Archives for category: Arts as a business


Peta Misbrener is a graphic designer and ceramicist based in the Blue Mountains. Three months ago, when Peta ended her role as a senior graphic designer in Sydney, she decided to focus full-time on the development of her own business, based on transferring her illustrations onto ceramics. Since making that decision, Elm Design has experienced rapid growth with stockists ranging from small boutique stores throughout the country to the National Gallery in Canberra. There is now interest in both Europe and the UK.

Interview by Eliza Muldoon

What inspired you to make the leap into establishing your own arts business?

For years I commuted to Sydney to work, during that time I began establishing my own business part-time. I had always wanted to focus on it full-time, but it just felt too risky- it actually still does to some extent. When I was made redundant from that role it seemed that it was time to take a leap of faith.

There a few reasons why taking the leap appealed to me, one was that I really wanted to get away from sitting in front of a computer all day long. I love getting my hands dirty and I love illustrating.  Ceramics offered a perfect balance between the two. Another reason is that the finished pieces are pretty quirky and imperfect, quite a contrast to my previous design role where everything had to be perfect. Quirky and imperfect is how I like it.

What suite of business skills do you need as an artisan?

I’m essentially a creative person so developing the business aspect has required a steep learning curve. Being a trained illustrator and graphic designer with a background in marketing has certainly helped a lot. I’ve been able to do all my design, marketing, web design and print work myself.

I do all of my own accounts, so that has meant developing and managing my own invoicing, banking and taxation systems, recently I realised that I also have to chase up my outstanding accounts. In addition to the financial aspects I’ve also had to learn about health and safety, handling customer enquiries, media relations (for social and print media), recruitment, staff management, quality control and selling via online marketplaces, trade shows and direct wholesale.

How have you learnt those skills?

My ceramic skills have been largely self-taught. I have had to do a lot of research into image transferring and printing processes in order to create the products that I do. There weren’t really hands on courses that taught what I wanted to learn so the internet has been my school.

My business skills developed in part through observing others in my previous workplaces. I am better at learning that way than through sitting through workshops and training. Because it has all happened so quickly I have had to learn a lot as I go, sometimes I just wing it. I also ask friends that have small businesses for their advice. I have realised that you shouldn’t be afraid of asking for help.

With hindsight I now wish I had done things like attending trade shows to see what others are doing, how they promote them, what manufacturing processes they use and whether they make locally or overseas.

What have been the most unexpected aspects of your business?

I wasn’t expecting such a positive response and I certainly wasn’t expecting the rapid rate of growth Elm Design has experienced. I’ve realised that although it is still a very small business it has a lot of potential. It really has taken on a life and direction of its own.

A less positive aspect is that I wasn’t prepared for how much it would cost to set everything up, the cost of equipment: tools, clay, kiln and marketing materials. I had to cover the costs by supplementing savings from my previous graphic design income and eventual (small) redundancy with a bank loan.

How has working from your own home in the Blue Mountains benefitted or inhibited your business development (aside from the issue of having a toddler and ceramics studio under the same roof)?

One of the biggest benefits is that I have a studio and all the space that I need. That’s something I couldn’t have had at this stage of my business if I had lived in the city. I think it would have taken 5 years to get to that point if I was Sydney based. I like the slower pace of the lifestyle up here too. It gives me more freedom, both mentally and physically, to create.

Working from home is a logistical challenge. I juggle. I spend five hours out in the studio every day, then at night I work on the things that can be done inside the house, such as applying illustrations to my pieces and all the computer- based work. I don’t have a solid routine yet, but I’m hoping that will come soon.

The only thing inhibiting about being in the mountains is the weather, my pieces dry a lot slower than they would in a warmer, drier climate.

Finally, what have been the rewards?

The greatest reward has been when people look at the pieces and they laugh- they get it. That’s all I want.

Visit: Or Buy:


D’Lan Davidson is the head of Aboriginal Art at Sotheby’s Australia. After initially working as an artist in the United States and then owning and running a contemporary art gallery in Brisbane, Davidson became interested in collecting, which ultimately turned into a business.  Since 2000, Davidson has discovered and repatriated major works of art from overseas collections and discretely consigned these works, as well as successfully dealing exclusively and privately in Australian Aboriginal Art. In 2008 Davidson was approached by the then director of Sotheby’s Australia to take over the Aboriginal Art department, and in 2010 this was realized. D’lan took some time out to talk to arts interview about the business side of the arts sector.

 Interview by Alex Bellemore

 The theme of arts interview for April is ‘Art & Business’. At an auction house art IS business. How is the Aboriginal Art market currently travelling, against alternate fine art and international markets?

Since the global financial crisis the Aboriginal Art market is now much more discerning – works of high quality, rarity and beauty with impeccable provenance remain highly sought after.

The market is still tentative compared to before 2008, however international buyers are now returning.  This is a positive sign. Having waited for particular works to come back on to the market or finding a particular work that fills a void in their collection is also their motivation to buy.

Sotheby’s Australia remains focused on meeting the needs of the current and more discerning market.

