Member Spotlight: Marge Ainsley on the power of choice and community

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June 24, 2020

Words by Angelica Bomford

In the next instalment of our Community Member Spotlight series, we sit down with Marge Ainsley – Freelance Cultural Consultant, Facilitator & Trainer by trade, as well as running junkie, Charlatans super-fan and decorated photographer. Dubbed One of the Best 50 Freelancers in the UK by The Drum, Marge markets herself as a ‘consultant who works in audience development, research and evaluation with museums, libraries and archives all over the UK’ but we wanted to dig a little deeper… 

We talk the secrets to her freelance success, the work-life blend, what the future looks like for the museums and galleries sector post-COVID and her favourite music album of all time. 

Credit – Maria Platt-Evans, courtesy RPSScience Museum

Fed: Hi Marge! So, first of all, can you tell us more about what you do? 

Marge: I’ve been freelancing for 12 years, working with museums, libraries, galleries, archives and heritage sites. I work on a variety of projects, from carrying out independent evaluation and visitor research, through to marketing and audience development. I also deliver training in evaluation and marketing to lots of different creative organisations and to Masters students at Manchester and Newcastle Universities.  I’ve worked with a range of organisations on all different scales, from the National Trust and Manchester International Festival, through to smaller independent museums and Trusts like Macclesfield Museums. 

I’m working with Carnegie Trust UK on a really exciting project at the moment called Engaging Libraries. The project funds public libraries to work in partnership with universities or independent research organisations to develop public engagement projects – anything from death, the menopause or fake news. 

I also co-run Museum Freelance in a voluntary capacity, it’s a network set up to champion, lobby and support freelancers in  the museums sector. 

Fed: …and how do you find time to sleep? 

Marge: After 12 years I’ve learned how much to take on, and I’ve got better at saying ‘no’ to projects which is really hard to do! It takes you a while….but I do like to keep busy!

Fed: What was it that pushed you to take the plunge into freelancing?

Marge: I was working as a marketing manager for a regional museum when an ex-colleague approached me about a part-time press officer role. I’d been thinking about my next career move and asked if they’d consider the post being freelance. They said yes, I put together my business plan and that’s how I started – working as a freelance press officer for a young people’s theatre in Manchester. The fact that I had a background in senior team leadership helped as I had a good list of contacts, but it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time I think. 

Fed: What has been your freelance career highlight so far?

Marge: I launched a second business in professional photography – Marge Bradshaw Photography – at the start of this year, working for family documentary, live performance, and corporate clients. And I also produce my own creative work. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time so it’s been a highlight or milestone I guess getting that off the ground. 

But I think my main professional highlight was being shortlisted for the Royal Photography Society Science Photographer of the Year award in 2019. As a finalist my work was exhibited at the Science Museum in London and I got to go to the launch. It was really interesting being on the other side of the fence. I kept asking the press person at the exhibition in the Science Museum if she needed any help and she just kept telling me to relax and enjoy myself!

Fed: What would you say to anybody reading this who is looking to enter the world of freelance within the culture and heritage sector?

Marge: The best piece of advice I was given when I started out was to think like a business. Think like a business when it comes to spending your money, negotiating, doing proposals…think with a business mindset, not an employee mindset. I’d also say to do your research – check if there is actually a demand for what you want to offer by searching the briefs and tenders that are out there. 

Also, don’t forget to allocate time and budget for CPD because you’re in charge of your own personal development and training as a freelancer. There’s lots of things to do as a freelancer that are ‘unbillable’ and you need to factor these into your time, and costs. Oh, and look after your health and wellbeing which we often forget as we’re so busy delivering client work. 

Fed: It’s fair to say that the freelance life can get a bit lonely if you let it, especially in these tough old times. What is your advice on staying connected?

Marge: I rarely feel lonely in the freelance world. In ‘normal times’ there are co-working spaces, meet-ups and socials happening all the time. Even during lockdown, I’ve seen things like business book clubs and digital pub quizzes happening, as well as online forums and Slack groups. In the past I’ve even found connections and freelancer events on the MeetUp app. It’s good to look beyond your sector and get involved with general business events because you never know who you’re going to meet.

