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Being a design lover and keen marketer I have watched the development of Art Series Hotels with much interest. A company that embodies the idea of collaboration and seems to whole heartedly embrace their artistic partnerships throughout all aspects of their business, I was keen to chat to CEO Will Deague about their collaborative process.

Interview by Krista Huebner

Your collaboration with contemporary artists is very much an intrinsic part of your hotels’ overall identity and brand experience, and in fact is at the core of your business model. What was your inspiration for collaborating with artists?

Our family business is property development and hotels, with most of our experience in more traditional hotel models. When we were looking to develop the sites that the Art Series Hotels sit on, we knew we had the chance to do something completely different. We set out with that goal in mind, and originally had the idea to incorporate more art into the hotels. We were inspired by the popularity of design-led, boutique hotels overseas, like those of Ian Schrager working with Julian Schnabel. From there, our idea of working with art evolved into working with artists to become a completely artist-led hotel.

What challenges did you face working with visual artists? How did you react to these (i.e. what did you do/change/adapt)?

As all artists are NSW based we suffered sometimes from the tyranny of distance, but it was mostly abated by good planning and ensuring clear communication.

Another thing to consider was the art itself. For example, Adam Cullen’s work is really exciting though at times can be controversial; so we had to think about that and if the artists were perhaps more contentious, where they would be placed and how they would be displayed.

Artists work to a different timeline to businesses, so that was something we needed to be considerate of when developing our timelines for each hotel. They also work very differently as a whole. We found that the most important thing for us in working with each artist was being very clear about what we were trying to achieve and how we wanted to work together.

From the outset we used an art consultant who knew both us and the artists very well. He helped facilitate conversations and kept everyone on the same path, whether representing the interests or concerns of the artist to the business, or those of the business back to the artist. Being upfront about the commercial side of things meant that everyone knew how it would work and what was expected.

The artists you have worked with (Adam Cullen, John Olsen, Charles Blackman) are all well-known artists in Australian contemporary art. How did you decide which artists to collaborate with?

Our family has been involved with artists and the art world for years as collectors and philanthropists through the Deague Family Art Foundation. About 10 years ago we travelled with 10 artists to William Creek at Lake Eyre to experience the saltpans and work in bush studios. It was an incredible experience, and started a relationship with many of the artists who we are working with today.

The actual location of each hotel also helped us decide which artists to approach. For example, the Chapel Street location is a great fit for John Olsen, the elegant older statesman, while Adam Cullen is an edgy artist who is better matched with the Prahran/Windsor location.

Have there been any unexpected benefits to the partnership/collaboration, either to you personally, professionally or to the wider business?

As a family, we’ve always been so passionate about the art. It’s a great thing to connect people to contemporary art in a new way. People might initially book with us because it’s a great boutique hotel and then walk away with not only a great hotel experience but also a cool art experience under their belt. So the art education aspect of this has been fantastic, and that also translates to staff. Staff is trained about the art and artists, and additionally knows a lot about what’s happening in Melbourne at a cultural level. People are responding to that and we’re noticing that potential staff is seeking us out as an employer of choice. That’s something to be proud of.

What are the 3 key things you would advise other business managers looking to follow a similar collaborative model?

  1. Be open and honest from the start with the artists – what the end product is going to be and how you want to work with them.
  2. Treat artists with respect. Don’t try to capitalise on their work or reputation, and respect their craft and expertise.
  3. Stick to your guns. Stay true to your values and vision. We built a new hotel brand from scratch by staying true to our strategic vision.

Further reading on creative collaboration:

Sam Strong, former lawyer and current Artistic Director of the Griffin Theatre Company, understands the balance that is required to not only achieve artistic goals, but to build a sustainable arts organisation. Shifting in 2010 from what was a freelance role, albeit within structure of Company B, into the AD role at Griffin, Sam brings a unique personal perspective to the dialogue about the arts performing like a business.

Interview by Kim Goodwin

What’s changed for you in taking on the Artistic Director role at Griffin, now you are responsible for the commercial side of a company?

