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Arts Biz Workshops 2005

Arts Biz Workshops 2005

Philippa Stevenson: Artists fusing creativity and bottom lines


They might be hailed as an emerging force that is changing global economics, but many artists don't know a business plan from a road map.

According to Professor Richard Florida, an American urban development guru who spoke at the 2003 Knowledge Wave conference, artists are the rising new social class.

Increasingly, the "Creative Class" will determine how the workplace is organised, what companies will prosper or go bankrupt, and even which cities will thrive or not, he predicts.

But none of that stops the panic of a part-time painter trying to make a buck from their art who is confronted with a GST form.

"Artists think differently to the mainstream. Just the thought of GST makes us panic," says Hamilton artist Collette Fergus.

Because they tend to work in isolation, artists often lack confidence in their work and seldom understand markets or how to set prices.

A couple of years ago Fergus was selling a few paintings but wondering how to better utilise her talent. "I had to seriously look at the book work."

She attended classes on business practice run by the regional enterprise support network, but found it too general and hard to relate to herself and her art.

A series of workshops promoted in 2003 by arts development trust Arts Waikato "to help artists become more businesslike" seemed like a better option.

After nine of the monthly Arts Biz workshops, Fergus and another artist opened Hamilton East's Gallery 547.

Fergus has since launched her "Boozehag" line of merchandise based on a series of paintings, and markets it through galleries and a website of the same name, which also supports a growing network of "Boozehags, Glam-Queens and lovers of life".

She is now writing a novel on the life of her "wacky chick" creation.

"I'm trying to work smarter, not harder," says Fergus ,who mentors other artists and returns to the workshops as a speaker.

Arts Waikato chief executive Hilary Falconer says Fergus is one of many course graduates now happily using business world phrases like "augmenting my product for my target market" that would once have had them running for cover.

It's a business-wary 20 artists who start the workshops, held the first Saturday of each month from March to November.

A course facilitator, Dr Suzette Major, a Waikato University lecturer in screen and media studies, says it is impossible to apply traditional business models to the creative sector.

"Artists have a unique perspective on their work. When they offer something for sale they often say it's like putting their children out there. And buyers often have an emotional response, too. We've got to recognise the personal element."

Major and co-facilitators Lynne Thompson, a Raglan singer-songwriter and chartered accountant, and Anna Connell, of the Hamilton City Council arts an culture unit, slowly demystify the business jargon and explain that artists can also be business people without, as many fear, selling their soul.

"It always comes back to the art," says Major asking rhetorically, "who is going to be remembered in another hundred years - Beethoven because he was a great composer, or the Spice Girls because they had a great marketing strategy?"

Major has her own evidence of a shift in thinking about the "creative industry" - the term itself helping to establish the people formerly known as artists in the economic landscape.

When she began lecturing on marketing for the arts in 1998 the course was regarded as oddball and attracted 40 students. Now it's mainstream and is routinely attended by 100.

"When people used to say they were an artist the next question was 'yes, but what's your day job?' Now the response is more likely to be, 'oh, how exciting."'

Pricing their artwork remains most artists' greatest challenge. In one workshop exercise, each artist secretly prices the work of fellow students. They read the judgments in private and are routinely "flabbergasted", Falconer says.

"The [estimated] prices are way above what the artist would ask but still down on what customers would pay."

Falconer says the workshops are designed to allow plenty of discussion and have helped create networks among those who attend. The 2003 graduates, for instance, still meet regularly to support each other.

And in another spin-off, the three facilitators have launched their own business, Arts-Biz Ltd, to further develop their workshop programme and take it on the road.

Major says artists in Tokoroa, Taumarunui and Coromandel are keen for the workshops and the company also plans to tailor the course to specific artists like musicians.

Posted: Sun 06 Mar 2005


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