When Abby Corfan started her degree – in Modern and Renaissance History at Warwick University – she had no idea what career she wanted to go into. What she did know was that she loved music. From the age of 8, when she started to learn the cello, she was hooked. Whilst studying, she joined her university’s orchestra, playing in concerts at Warwick Arts Centre and even touring to India. She emphasises the importance of making the most of your free time at university and pursuing your personal interests. “Do it all”, she says!
It was through her participation in extra-curricular, musical activities that she first thought about gaining some valuable work experience. In the summer vacation between 2nd and 3rd year, she found 2 week’s work experience with the BBC, assisting with the filming of the Proms in London. A highlight included acting as a runner for Jamie Cullum. It was this work experience that first helped Abby to think about potential careers in the arts. Returning to university for her final year, Abby started to volunteer at the concerts and projects of Warwick University’s string quartet in residence, Coull Quartet. From her voluntary position Abby was offered her first graduate job as an Administrator for the group:
“In effect, I invented the job. It came out of me being useful”.
After 8 months in the fixed term role, Abby needed to find a more permanent job. Thinking about what mattered to her – providing access to the arts for everyone – she started to apply for jobs in audience development and marketing. Her first role was as an Assistant for an audience development agency in Birmingham, which meant that she suddenly began to get to know arts organisations across the Midlands and develop her network of arts professionals. She points out that:
“Networking, for me, has been invaluable”.
At this point Abby decided that it was marketing, specifically, that she wanted to focus on. What she found most fulfilling was seeing a full audience at an event that she had been responsible for marketing. Abby subsequently joined DanceXchange as a Marketing Officer. She explains that, “in marketing, you can move around art forms” and in fact “you often do have to move around to progress”. Thrust into the contemporary dance scene (about which she previously knew very little), she attended hundreds of shows and worked on campaigns for the International Dance Festival Birmingham. Before long, she was promoted to Marketing and Press Manager.
It was in this job that she developed the skills she needed for her next position – Marketing Manager at the CBSO. Abby explains that “it had always been an ambition to join the CBSO” and she now had the knowledge and experience required. In 2015 she was promoted to Director of Marketing & Digital for the CBSO. In this current role, she is responsible for marketing, communications and digital activities, and is a member of the senior management team. One of the organisation’s aims is to increase audience attendance from under-represented groups. Staying true to her motivations and interests, she has come full circle.
This year Abby was awarded the title of Birmingham Young Professional of the Year.
Abby’s advice on gaining essential work experience in the arts
- Volunteer for arts organisations and take part in student societies (while you have free time at university)
- Approach organisations directly, demonstrating your specific interest in their work and asking for work experience/internships
- Be articulate about the skill set you have e.g. if you have worked in a shop, talk about customer service, team work and use of initiative
- Steward at concerts, volunteer at festivals, work in a box office or invigilate in art galleries part-time. You never know when a theatre/concert hall/museum will need help with their marketing or other campaigns, and suddenly you will find yourself in the main office!
“If you want to work in the arts, you have to be able to talk about why you love it”.
Abby’s top tips for a career in the arts
- Get your foot in the door by taking every opportunity
- Be prepared to move around; you will not follow a straight forward career path in the arts, so think about the skills you learn in each role, which you can take with you
- Network – the arts world is small!
- Don’t work in the arts for the money; you do it for the experience
- There is life beyond London – don’t assume all the best opportunities are there. Birmingham has a thriving and diverse cultural scene
- Go and see lots of art/music/theatre. In interviews, Abby always ask candidates what cultural event they last attended and what they thought about it.