In a sense it’s adding new skills to the skills I required in the previous jobs. For example the task of managing a group of people expands from a project-to-project based task into an ongoing task. Instead of working towards the finite goal of a show, you’re working towards longer-term goals. That’s quite a shift in the rhythm of working.

There are also skills required of an AD, that you don’t possibly know until your do them, such as advocacy for the company with various sponsors and donors. As the director of a show you’re the spokesperson for the show, but now I’m the spokesperson for the company, and advocating the company’s interests.

How beneficial do you see as business skills to the arts, and is it something that you teach those you mentor?

 

Most directors imagine they could program better than other directors, it’s in our nature, what can be a shock when you’re actually fortunate enough to be in a programming position is just how unavoidable commercial realities are. There is a view that arts and business are in some sense binary opposites, and this is a legitimate view, but the reality of running a company is that while we are attempting to make great art, we can’t make great art apart from the business realities of what we do.

I’d love to do a play with a cast of 20, but we simply can’t and so we have to make it work within the parameters of what we have. You can choose to view those parameters as unduly constrictive or you can choose to view those parameters as opportunities to work within.

You’ve said that your first passion is the development of new Australian writing, how do you balance this with the commercial reality of building an audience?

We have to balance what is important to this company, which is to be discovering the best new talent and writing, and being willing to take artistic and commercial risks, with some things that are, as much as you can possibly tell, less risky. That’s not an artistic compromise; the trick is to do that without making an artistic compromise.

To take Speaking in Tongues as an example, I’ve wanted to direct it for a long time, while it’s also a Griffin classic. We get this sense of a classic coming home, but the other thing the programming of that play achieves is turning some of our unknowns into knowns, potentially less risky than a completely unknown work with a completely unknown writer. In a way, programming a season is like putting together a portfolio for anything, and that portfolio needs to balance relative risk with relative security.

You’ve been described as ‘lawyer turned director’, what skills have you brought with you from your professional career that has enhanced your performance in the arts industry? Conversely, where there any things you needed to unlearn?

 

I think there is more overlap than you would suspect between the two roles. Particularly between the role of dramaturge or script developer and what I used to do as a lawyer. The skill that my legal training equipped me with that is most useful is an attention to detail and rigour. Great works of art are always a product of extreme attention to detail and rigour. Also, the skills that legal training equips you with in relation to the drafting of any document – an ability to analyse its structure or micro edit for optimum effect – translate well into a theatrical context.

One thing I needed to learn anew was the importance of intuition or feeling in the making of work. In the earlier parts of my career I have a much more cerebral and intellectual approach to the making of work and I think my directing work got better when I got better at respecting the vital role of intuition in the creation of art.

Sam’s approach is not so much about whether the arts should act like a business, but the inherent commercial realities of the arts industry today. In his experience, these realities, and the cross pollination of skills, can actually enhance the creative process.

Should the arts act like a business? Reference material that may further interest you:

 

Installation view Slacking OFF 2002, Imperial Slacks. Image courtesy Angelica Mesiti and Imperial Slacks http://imperialslack.niftynode.net/

Angelica Mesiti is a video and multimedia artist based mostly in Australia. Part of the performance-based group The Kingpins, Angelica was also one of 14 members of the influential artist-run space Imperial Slacks,  a collective that ran from 2000 to 2002. Exhibiting the work of its resident artists who lived in the space, Imperial Slacks also showed the work of friends from surrounding studios. The other members of Imperial Slacks were Jessie Cacchillo, Simon Cooper, Sean Cordeiro, Claire Healy, Alex Davies, Léa Donnan, Chris Fox, Shaun Gladwell, Wade Marynowsky, Angelica Mesiti, Técha Noble, Emma Price, Michael Schiavello, Monika Tichacek, Melody Willis, The Kingpins.

Interview by Krista Huebner

Did Imperial Slacks consider itself as a business?

Not really, no…to me, we were a group of artists doing our thing. We had the opportunity to take over a great space and experiment and we took it, rather than setting out to ‘start and run a gallery’, which is a different objective.

How different would Imperial Slacks have been if it had been business focused?

Imperial Slacks was never really set up to be long-term. Our leases were only ever for six months and Surry Hills was quickly being gentrified around us, so it was only ever just a matter of time really. As a result we were less interested in longevity and planning for the future as such, and more about making it count while we were there. I guess that allowed us to take risks and just go for it. You could call it a ‘hard and fast’ model!

The artist run initiative (ARI) found a natural end mainly because of rent rises, but also because it did start to become more business-y. The administration started to creep in more and more and we were all at a stage where we wanted to focus on our art making, travel, and exhibit. We didn’t really have any time to commit to actually running the space anymore…but the main reason was rent.

Do you think a business focus would have been restrictive?

We didn’t have any ‘grand plans for the gallery’ as such, or a business plan. It just wasn’t the model we were running with, and in fact we would have probably shied away from that to keep it a fluid, experimental space.

That said, if we had wanted to be more commercially minded, I think there were enough creative heads in the collective that could have allowed it to be both experimental and commercially successful. Ultimately though our goal was at odds with that and it couldn’t have worked forever.

Do you think the creative integrity of arts can be affected by a business focus? How?

No, I don’t think so. I’ve seen really creative managers/thinkers in managerial roles within arts organisations doing really great things with commercially successful outcomes. In terms of developing creative business strategies and willingness to take risks in business, I think it’s possible but equally really hard. It’s hard to be both business-y and artistic, so I see that there is real value in working together.

As an artist, I’ve personally learnt a lot from working with people from different areas in business. They’ve opened me up to directions, ideas and possibilities that I wouldn’t have come to on my own.

There is also a difference between being commercial and having a business focus. Although they are similar ideas, a non-profit museum or gallery may employ a business focus for the purpose of longevity, accountability and having a unified direction. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean they’re suddenly “commercial”, nor that it will impact on the level of creativity exercised in the artistic programs it runs, or the creativity employed in running the organisation.

What were your measures of success?

The goal of Imperial Slacks was always to put on the best shows we possibly could and try new stuff. The goal wasn’t commercial as such and having funding from the Australia Council meant we could focus on other things.

While we didn’t set goals and objectives for each exhibition, we measured our success through feedback and the responses of our peers, whether we generated new ideas and conversation. Attendance levels at openings and throughout the shows were another good measure for us, as was any critical response. That meant a lot. Continued funding was also a kind of validation.

Would you do it again? What would you do differently?

Being part of Imperial Slacks I think taught me a lot of really important administrative skills that have carried over into my life as an artist today. Some people wouldn’t agree with this, but sometimes being an artist feels like running a small business; I’m a sole trader. It taught me about publicity, marketing, writing funding applications, interviews, and reviews…lots of things.

Given the chance I would do it again – and no, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was great. Who knows…if the stars align I might do it again one day.

Should the arts act like a business? Reference material that may further interest you:

This week’s interviewee is Jane Haley- the CEO of AbaF (the Australian Business Arts Foundation). As AbaF’s key purpose is to help the arts connect with business via professional development, advice and introductions, it seems like an obvious organisation for this month’s theme Should the arts act like a business? In addition to being AbaF’s CEO, Jane previously managed arts organisations in several states of Australia including Arts Access (Victoria), the Queensland Theatre Company, the Arts Council of Australia (ACT) and Sidetrack Theatre (Sydney). Jane’s extensive experience, diversity of roles and commitment to forging strong, sustainable relationships between arts organisations and businesses made her an ideal interviewee.

Interview by Eliza Muldoon

So Jane, Is it safe to assume that you believe the arts can benefit from business skills?

Yes. If you come from the premise that an artist needs to earn an income from what they do, what they love to do, then the more they understand about how they can benefit from the strategic offerings of business, the more they will be able to fulfil that need.

As an example, risk taking is a very important part of art making and it is actually something that we can learn from business, how to balance risks, take calculated risks, get the tension right between generating income and pursuing passions and artistic visions.

Do you think there is a difference between approaching the arts with a business mind and approaching it with an arts mind?

I think so. It is perhaps the difference between a commercial artist and a creative artist. Too often these terms have been overlaid with a lot of values, but essentially it is about the motivation. There are artists that pursue a career in the arts with the intention of making money or gaining renown and there are others, the majority, that don’t see the pursuit of material wealth as a great motivating force for them, their impulse may be to create work that expresses their perspective on their world or their message.

Do you think a close relationship between business and the arts could threaten the integrity of the arts?

We do still come across some arts organisations that maintain the belief that ‘I’m from the arts, ergo I’m good and you’re from business, ergo you’re bad’. There is also still some resistance to take what is seen as ‘filthy corporate dollars’ to fund ‘worthy’ works. That’s fairly naïve and simplistic though. I think, I hope, that the old notion that business is just buying credibility or using their community support as a way of disguising its actual evil intent has passed. Most major corporations in the world recognise that they are generating a profit out of the communities in which they work, and it makes good business sense, for political, social and economic reasons, to make contributions to their community. Arts are a part of that community. There are typically three key drivers for business support in the arts: brand alignment, employee engagement and community contribution. In a good arts and business relationship both the arts and business aims are supported.

How is the relationship between arts and business in Australia? Comparing 10 years ago to now.

Several years ago relationships were probably more straightforward and simple. There was a more direct relationship with, for example, the chairman whose influence was greater. We often hear from arts organisations that they have to work much harder for less. Now there are high expectations of arts. Corporate partnerships are based on very strategic decisions and there is a thorough analysis of whether the business objectives are being met.

Also, there are many more players in the field (from both arts and other community sectors) so securing and keeping corporate support is more complex and demanding. Although corporate support for key institutions is relatively strong and we are seeing greater support at a local level, the day has gone when the bigger arts companies and institutions had the private support field for themselves. Now you have a whole range of organisations which are much smarter about securing funding from business and donors.

It’s a very dynamic environment that is likely to become even more challenging as needs around environmental, health and other community issues become more urgent and the capacity of organisations in those sectors to make their case to business increases. The arts will need to constantly refresh its case for private support.

Should the arts act like a business? Reference material that may further interest you:

Act like a business? Why aim so low?

• Why Business Leaders Should Act More like Artists

John A. Douglas, Strange Land Vol 1 – The Miner, HD 720p video still, 2010.

Courtesy the artist and Chalk Horse gallery, Sydney.

John A. Douglas is an intermedia artist who works in digital and analogue photomedia and video installation. John has been involved in the arts since being in a punk band in the 70’s. His formal visual art studies began in the mid 90’s and continued until he received a Master of Fine Arts from COFA in 2008. However, John dates his classification as an artist to the date of his first solo show, in 2005. Since then he has exhibited regularly and widely, nationally and internationally. He has been a finalist in major art prizes, received prestigious grants and was featured on ABC’s Artscape.

John A. Douglas was selected to discuss the topic of should the arts act like a business to offer an individual practioners perspective. John extended our idea about what it means to be a professional artist and the role that ‘business’ can play in an artist’s career.

Interview by Eliza Muldoon

As a professional artist, do you consider yourself to be a small business?

It’s a complex question, more than yes or no.

I consider myself a self-employed artist, a sole-trader. But, I’m not a traditional business, profit and money is not the motive for creating my work. So, I’m really a not-for-profit sole-trader. I’m just interested in being able to support my practice and I’m content to make a living through other arts-related work.

What business skills have you learnt that have served you well as an artist?

One of the first things that I did upon graduation was to seek advice from an accountant, to learn how to use an ABN and to work out how to offset my costs of creating work. I think that was really critical in my career development.

Also, working out how to transfer my arts skills to gain an income. For example, using my video skills; I’m currently responsible for providing all the video content for Hazelhurst Gallery’s YouTube channel, I’ve produced and filmed artist talks, I’ve done video technical consultancy work, I’ve advised on how to exhibit high definition work in galleries and how to exhibit multi-channel works, I’ve taught workshops and courses, and almost every week someone calls to ask me to help develop or document works. I’m soon to be Adam Norton’s astronaut cameraman in AWFULLY WONDERFUL: Science Fiction in Contemporary Art.

