Sarah Rowles

From a conversation between Sarah Rowles and Bella Kerr and Amanda Roderick on Tuesday 14thNov 2107 (Brighton/Swansea via phone)

Sarah Rowles is the founding Director Q-Art, which she set up in 2008 whilst a BA fine art student at Goldsmiths. She was motivated to set up the organisation in response to the barriers – tangible and intangible – that she faced as a first generation student entering and then progressing through undergraduate level fine art education. In addition to running Q-Art she also works as a freelance researcher. In September 2017 she began a Doctorate in Education (EdD) at the Institute of Education, University College London. She is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a Fellow of the RSA, a WEF Young Global Shaper, and on the steering group of the National Association of Fine Art Education (NAFAE).

 I think the nature of what Q-Art is, is about connecting across different organisations and institutions, and bringing people together. 

Originally when we started off, Q-Art was an entirely voluntary organisation – mainly because we were all students. I’m saying we – at that point I’d set it up with one of my friends, Emily,who I’d met on my foundation course at Camberwell the year before. And then other people on my course(at Goldsmiths)would chip in and help out running the monthly crit events and panel discussions. After two years or so, at the time that I was graduating, I knew I wanted the organization to continue and thought it would be a good point to put a more structured team together.

That was the point whenJo (Allen)became part of the team. Johad been coming to events for a quite a long time and was very interested in the ethos of the organization and widening access. There were a few other people, who had been to Q-Art events and regularly volunteered with the organization that also joinedthe team at this point.We decided to meet once a month and to talk about what the organization was and what it might go on to do. And I suppose that it was really grown out of those conversations, which really helped to form, a bit more concretely, what the organization is, and what it would do. It became clearearly on in this process that at the centre of the organization was an aim to demystify art education and the art world so that more people could take part. This aim has remained consistent even as our activity has evolved.

Around about years4 or 5 we realized that Q-Art couldn’t just run as a voluntary organization anymore. People in the team had to work, had to earn a living – we didn’t have student loans anymore and you had to think about ‘how do we make it sustainable?’ So whilst we were all doing our part-time jobs, Igot some mentoring from Business in the Community to think about how we might start to generate a bit of income for the organization, which we now do – and I can talk about that.

The way it is now is that everyone works on a freelance basis. There is still some voluntary time given, largely a lot of the planning time between Joand I,but on a project-by-project basis we try and bring in some income.

The team has changed quite a lot since 2008, so the people who were in the team originally, apart from about threeof us, are not the same people who are in the team now. People have moved to different countries, todo further study,and to do all sorts of other things. But all of the team came through the events programme. They were people who showed an interest in the organization and wanted to get more involved– so that was all quite organic also.

We recently putour progress report together, which demonstrates all that we have achieved inthe last 9 years.As we were writing it we wereattempting to list all of the partners we had ever worked with in one form or another and it came up, remarkably, to 120. So that’s 120 universities, colleges, schools and other organisations. I don’t think that we have ever done an event or activity without working in partnership. I don’t think we have ever done anything, or would do anything, just on our own. And I think the nature of what Q-Art is, is about connecting across different organisations and institututions, and bringing people together. So working with othersis absolutely essential – without it we wouldn’t exist – there would be no point in existing at all.

Whenever we work in partnership with any given organization or institution I think it has the benefitthat ifwe are hosting an event and we are partnering with someone else, we will be promoting the event and so will they. So we’ll reach two sets of audiences and those audiences then get to meet one another as well as making wider publicity – so that’s quite good on a number of levels.

I think because we’re quite small and have never had much money,the organization and its reputation has grown organically because of that sort or partnership working.Word of mouth has really helped build what we do – and sell a lot of books!

