John A Douglas

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: