Working your way up in the arts sector

Hilary Copeland on how every piece of experience counts on the course to becoming a creative and cultural professional – an exciting area where there's no typical day

In the arts sector there are any number of ways to establish a career, something arts/events manager Hilary Copeland knows only too well. Based in Belfast, she’s been working in this particular field for a number of years, gathering experience and valuable learning through a variety of roles which have ultimately led to her current position.

'I’ve been lucky in that I’ve mainly worked in the arts since I left university,' she says. 'I first found out about it as a career path while I was at St Andrews. Like a lot of students doing humanities degrees I didn’t have any idea of the field I wanted to work in.

'I had a number of part-time jobs in the holidays and looking back on it now, I think that was really important. Lots of those short-term jobs – in admin and customer service for example - really helped in terms of getting me used to working with other people.'

Indeed, Copeland acquired skills in everything from operating a switchboard and learning how an office was run, to seeing how events were managed and how small businesses worked.

'It helped me with organisational skills and time management too. As an event manager, if you want to organise events, you should also know how an event works. If you have experience in bars, catering, reception etc. – all of that is useful.'

The Children's Programme Team at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2010

The Children's Programme team at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2010

It was when she volunteered to help out at a poetry festival at St Andrews however, that Copeland realised she wanted to work in the arts. Taking on a venue assistant role, she was fascinated by the concept of the festival and the fact that it took her to events all around the town.

'I’d never heard of a poetry festival before,' she admits. 'I was astonished that this was an area you could work in.'

A job as box office assistant at the Byre Theatre followed, where Copeland learned valuable marketing skills and got to grips with the production side of shows and how venues operated. After graduating, she then applied for a temporary front-of-house position at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

'I was very lucky,' she says. 'I was one of about 100 temporary staff and I soon learned there was a massive team who worked all year round on an event that lasted just three weeks. The job I got was working in the authors’ green room – the authors’ yurt.

'I remember thinking this was the most amazing job. I got to see people I’d only ever heard of. People like Salman Rushdie were there that year, and Sean Connery had a book out so he was there. I was really blown away at seeing all these people in the same place because of a love of books and literature.'

Introducing The John Hewitt  Society's Once Alien Here creative writing showcase 2017

Introducing The John Hewitt Society's 'Once Alien Here' creative writing showcase in 2017

Inspired, Copeland returned home and researched the local arts scene, subsequently volunteering with Culture NI and learning about feature writing, PR and listings.

'It was perfect timing that the year I started volunteering with them that Culture NI and the Linen Hall Library were planning the first Belfast Book Festival, so I was able to contribute to that,' she says. 'That was my first literary festival from a managerial point of view.'

Moving back to Scotland for the next couple of years, Copeland temped again at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, before securing a full-time job with the team. During this time she learned about funding and fundraising, as well as how to run a festival from a business point of view.

It was then back to Northern Ireland where she set up as a freelancer, working for organisations including the Belfast International Arts Festival, Kabosh Theatre, Young at Art, Whittrick Press and the Belfast Book Festival.

'The people who gave me opportunities and steps up were instrumental in contributing to me working as an arts manager,' she says. 'There was always someone helping me learn.'

Introducing the Nasty Women panel  event at Belfast International Arts Festival 2017

Introducing the 'Nasty Women' panel event at Belfast International Arts Festival 2017

Since 2013 she’s subsequently been working with the John Hewitt Society (JHS), initially as a freelancer and now as their general manager, employed on a part-time basis. She also continues to do freelance work for other organisations, most recently, for the NI Science FestivalEastside Arts Festival and Belfast International Arts Festival.

'I love the variety that comes from working in the arts,' Copeland says. 'There’s never a typical day, but it’s definitely not a one-job job – you have to be a multi-tasker.'

Indeed, her duties can involve everything from event management, fundraising and applying for grants, to looking at cash flow, planning and co-ordinating events. She also looks after partners, volunteers, artists and venues within her various roles, and can be responsible for booking catering, doing marketing, social media and more…

'I most enjoy working with artists, creating new projects,' she adds. 'It’s the most exciting area to work in because you’re able to create new experiences for people and help them to explore their passions.'

Arts Sector Advice

This article has been published as part of Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the Creative Industries in Northern Ireland which runs throughout March. This year's theme is careers and skills – click here to read other articles on how to get into various Creative Industries professions. See the programme of events featuring over 150 inspiring workshops, performances, talks and much more at

Follow Hilary on Twitter @HilaryCopeland. Find out more about the John Hewitt Society at