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How do self-employed artists operate? What does a typical artist-run business look like? Artists tend to work in unconventional ways, often combining practice with paid and unpaid work.
Career paths are a rich mix of freelance contracts, commissions, part-time and full-time employment, further study and voluntary work. Typically, artists are versatile and flexible, engaging in diverse practice, sometimes in collaboration with others. As one jeweller said:
"It's important to realise that it doesn't happen overnight. It takes time to build up skills to make and market your work to a high standard. You have to be maker, book-keeper, PR, photographer, technician, cleaner and it tends to take over your life..."
How do you make those all-important first steps to setting up as a self-employed artist and how do you ensure your business continues to thrive into maturity?
Our guide to self-employment is designed to take you through the various stages from setting up a studio to sharing skills and collaborating with other artists.
Schemes such as Next Move can assist. This national professional development scheme for applied artists wishing to set up in business places new graduates back into the art college environment for two years, not as students but as resident artists, giving professional support and use of facilities and equipment.
Next Move provides participants with a fast-track start to their careers, launching them immediately into art and craft markets international craft fairs, awards and major public commissions. Each maker gets a complete professional development package, tailored to their needs at each stage.
Hannah Lamb has benefited in many ways from her Next Move residency at Coventry University: "My work has changed, it's to do with exhibiting. I'm more conscious of who might want to buy my work. I'm becoming more business-like."
For jeweller Adele Kime it has been:"a safety net if I hadn't done the scheme I would have felt isolated setting up on my own".
Setting up in business can also mean obtaining a studio. Affordable workspace and specialist help to establish a viable practice is out there if you know where to look.
Yorkshire Artspace's Starter Studio programme provides a 'comfort zone' for new visual arts businesses. Housed at Persistence Works in Sheffield, it offers subsidised workspace, a tailored business course, mentoring and access to exhibition, commission and workshop opportunities.
It's all about kick-starting practice and equipping artists for a sustainable future. UK artists and makers who have a business-like approach and a firm idea of how they would use the scheme to establish their practice can apply.
Graduating from the University of the West of England, ceramist Karen Welsh quickly attracted interest in her work, but establishing a studio and contacts in Bristol proved more difficult. The offer of a Starter Studio seemed a viable alternative.
Persistence Works has proved to be a fertile environment for Welsh's practice: "I've gone from struggling on my own to being right in the middle of a network." Researching new work combining ceramics and digital technology, she's done a residency with the Arts and Technology Partnership, Loughborough University exploring virtual reality sculpture and worked on a commission using machined porcelain for Sheffield Assay Office. "I'm gaining in confidence and skills and beginning to feel I could survive as an artist."
Many artists aspire to make a living purely from their practice. As photographer Sue Parkhill points out "being an artist is no longer such a risk compared to other (career) routes".
Parkhill who has been practising for some years, has achieved her aim of generating all her income through sales of work or skills. But she still feels the need to question her future direction. Money is a major issue, as is the balance of the work itself: research and development of new pieces, and nurturing of future markets.
Coming from an entrepreneurial family, Kate Schuricht inherited a business-like approach: "I've always known that running a business was hard work and didn't mean getting home at 6pm. It's common for people running a business to have this in-built work ethic".
Control over her working life is a positive aspect of being an artist. Schuricht generates ideas, puts them into practice and deals directly with clients. "I can incorporate everything I want to do into my practice. If you acknowledge what it is you want to do, it tends to happen."
In the early days, Schuricht worked a 7 day week. "You have to go too far and exhaust yourself before you take a real look at what you're doing. I then devised deadlines and if I couldn't achieve them in a 10-hour day, I didn't take the project on".
Artists at work
"Art and design, more than any other sector, develops graduates' critical and creative abilities and their imagination." This is confirmed by Destinations and Reflections: Careers of British art, craft and design graduates, a research study by the University of Central England's Centre for Research into Quality.
Makers and designers can apply their creative practice widely and find work outside their art form or discipline. Creativity is in demand. Employers want to recruit people who are problem-solvers, risk-takers and lateral thinkers people who think 'out of the box'. Research shows that visual artists working in other jobs take advantage of all opportunities and apply their creativity beyond art form.
What artists do
Recent surveys demonstrate that visual arts graduates are flexible and adaptable. They make important contributions to social, community and healthcare work, and to business, public service and manufacturing industry.
They work in a range of media-related occupations. Often, their values draw them to work in educational settings and on activities that directly involve enhancing peoples' lives and environments.
Tessa Fitzjohn's 30-year career epitomises the multi-disciplinary nature of artists' professional lives. She has complimented her own practice with a portfolio of activities such as artists' initiatives, project management, fundraising, curation, foreign cultural exchanges and teaching. Her experiences have given her a greater understanding of her own work that she describes as an enquiry and a process.
It didn't take long for architects Juliet Bidgood and Lisa Fior to get together with artist Katherine Clarke and get their design partnership noticed when they set up in 1994.
Since 1997, Muf has picked up over 15 public art commissions, many relating to, or spinning off from, the urban design agenda that is at the heart of Muf's preoccupations.
As Lisa Fior points out, Muf's desire was to challenge the "frustrating limitations of architecture" by forging a cross-disciplinary practice that drew on art and architecture in equal measure, and to work in the public realm, a sector that did not really exist at the time "except if you could prove you were bringing tourists in".
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First published: a-n.co.uk April 2003
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