Actually, that’s all about relationships as well. It’s really important to develop and foster as many relationships in the art world as you can.

Has your value of the business side of the arts changed as you’ve developed as an artist?

One area I’ve changed is that I’ve become willing to invest more money into my projects. I take more risks with that. My last project actually cost more than double what I was funded. I was able to make some sales, but I still haven’t quite covered my costs. It’s a little precarious. I don’t want to go bankrupt, but I am more willing to max out credit cards and borrow money. It’s almost like your funding some kind of addiction, a gambling addiction. But, I think the key to balancing the risk is being meticulous with keeping tax records and expenses and to keep communicating with your accountant about what can be claimed as a legitimate expense.

Do you think artists ought to act like a business?

I couldn’t imagine not behaving like a business. It wouldn’t make sense to me not to have proper account keeping records, not to take the advice of an accountant.

What happens if you haven’t crossed all your ‘T’s and dotted your ‘I’s? I’ve heard some real disaster stories about people that don’t keep good records, you can get into so much trouble. It is boring and tedious, but if you don’t do it weighs on you. I allocate an entire week to work it out each year. I do delay it, but I still do it. Each year I submit about six spreadsheets and diaries. Since 2002 I’ve probably written about 300 invoices for arts work, non-arts work, sub-contracting, for grants and for art sales. It might be tempting not include all your income, but you have to. Don’t do cash in hand. You have to invoice everyone for everything. The risks are too great.

It’s about getting the system to work for you, but you also have to work with it.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s about being able to make the work that I want to make. To make a contribution to Australian culture- I have a running joke that this is all in service to the Art Gods (my partner calls it the ‘Art Monster’).

Should the arts act like a business? Reference material that may further interest you:

Being a design lover and keen marketer I have watched the development of Art Series Hotels with much interest. A company that embodies the idea of collaboration and seems to whole heartedly embrace their artistic partnerships throughout all aspects of their business, I was keen to chat to CEO Will Deague about their collaborative process.

Interview by Krista Huebner

Your collaboration with contemporary artists is very much an intrinsic part of your hotels’ overall identity and brand experience, and in fact is at the core of your business model. What was your inspiration for collaborating with artists?

Our family business is property development and hotels, with most of our experience in more traditional hotel models. When we were looking to develop the sites that the Art Series Hotels sit on, we knew we had the chance to do something completely different. We set out with that goal in mind, and originally had the idea to incorporate more art into the hotels. We were inspired by the popularity of design-led, boutique hotels overseas, like those of Ian Schrager working with Julian Schnabel. From there, our idea of working with art evolved into working with artists to become a completely artist-led hotel.

What challenges did you face working with visual artists? How did you react to these (i.e. what did you do/change/adapt)?

As all artists are NSW based we suffered sometimes from the tyranny of distance, but it was mostly abated by good planning and ensuring clear communication.

Another thing to consider was the art itself. For example, Adam Cullen’s work is really exciting though at times can be controversial; so we had to think about that and if the artists were perhaps more contentious, where they would be placed and how they would be displayed.

Artists work to a different timeline to businesses, so that was something we needed to be considerate of when developing our timelines for each hotel. They also work very differently as a whole. We found that the most important thing for us in working with each artist was being very clear about what we were trying to achieve and how we wanted to work together.

From the outset we used an art consultant who knew both us and the artists very well. He helped facilitate conversations and kept everyone on the same path, whether representing the interests or concerns of the artist to the business, or those of the business back to the artist. Being upfront about the commercial side of things meant that everyone knew how it would work and what was expected.

The artists you have worked with (Adam Cullen, John Olsen, Charles Blackman) are all well-known artists in Australian contemporary art. How did you decide which artists to collaborate with?

Our family has been involved with artists and the art world for years as collectors and philanthropists through the Deague Family Art Foundation. About 10 years ago we travelled with 10 artists to William Creek at Lake Eyre to experience the saltpans and work in bush studios. It was an incredible experience, and started a relationship with many of the artists who we are working with today.