For the first fouryearsQ-Art was called Q-Art London.So even though we had no base everything that we did,and allofthe organisations that we worked with,and everyone we interviewed for our books,were based in London. WechoseLondon as a focusas we were studying hereand also because it was a major art world centre. Afteryear fourwe decided to work all across the UK. In both casesa lot of the planning and administration in the lead up to any sort of event was desk basedandso we just worked from homeand spokevia Skype,or workedtogether somewhere like the South Bank Centre.We would thentravel to interview someone or run a workshop orput on an event.

So the organisation hops around and has never had a fixed space-apart from one year, actually, when we did have an office in London,but that was mainly helpful for things like storageand team meetingsrather than anything else. That office was sponsored by an organization we worked with and when they left and we lost the office, we were still able to run the organization as we did. All that it meant was that our team meetingsjust moved backto the South BankCentre. It didn’t impact on our programme because we would always use otherorganisation’sspaces for our events. As well as being part of our programming that way of workingis also a lot cheaper!

One of the things about moving spaces, particularly going into the different art colleges, was about allowing people to see a space that they might not usually have access to. So they’ll see inside Chelsea College of Art – and you wouldn’t usually go into those studios if you were at another institution, or indeed outside an institution.

So it was largely about that as well – infiltrating space.

Recognizing when we graduated that we had to bring in some money, it was interesting thinking about how that would happen, particularly when so much stuff in the arts is run on shoestring and it seems an issue for somepeopleif there is an entry fee on something. We were also worried about whether if we charged entry fees at our events – does that make themless accessible? – and obviously that isa concern as access isone of our main priorities. So it was interesting thinking about all the ways we might do it.

The way that we have brought in money over the years has been through a combination of things. We did end up asking for donations at our crits and put a small charge on our symposia. However,both of these were subsidised by host institutions and at one point we also had some money from the Arts Council to subsidise our crit programme. Our books really sellquite well, but they go mainly towards funding their own print costs.Whilst I produced the first two books on a voluntary basis whilst I was a student, we received some fundingfrom the Higher Education Academy for the next two books. And then the most recent book was funded by a collaboration between different universities and an arts organization.

Although the dominant way of working in the visual arts tends to be a reliance on grant fundingI don’t like this way of working. For one there is a lot of paperwork involved and I don’t want to be spending all my time applying for funding and then filling in evaluation forms. Also,I think what has been shown to us over the years is that a lot of organisations who are entirely reliant on public funding don’t survive or are at risk of not surviving if that source of funding goes. For that reason we set up as a social enterprise. Itwas really important to methat we havea mixed source of income.

We have done this nine years progress report of everything we’ve done and I will be quite open because it’s public and you will see it – but the maximum incomewe’ve ever had is  -it might shock you – is about £26,000.00. So that’s the most each year that we’ve ever brought in and we’ve done such a huge amount on that. It’s interesting now because therearea lot of ideas that we have for the future of the organization. One big thing is wanting to focus a lot more on the publishing side, and to do a lot more research around art education and arts organisations Internationally – and that’s going to take a lot more money than we’ve ever had. On paper there’s a lot more ideas for how we can grow in the UK, as well. But fundraising is not my passion or my forte. So all the conversations as we go into year ten are – so how are we actually going to make this happen? We are planning to usethe progress report as a way to open up conversations with those whomight be able to do advise us on how we do someof this.

Another interesting area at the moment is about how we will have to be weighing up the value of the autonomy of the organization as we go forward. To date our autonomyhas been quite a clear strength and currently what I’m thinking about with Jo is to what extent is it a must to retain thisor might we have to compromise some autonomy for financial security? And would that impact on the way we run things? So these are all things that we’re thinking through at the moment and they’re very, very difficult questions. I don’t have any answers yet – it’s a work in progress.


Q-Art is an art education research, publishing and events organisation that aims to break down the barriers to art education and contemporary art. To ask questions, share insight, and facilitate debate across the art education sector through books, symposia, talks, workshops, videos and crits.

Image: Sarah Rowles on Swansea Beach, 2015. Photograph by Bella Kerr