a very good cultural radar. Find out what organisations do and what they offer and contact them to volunteer if you can.”