UCL East


Trellis 5: Recruit less, pay more and be transparent – lessons I’ve learned from Trellis

This article is written by Lizzy Baddeley, a Community Engagement Manager in the UCL East Cultural and Community Engagement Team and has worked at UCL since 2013.

View of the Trellis 4 exhibition at the Mile End Art Pavilion. Abstract blue pipes in the foreground, in the background is a white wall with frames images on it.

We have been funding mutually beneficial arts commissions between artists, researchers and communities through Trellis since 2018. The latest round, Trellis 5, has just launched!

Each time, socially engaged east London artists apply to meet researchers from UCL, and go through a 2 stage process of commissioning. Ultimately, up to 6 artists are awarded a £15,000 art commission and exhibition.

Also each time, we realise there are things we could do better, or things we have missed.

We have just launched a call for artists and researchers to take part in Trellis 5!

This is currenrly the last year we have funding and responding to feedback, we’re making some changes:

  1. We will shortlist fewer artists to take part in Trellis
  2. We will be more transparent about how we shortlist artists, and trial random selection to decrease bias at the initial stage.
  3. We will increase rates paid to artists at the initial stages.

These are factors that came up during both our formal and informal evaluation processes and have made us reflect on whether we can improve current processes or try do things totally differently.

Below, we have discussed what issues arose and what things we are trying in order to make them better. We know some of these may be surprising, or even controversial. We welcome conversation and comment on this! Please feel free to reach out via email to public.art@ucl.ac.uk.

Offering fewer opportunities to take part in Trellis.

Trellis kicks off with a mixer event. We invite artists to apply to come to these mixer events, sometimes called Matchmaking. Every time we run Trellis we get far more applicants than we have space for at the mixers, and often we have tried to invite as many as we can.

We have decided for Trellis 5 to cap the number of artists we invite to the mixers at 35. Last year we invited 55, and received a lot of feedback from artists who found the cut from being one of 55, to then there only being 10 available funded opportunities, too steep. Cutting down the number of artists (and researchers) will help us to focus our support on building connections between those who attend mixers.

Shortlisting artists fairly.

The way artists have been shortlisted before is based on criteria and a written statement from the artists giving context for how they meet this criteria. (you can see the Trellis 4 criteria, from 2022, here). The Trellis team goes through all the applications and decide who best fits. Every time it is a hard to agree on a final number, and every time there are more people that COULD attend the mixers than we actually are able to invite.

Asking artists to apply through a written statements is also, potentially, creating barriers to those who find it hard to express themselves through writing. We have offered to receive application in video or audio form before, but this has not, so far, been used.

We are also aware that, as much as we try not to take into consideration any prior knowledge of an artist’s practice, inevitably there will be some artists who members of the team know, and whose applications will be read with additional information being available.

So. We have decided to try something totally different and trail a process of random selection for the 35 places available at the mixer.

For Trellis 5, we are asking those artists who want to take part to say whether or not they meet our key criteria, and to give short, simple evidence of this. After a read though by the team to check the evidence backs up the claim, all those who are eligible will be put through a random selection process.

This idea came from conversations and research we have done into Jerwood Arts 1:1 fund, and Watershed Bristol’s winter residencies. Jerwood Arts has written a lot about their programme, and you can find lots of discussion points on their website. I particularly like the written responses they commissioned from people who were both involved and not involved on their opinions, positive and negative. The 1:1 Fund commissioned artists straight from the random selection process.

Watershed Bristol, however, had a model closer to ours, where they used random selection to shortlist, and then commissioned 3 projects from this longer list.
What is true for all of these organisations is that they saw this process as a risk – and so do we! It is hard to let go of control and to admit to the artists that no matter how good they might be, or how much experience they may have, this doesn’t really count in their favour through the first step of this process. 

But we think it is important to try something new to reduce bias, and to reduce the emphasis on writing skill. We believe there are always ways to improve processes, reduce barriers and disrupt traditional structures that prevent underrepresented artists from accessing opportunities. Without taking risks this wouldn’t be possible. And maybe it won’t work, but while we have the secure funding we are going to give it a go.

Diversity of artists and researchers participating.

One area we considered changing was allocating a set number of places to artists who face barriers to commissioning, either through sexuality, race, gender, disability or anything else. However, after crunching our numbers, we realised we were doing ok with both applications and funded artists in these areas. As a result, we are sticking with proactively encouraging artists who face barriers to apply, and giving support, but we are not ringfencing places.

This doesn’t mean we won’t think about changing again in the future, but for now we will stick to just the one major change!

Transparency of decision making.

The random selection for the Trellis mixers, discussed above, allows us to be transparent in our decision making at this early stage. But what about later on, at the two funding points?

Our team is white, female, educated to degree level and would be considered middle class. We know we can’t be making all the decision on what work is commissioned. It is also UCL policy to avoid all-White panels when recruiting staff, so we should be doing this for all selection. You can read about why UCL does this on the HR website.

In the past we haven’t worked hard enough to make our panels diverse, either in sector, or in background.

For Trellis 5, we will convene a panel that represents the three sectors involved in Trellis: Art, Higher Education and Community. This will also allow both artists and researchers to feel confident in the panels knowledge and understanding of the sector.

We also want visible diversity. Based on feedback, we think this makes artists who can see themselves represented on panels more likely to apply.

As such we are TRYING to name our panel members at the point of advertising the opportunity. This depends on lots of factors around organisation and peoples availability but we are trying!

We also reached out to artists and researchers who had previously taken part in Trellis (including those who were not funded) to ask them to rank criteria we were thinking of using to choose artists. We had a brilliant response rate of over 15% (it sounds like not much, but this was from 300 people - actually a pretty good return rate on a mass-mailout) and we took the top 5 criteria from their ranking, and also added in some additional notes based on their feedback.

Payment change.

In Trellis 4, for the first time, we paid artists to attend the mixer event. We have them £50 to acknowledge the time taken to attend.

In Trellis 5 we will increase this to £180 in order to also acknowledge the time taken to reach out to researchers after the events, and to write the applications. 

This means, however, we will need to decrease the payment at stage 1, when the artists and researchers are developing their relationships and coming up with their ideas for commission. The fee will reduce from £2,000 to £1,500.

The team has spent time thinking about this, as in an ideal world we would be paying more money at all stages to factor in inflation and cost of living. However, we also know that we have been asking too much of the time of the researchers in stage 1 in the past – they actually aren’t available for enough time at this point to allow the artists to do as much work as is expected from a £2,000 payment.

So we will also be changing the guidance to ask the artists and researchers to do less during stage 1, to ensure we are not paying the artists less to do the same.

How will we know if any of this works?

Good question.

In our evaluation of Trellis 5 we are going to ask specific questions about these changes to find out from those who took part what they think. This will include those who are not successful at any of the stages.

We will also be monitoring who is taking part at all stages, and taking into consideration comments from those who may email us.

We will also be speaking to our funders to share these changes, and ask their opinions.

All of this is new, and a bit scary, but also exciting!