It is worth noting that sales once comprised of 300 – 500 lots, however our sales are now in the realms of 80 – 100 lots.  So the overall dollar value of each sale has reduced, but our focus is on the longevity of the art movement, which can only be achieved through this refining period.

What ethical considerations do you have to take into account when dealing with the Aboriginal Art market?

Sotheby’s Australia’s policy remains perfectly clear – we ensure that artworks created by artists that are represented by art centres have originated from these art centres.  For every work that is selectively consigned to our sale, we ensure that each one is supported by authenticated provenance and the appropriate documentation, allowing us to draw a direct and ethical line from the current owner/s back to the artist.

What specialized skills do you have to bring to the workplace when dealing with a sales focused environment as compared to, say a director of an Artists Run Initiative?

Exhibiting works of art in an exclusive setting which ultimately highlights the works’ beauty, is something that we are focused on doing.

I also like to look at things from a fresh perspective. I see this current refining period in the market as being very positive and refreshing, both for exhibiting and buying. The fundamentals and foundations for the future market will be driven by enthusiastic and passionate buyers rather than from speculative interests.

Also, from past experience with working in the advertising industry and now working alongside our internal design team, compiling the finest scholarly and curated catalogues which are beautifully designed and laid out is also a focus.

How important is a solid comprehension of art as business for artists? Do you think many artists today are adequately aware of running themselves in some sense as a business?

Quite clearly many artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are ill equipped when it comes to running themselves as a business.

I think it is very important for artists to understand and comprehend the business of art. Market is driven by demand and clearly oversupply will hurt an artist’s ability to sell in the short to medium term. In time, however, great works by distinguished artists will stand out. This is why the current market represents a very good time to selectively buy.


After the Australian Government established Artbank in 1980, the arts support program became self­funded by reinvesting its rental income back into artwork purchases. The collection now comprises over 10,000 artworks by 3,000 artists, with a focus on supporting emerging artists. arts interview spoke with Artbank client services and marketing manager, Ellen Lloyd Shepherd, about how the organisation balances its cultivation of emerging artists with the everyday reality of meeting companies’ different aesthetic expectations.

Interview by Heather Jennings

Why is Artbank important? What is the organisation’s cultural contribution to companies and the greater community?

For artists, we are often the first national collection to purchase their work. This validates their practice and provides an economic injection to continue their practice. For clients we provide a flexible, cost-effective and accessible means to enhance a workplace or home, while actively supporting contemporary Australian artists. For the people of Australia, we are acquiring a dynamic and culturally important collection that will be shared with future generations. The collection is extremely diverse and we pride ourselves on being able to offer clients the very latest, innovative works, often challenging preconceptions and taste.

How does Artbank maintain a cultural record? Does it factor in exposure and support of emerging artists when collecting new works?

Support of emerging artists through collection and subsequent exposure to their work is of paramount consideration when collecting. Artbank as a collection can take risks on work in a way state and national galleries cannot.
The collection’s quality is a testament to our acquisition policy, which is closely adhered to in order to maintain its integrity. Artbank only acquires work by living Australian artists and from the primary market – directly from artists, via commercial galleries, contemporary art spaces, artist-run organisations and Indigenous communities.
We always find a way to work with artists that could otherwise prove challenging for the collection when assessed against our acquisition policy. Recently, we have started commissioning some artists and working closely with them to explore ways of uniting their creative vision and Artbank’s collecting brief without compromising the integrity of their practice.

What are the curatorial challenges in working with and providing artworks to large corporations? 

Artbank’s curatorial challenges include not being able to acquire works that are inherently fragile, and which might be confronting or provocative in content.

What do clients want and how do you adjust to this?   

Artbank prides itself on being able to provide artwork to suit every taste, personality, location and budget. We rent artworks to many government departments, including Australian embassies and consulates around the world, corporate clients across different industries and private clients who rent work for their homes and small businesses.
Some clients are looking for artwork to freshen a ‘dull’ space, some want a feature for a meeting room or foyer, some like to change over their artworks each year to keep their staff and clients engaged and others are looking for striking pieces that help them sell real estate.
It’s important for us to be at the forefront of collecting, and we strive to purchase work that is reflective of current practice. We purchased our first video work in 2008 and launched our video collection in 2009.

What value does aesthetics have to a business? Will companies avoid artworks that could be considered controversial in a business setting?

Some clients will avoid certain artworks, but not necessarily because they might be considered controversial. A company may want to convey itself as progressive and innovative, informal and enterprising or respectable and established – all of which can be achieved with well selected artworks.

Aesthetics is incredibly important to a business. Each year companies invest substantial money, time and planning to ensure that their corporate identity is expressed in appropriate and relevant ways. Everything from staff demeanour, dress code and office location right down to the use of recycled paper and philanthropic activity, assists a company to build their brand and marketplace positioning. Brand development and aesthetics go hand in hand, and the styling and fit out of an office space can be as important as other more obvious corporate identity decisions.

Clients select artworks that reflect the principles they want to convey as a business, reinforcing messages that more traditional brand campaigns offer.



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:

sam strong

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:

Angelica Mesiti

Installation view Slacking OFF 2002, Imperial Slacks. Image courtesy Angelica Mesiti and Imperial Slacks

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:

Jane Haley

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