Abigail Branagan has been advising artists and makers for over a decade. She is a freelance business advisor as well as Business Development Manager at Cockpit Arts in London. She talks to Jane Watt about what makes a good advice session and how makers are weathering the economic storm.
How are you involved in advising artists and makers: who? what? where? when?
Historically I’ve always be fascinated by artists’ stories both in terms of the work that’s made but also the journeys taken. One of my first jobs, which was at a-n in 1997, involved me working on the artist’s helpline and I remember the great sense of satisfaction you’d get from being able to answer queries. It wasn’t until 2002 that I was asked by Cockpit Arts to be a ‘formal’ mentor for a maker who was based in their Deptford studios. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, which led to mentoring three other makers for Cockpit. I now work there three days a week as an onsite coach as well as freelancing as a business advisor.
What ingredients make a fruitful advice session?
For the adviser it’s about being able to ask the right types of questions and listen carefully to the business. It isn’t about ‘telling’ the business what they should be doing but rather guiding them. In most cases the business has got the answers already but just needs a little help with accessing these. I also think it’s important to be able to share knowledge and experience and not be too protective about information.
How can artists get the most out of professional advice on offer?
If you have a one-to-one advice session them come prepared with questions or clear objectives of what you want to get from the time. Also if you don’t know the adviser, make sure they’ve received some background information so that they can prepare in advance. This ensures that you both get the maximum out of the session. In terms of more generic training and advice there’s a huge amount of business support out there especially for start-up businesses therefore it’s definitely worth registering with support networks to receive details of any training-related opportunities and funding.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve come across at your advice sessions?
The issue that people come with is rarely the actual issue!
In your experience of talking to and working with artists, how are they responding to current economic challenges?
Artists and makers have more experience than most in terms of unpredictable income streams and as such are extremely well placed to deal with recession. Also they are creative thinkers and extremely resourceful and I feel this is coming through in terms of the increase in collaborations – from working with others, sharing resources to taking a much more cross disciplinary approach to their practice – there is some really exciting work going on right now. Initial findings from Cockpit Art’s 2009 research report on Business Performance and Activity in the Craft Sector indicates that craft business are doing well - with jewellery businesses, in particular, seeing a steady increase in sales.
What are your top five business and marketing points of advice for visual artists?
- It’s important to have clear goals for your business and review these regularly. Although it can sound very ‘corporate’, having a business plan in place is a great way to focus down and set some clear long-term objectives. Cockpit Arts have some really effective toolkits that are tailored with creatives in mind and a-n’s toolkits are also a fantastic resource.
- Have a clear understanding of where you sit in the market. What is it that’s different/special about your work? Why would people buy/exhibit it? Who are these people? How do you reach them?
- Build and nurture your networks. So many opportunities come through people that you know. Keep mailing lists up-to-date, attend private views, utilise social networking platforms, etc.
- Communication is key so think carefully about how you present yourself and your work and the mechanism that you use – website, artist's statement, press releases, etc.
- Take time out to be creative. It’s often said that artists and makers are juggling a number of business roles from financial controller to manufacturer. It can be easy to find your time swallowed up by these so keep reviewing your word load and try to allocate time when you can be inspired e.g. by visiting exhibitions, attending a conference or working on a project that’s just for you.
What gaps are there in professional advice for artists and makers and do you have any suggestions on how these might be addressed?
Most business support is actually just that – focussing on the business side. Accessing platforms for critical debate and constructive feedback on work seems much harder. At Cockpit Arts we are introducing Action Learning Sets to enable makers to come together and discuss issues/themes.
What particular professional practice issues are you discussing with your colleagues at the moment?
Obviously there’s been a lot of discussion around the recession but another area that’s got us all talking is how artists are using social networking to grow their networks, create opportunities and generate new business. We’ve also been interested in how makers are employing new technology in their work such as SMART materials and rapid prototyping. What seems very hi-tech and expensive today would be very commonplace in the arts in a few years. Finally as Cockpit Arts is a business incubator we are exploring the impact that knowledge transfer and peer-to-peer learning can have on business growth.
Enterprise Centre for the Creative Arts (ECCA) provides support for recent graduates, based at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London
Profile: Collect by Abigail Branagan
Tour: Markets for designer-makers by Abigail Branagan
Profile: Cockpit Arts by Jane Watt
Article: Crafts businesses thrive
Jane Watt is Advisers and tutors online editor and an artist. She was Knowledge bank commissions coordinator between 2008-09.
First published: a-n.co.uk September 2009
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