The actual location of each hotel also helped us decide which artists to approach. For example, the Chapel Street location is a great fit for John Olsen, the elegant older statesman, while Adam Cullen is an edgy artist who is better matched with the Prahran/Windsor location.

Have there been any unexpected benefits to the partnership/collaboration, either to you personally, professionally or to the wider business?

As a family, we’ve always been so passionate about the art. It’s a great thing to connect people to contemporary art in a new way. People might initially book with us because it’s a great boutique hotel and then walk away with not only a great hotel experience but also a cool art experience under their belt. So the art education aspect of this has been fantastic, and that also translates to staff. Staff is trained about the art and artists, and additionally knows a lot about what’s happening in Melbourne at a cultural level. People are responding to that and we’re noticing that potential staff is seeking us out as an employer of choice. That’s something to be proud of.

What are the 3 key things you would advise other business managers looking to follow a similar collaborative model?

  1. Be open and honest from the start with the artists – what the end product is going to be and how you want to work with them.
  2. Treat artists with respect. Don’t try to capitalise on their work or reputation, and respect their craft and expertise.
  3. Stick to your guns. Stay true to your values and vision. We built a new hotel brand from scratch by staying true to our strategic vision.

Further reading on creative collaboration:

Sam Strong, former lawyer and current Artistic Director of the Griffin Theatre Company, understands the balance that is required to not only achieve artistic goals, but to build a sustainable arts organisation. Shifting in 2010 from what was a freelance role, albeit within structure of Company B, into the AD role at Griffin, Sam brings a unique personal perspective to the dialogue about the arts performing like a business.

Interview by Kim Goodwin

What’s changed for you in taking on the Artistic Director role at Griffin, now you are responsible for the commercial side of a company?

In a sense it’s adding new skills to the skills I required in the previous jobs. For example the task of managing a group of people expands from a project-to-project based task into an ongoing task. Instead of working towards the finite goal of a show, you’re working towards longer-term goals. That’s quite a shift in the rhythm of working.

There are also skills required of an AD, that you don’t possibly know until your do them, such as advocacy for the company with various sponsors and donors. As the director of a show you’re the spokesperson for the show, but now I’m the spokesperson for the company, and advocating the company’s interests.

How beneficial do you see as business skills to the arts, and is it something that you teach those you mentor?

Most directors imagine they could program better than other directors, it’s in our nature, what can be a shock when you’re actually fortunate enough to be in a programming position is just how unavoidable commercial realities are. There is a view that arts and business are in some sense binary opposites, and this is a legitimate view, but the reality of running a company is that while we are attempting to make great art, we can’t make great art apart from the business realities of what we do.

I’d love to do a play with a cast of 20, but we simply can’t and so we have to make it work within the parameters of what we have. You can choose to view those parameters as unduly constrictive or you can choose to view those parameters as opportunities to work within.

You’ve said that your first passion is the development of new Australian writing, how do you balance this with the commercial reality of building an audience?

We have to balance what is important to this company, which is to be discovering the best new talent and writing, and being willing to take artistic and commercial risks, with some things that are, as much as you can possibly tell, less risky. That’s not an artistic compromise; the trick is to do that without making an artistic compromise.

To take Speaking in Tongues as an example, I’ve wanted to direct it for a long time, while it’s also a Griffin classic. We get this sense of a classic coming home, but the other thing the programming of that play achieves is turning some of our unknowns into knowns, potentially less risky than a completely unknown work with a completely unknown writer. In a way, programming a season is like putting together a portfolio for anything, and that portfolio needs to balance relative risk with relative security.

You’ve been described as ‘lawyer turned director’, what skills have you brought with you from your professional career that has enhanced your performance in the arts industry? Conversely, where there any things you needed to unlearn?

I think there is more overlap than you would suspect between the two roles. Particularly between the role of dramaturge or script developer and what I used to do as a lawyer. The skill that my legal training equipped me with that is most useful is an attention to detail and rigour. Great works of art are always a product of extreme attention to detail and rigour. Also, the skills that legal training equips you with in relation to the drafting of any document – an ability to analyse its structure or micro edit for optimum effect – translate well into a theatrical context.

