James Tortise-Crawford

As part of our Interview series 1, we spoke with James Tortise-Crawford who has worked in arts and culture for theatres, universities, councils and museums and shares with us what he has learnt along the way.


Who are you and what do you do?

I’m James Tortoise Crawford, I work in the arts and culture sector and I sing and don’t get paid for it.

How did you get into the creative industry?

I think I always, I think as far back as I can remember thinking I’d have a job at some point I always thought it was going to be in the cultural sector somewhere. I think I sort of fell into that. I always sang as a child. I sang a lot at school and then at university. Then I started sort of helping out behind the scenes with all of that stuff.

So running tours and concerts and runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, that kind of thing. Then when it got to the point where I needed to start earning money I thought I think some people get paid for that so why don’t I try and do that. And so I did. It took me a while to find a job in the cultural sector in London. Four months of trying and failing to get jobs
and then I started as a PA at the Royal Opera House for one of the directors.

And it was a great place to start because it was in the middle of everything. I got a sense of all the different bits that come together to make an organisation like that work. So I was working with the Front of House team and the ballet company and the finance team and HR and the technicians and the wig makers and just seeing it all come together for this united purpose but also getting a sense of how they need to talk to each other and work with each other. So I didn’t think I was going to be a PA forever but that meant that when a project opportunity came up I put my hand up and said can I have a go at running that?

And they buddied me up with someone and did it and then the rest is history. So I was at the Opera House for about five years and then I took a bit of a sidestep and then moved into higher education so I went to work for a university in London in their culture team so looking at the interface between the cultural sector and academia.

And part of that I knew what I was doing, it was putting exhibitions and events and things on but then a whole swathe of new stuff like working with researchers and academics and students that was brand new to me. A lot of the principles were the same but it was really interesting to see
how it played out with a different group of people and a different set of audiences.

Then after that I went and worked for Hull 2017 when it was UK City of Culture for two and a bit years up there and that was a pure culture role
again but I didn’t have any of my own projects there so at that point I was helping other people plan their projects and then helping them explain those projects to other people and helping the senior team keep an eye across the whole program.

It was slightly more removed from the end product and I felt that, I noticed that but it was an amazing place to be. Then I went back to higher education but this time not actually, this was my only job that wasn’t in the creative and cultural industries. I was working in civic responsibility and civil society and social responsibility and how the university belonged to the places that it was geographically located in so we looked at how actually as an institution that had 8,000 staff and whatever, 800 million pound turnover, how it could do more, even more than teaching and research, how it could also serve local communities.

That really sparked something in me I think. Which is why now, now I’m working at two of the museums in Cambridge, the Fitzwilliam Museum and
the Archaeology and Anthropology Museum, MAA.

What advice would you give to someone trying to get into the creative industries?

I mean there’s no one path in, right, but I think there’s also, there’s no one creative industry right, I think the broader my experience the more I see how many different places there are to work and still be part of the cultural sector. So I think, think broad, I’ve now worked in performing arts and visual arts and museums and material culture and higher education and I wouldn’t, I never planned any of that, it just, that’s the stuff that happened to come up at the time.

So I think be open to the different areas of the sector that you can work in, but similarly, you know, there were a thousand people at the Opera House and they went from costume makers to dancers to HR consultants like that. There are a lot of ways to be involved in the sector, so you might not be on the stage, it’d be quite nice to be on the stage sometimes, but there are so many other ways to be part of that, genuinely part of that and feel part of that and celebrate the sort of shared successes of being in it.

I tried maybe to mislead my interviewers for the first job I went for, I said, I’m passionate about opera, which was not true, and apparently that nearly lost me the job because what it turns out that boss, what she wanted was someone who was passionate about spreadsheets and I was, I just didn’t say it, I thought that would be the wrong thing to say.

So I think it’s really important – and I’ve got better at this but I’m still trying – is to present the best version of yourself when you’re trying for these things, but make sure it is a version of yourself, that you’re not presenting something that you’re making up. Make sure that it’s something that you actually care about, something that you really believe in and want to be involved in, not what you think someone wants to hear because that will only last so long, as if you’re genuinely open and honest and interested in it, then that’s what gets you excited and what gets you into the industry and on.