I’d really recommend getting involved in some of the great freelance communities like Museum Freelance, Being Freelance, Work Notes and DIFTK. They’re really supportive communities to be part of. I also think it’s important to find yourself a group of trusted associates – I’ve been able to access work opportunities, share challenges and build new contacts through working in a collective with others. 

Credit – Maria Platt-Evans, courtesy RPSScience Museum

Fed: Why did you choose to become a Creative Industries Federation Community member?

Marge: I’ve always followed The Fed’s work but never been a member. When the Government support schemes were announced at the start of lockdown, The Fed did so much lobbying for freelancers, especially those who’ve ‘fallen through the cracks’. It felt like they had our backs and were proactively amplifying the message that many of us were sending out individually or through other networks. 

I decided to join at that point – and took advantage of the 3 months’ free membership. This special offer was very much appreciated, and it was great to see freelancers being supported, included and recognised as a core part of the creative industries workforce. Since then I’ve been really impressed with the webinars, calls for freelance community involvement and continuation of lobbying.

Fed: As you might have seen in the survey we have just commissioned with Oxford Economics, museums and galleries are projected to lose £743 million in revenue this year – how do you think the sector will get back on its feet post-pandemic?

Marge: It’s going to be tough to say the least, especially for those organisations who haven’t been eligible for emergency support packages, or who aren’t subsidised and have solid business models based on generating revenue from things like retail, ticketing or café income. 

I think we must continue lobbying the government for sector-wide financial support – not only to secure our cultural organisations and collections but to safeguard the skilled workforce too, and that includes freelancers. We’ve seen schemes in New Zealand and Germany providing large-scale support packages to strategically support their cultural industries and that’s desperately needed here to secure the long-term future of the sector. 

But we’re a creative industry and we’re going to have to draw on that creativity in spades to come up with solutions in the short-term – this isn’t going to go anywhere anytime soon. 

We need to be audience-focused in our approach to re-opening and getting back on our feet. So finding out what audiences need in order to feel confident to return – what are their barriers and drivers? And we need to be crystal clear with our communication messages. Organisations who are already audience development-focused will be ahead of the game here.

I think the hyperlocal is going to become increasingly important – especially for public engagement activity, so working with different kinds of partners, delivering activity in different community spaces and in the public realm. We’re already starting to think about what quality public engagement ‘looks like’ in a post-COVID world with some of the projects I’m working on. It’s an opportunity to totally rethink how we deliver, especially outside our venues. 

It’s also going to be vital to work out how to continue engaging audiences who’ve experienced our work for the very first time through the digital activity that’s happened over lockdown. But equally – and something I feel really strongly about is how we can develop audiences who are digitally excluded. 

Fed: Okay, so we all need to kick back and relax sometimes. How do you find that sweet spot in the work-life balance? 

Marge: I always try to take some time out in the middle of the day and I really enjoy running. I’m part of a local running club and for my 40th birthday last year, I got 40 people together to help raise £40,000 for Alzheimer’s Research UK by doing the Great North Run. 

Simon Seligman – my business coach – often reminds me about choice and how as a freelancer, you get to choose your hours, clients, projects and what works for you in terms of how you balance your day. It’s important to remember that you’ve got a great opportunity to maximise the flexibility you have as a freelancer. For me, it’s more about a work-life blend and downtime is spent with family, exercising or tending to my veg patch in the garden. And of course – visiting museums!

Fed: What are you reading at the moment?

Marge: I’m reading The Booker Prize winner from last year – Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. I’m reading it on BorrowBox, which is an app that lets you borrow e-books and e-audio books from your local library.

Fed: Right, before you go – favourite album of all time? 

Marge: It’s got to be The Charlatans by The Charlatans… or Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.

For more information or to contact Marge, head to margeainsley.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @margeainsley. You’ll find her photography at margebradshawphotography.co.uk or on Instagram @margebradshawphoto.