One thing I needed to learn anew was the importance of intuition or feeling in the making of work. In the earlier parts of my career I have a much more cerebral and intellectual approach to the making of work and I think my directing work got better when I got better at respecting the vital role of intuition in the creation of art.

Sam’s approach is not so much about whether the arts should act like a business, but the inherent commercial realities of the arts industry today. In his experience, these realities, and the cross pollination of skills, can actually enhance the creative process.

Should the arts act like a business? Reference material that may further interest you:

Installation view Slacking OFF 2002, Imperial Slacks. Image courtesy Angelica Mesiti and Imperial Slacks http://imperialslack.niftynode.net/

Angelica Mesiti is a video and multimedia artist based mostly in Australia. Part of the performance-based group The Kingpins, Angelica was also one of 14 members of the influential artist-run space Imperial Slacks,  a collective that ran from 2000 to 2002. Exhibiting the work of its resident artists who lived in the space, Imperial Slacks also showed the work of friends from surrounding studios. The other members of Imperial Slacks were Jessie Cacchillo, Simon Cooper, Sean Cordeiro, Claire Healy, Alex Davies, Léa Donnan, Chris Fox, Shaun Gladwell, Wade Marynowsky, Angelica Mesiti, Técha Noble, Emma Price, Michael Schiavello, Monika Tichacek, Melody Willis, The Kingpins.

Interview by Krista Huebner

Did Imperial Slacks consider itself as a business?

Not really, no…to me, we were a group of artists doing our thing. We had the opportunity to take over a great space and experiment and we took it, rather than setting out to ‘start and run a gallery’, which is a different objective.

How different would Imperial Slacks have been if it had been business focused?

Imperial Slacks was never really set up to be long-term. Our leases were only ever for six months and Surry Hills was quickly being gentrified around us, so it was only ever just a matter of time really. As a result we were less interested in longevity and planning for the future as such, and more about making it count while we were there. I guess that allowed us to take risks and just go for it. You could call it a ‘hard and fast’ model!

The artist run initiative (ARI) found a natural end mainly because of rent rises, but also because it did start to become more business-y. The administration started to creep in more and more and we were all at a stage where we wanted to focus on our art making, travel, and exhibit. We didn’t really have any time to commit to actually running the space anymore…but the main reason was rent.

Do you think a business focus would have been restrictive?

We didn’t have any ‘grand plans for the gallery’ as such, or a business plan. It just wasn’t the model we were running with, and in fact we would have probably shied away from that to keep it a fluid, experimental space.

That said, if we had wanted to be more commercially minded, I think there were enough creative heads in the collective that could have allowed it to be both experimental and commercially successful. Ultimately though our goal was at odds with that and it couldn’t have worked forever.

Do you think the creative integrity of arts can be affected by a business focus? How?

No, I don’t think so. I’ve seen really creative managers/thinkers in managerial roles within arts organisations doing really great things with commercially successful outcomes. In terms of developing creative business strategies and willingness to take risks in business, I think it’s possible but equally really hard. It’s hard to be both business-y and artistic, so I see that there is real value in working together.

As an artist, I’ve personally learnt a lot from working with people from different areas in business. They’ve opened me up to directions, ideas and possibilities that I wouldn’t have come to on my own.

There is also a difference between being commercial and having a business focus. Although they are similar ideas, a non-profit museum or gallery may employ a business focus for the purpose of longevity, accountability and having a unified direction. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean they’re suddenly “commercial”, nor that it will impact on the level of creativity exercised in the artistic programs it runs, or the creativity employed in running the organisation.

What were your measures of success?

The goal of Imperial Slacks was always to put on the best shows we possibly could and try new stuff. The goal wasn’t commercial as such and having funding from the Australia Council meant we could focus on other things.

While we didn’t set goals and objectives for each exhibition, we measured our success through feedback and the responses of our peers, whether we generated new ideas and conversation. Attendance levels at openings and throughout the shows were another good measure for us, as was any critical response. That meant a lot. Continued funding was also a kind of validation.

Would you do it again? What would you do differently?

Being part of Imperial Slacks I think taught me a lot of really important administrative skills that have carried over into my life as an artist today. Some people wouldn’t agree with this, but sometimes being an artist feels like running a small business; I’m a sole trader. It taught me about publicity, marketing, writing funding applications, interviews, and reviews…lots of things.

Given the chance I would do it again – and no, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was great. Who knows…if the stars align I might do it again one day.

Should the arts act like a business? Reference material that may further interest you:

 

This week’s interviewee is Jane Haley- the CEO of AbaF (the Australian Business Arts Foundation). As AbaF’s key purpose is to help the arts connect with business via professional development, advice and introductions, it seems like an obvious organisation for this month’s theme Should the arts act like a business? In addition to being AbaF’s CEO, Jane previously managed arts organisations in several states of Australia including Arts Access (Victoria), the Queensland Theatre Company, the Arts Council of Australia (ACT) and Sidetrack Theatre (Sydney). Jane’s extensive experience, diversity of roles and commitment to forging strong, sustainable relationships between arts organisations and businesses made her an ideal interviewee.

Interview by Eliza Muldoon

So Jane, Is it safe to assume that you believe the arts can benefit from business skills?

Yes. If you come from the premise that an artist needs to earn an income from what they do, what they love to do, then the more they understand about how they can benefit from the strategic offerings of business, the more they will be able to fulfil that need.

As an example, risk taking is a very important part of art making and it is actually something that we can learn from business, how to balance risks, take calculated risks, get the tension right between generating income and pursuing passions and artistic visions.

Do you think there is a difference between approaching the arts with a business mind and approaching it with an arts mind?

I think so. It is perhaps the difference between a commercial artist and a creative artist. Too often these terms have been overlaid with a lot of values, but essentially it is about the motivation. There are artists that pursue a career in the arts with the intention of making money or gaining renown and there are others, the majority, that don’t see the pursuit of material wealth as a great motivating force for them, their impulse may be to create work that expresses their perspective on their world or their message.

Do you think a close relationship between business and the arts could threaten the integrity of the arts?

We do still come across some arts organisations that maintain the belief that ‘I’m from the arts, ergo I’m good and you’re from business, ergo you’re bad’. There is also still some resistance to take what is seen as ‘filthy corporate dollars’ to fund ‘worthy’ works. That’s fairly naïve and simplistic though. I think, I hope, that the old notion that business is just buying credibility or using their community support as a way of disguising its actual evil intent has passed. Most major corporations in the world recognise that they are generating a profit out of the communities in which they work, and it makes good business sense, for political, social and economic reasons, to make contributions to their community. Arts are a part of that community. There are typically three key drivers for business support in the arts: brand alignment, employee engagement and community contribution. In a good arts and business relationship both the arts and business aims are supported.

How is the relationship between arts and business in Australia? Comparing 10 years ago to now.

Several years ago relationships were probably more straightforward and simple. There was a more direct relationship with, for example, the chairman whose influence was greater. We often hear from arts organisations that they have to work much harder for less. Now there are high expectations of arts. Corporate partnerships are based on very strategic decisions and there is a thorough analysis of whether the business objectives are being met.

Also, there are many more players in the field (from both arts and other community sectors) so securing and keeping corporate support is more complex and demanding. Although corporate support for key institutions is relatively strong and we are seeing greater support at a local level, the day has gone when the bigger arts companies and institutions had the private support field for themselves. Now you have a whole range of organisations which are much smarter about securing funding from business and donors.

It’s a very dynamic environment that is likely to become even more challenging as needs around environmental, health and other community issues become more urgent and the capacity of organisations in those sectors to make their case to business increases. The arts will need to constantly refresh its case for private support.

Should the arts act like a business? Reference material that may further interest you:

Act like a business? Why aim so low?

• Why Business Leaders Should Act More like Artists

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