Managing a creative career: how to make the figures add up for artists

First printed in the Sunday Independent 6/12/2015

A recent survey by the National Campaign for the Arts summed up the key issue facing the sector. It noted that “Ireland has long enjoyed an outstanding reputation for artistic excellence, at home and abroad, despite the fact that Government spending on arts and culture is just 0.11pc of GDP. This has placed Ireland at the bottom of the list of EU countries compared with an average of 0.6pc, surely something no country can condone.

“This unenviable position looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, given government commitment to the Department is set for cuts and standstill allocations into 2017.”

There are an estimated 4,915 professional artists in Ireland, with the latest income data suggesting that artists were earning 56pc less than those in the manufacturing sector.

Other statistics to come out of a recent Arts Council study show that 58pc of artist households find it difficult to make ends meet, 23pc were in arrears on a utility bill (compared to 8pc of the wider population) and 31pc of artists have made provision for a pension (compared to 54pc of all workers).

More than half of all artists are self-employed, with only 13pc paying tax on a PAYE basis. But considering the level of academic qualifications within the sector – 69pc of artists have a third-level degree or higher and 83pc a professional qualification, when compared to only 24pc of all workers – the figures do not add up.

Ian Oliver would have this condition turned on its head. Co-founder of the Centre for Creative Practices (CFCP) with art entrepreneur advocate Monika Sapielak, Oliver has worked on both sides of the artistic fence, both as a creative when he was a photographer and as an entrepreneur running his own business. He believes that artists need to be taught how to be entrepreneurs for the good of the artistic sector and society.

“Most people who follow the creative path emerge from fine arts degrees, creative courses or workshops knowing how to create product,” he says. “However, they are not taught how to sell their product. Somehow the end objective is in the creation rather than sale of their artwork. Without marketing, financial and logistical skills, how can people expect to be able to sell? After all, you would hardly expect a retailer or shopkeeper to offload product without basic understanding of commerce. So why not an artist?”

Oliver put this theory to the test in 2013 when CFCP in collaboration with the New York Foundation for the Arts set up and facilitated a boot camp for artists. This was supported by the Arts Council, hosted by the RHA, and took on 65 artists.

The four-day boot camp taught artists the basics of marketing, logistics, transportation and fundraising. From that, a cohort of 26 came together to form a co-operative called IDIR. They were then tasked with collaborating to create an exhibition. Using their new-found skills, the group successfully put together a show that ran for four months, from October 2014 until January 2015, in the New York Foundation for the Arts Centre and which was formally opened by Hozier.

“The boot camp and subsequent exhibition proved that artists were very capable of creating a commercial environment to display and sell their artwork,” says Oliver. “We now run seminars, classes and workshops along similar lines.”

He addresses core issues of public perception that somehow art is meant to be free: “One type of artist to believe in payment for their work are musicians. Most concerts tend to be ticketed and merchandise is available to purchase. But visual arts or performing arts have a much slower conversion to commerce.”

If direct sales are not the solution, then what about public funding? Again Oliver would advocate a wider view on how to raise funds. “With funding for the arts slashed by 30pc, there is not enough money to go around and artists have to think smarter,” he says. “There is also money available in crowdfunding, micro loans and, increasingly, related causes.

“We help artists look at the inspiration for their art – and often there may be a link to funding not traditionally accessible via the arts.”

Fiach Moriarty is a singer-songwriter. Now in his thirties he has managed to largely support his writing through gigging. Leaving school he had a choice between studying history in Trinity and going to Rock School in Ballyfermot and – to his mother’s dismay – he chose the latter.

“Life comes in circles,” says Moriarty. “My first love is songwriting, but my second is history and that has hugely influenced my direction and style in writing. I am fascinated by events such as the Arab Spring and 1916 – I like to look at things differently,” he says. Such is his creativity that he and his songs have been featured on RTE’s Arena and he has also sung with the RTE Concert Orchestra twice in events to celebrate the Rising.

Moriarty has translated his fascination with history into opportunity but he also feels there is little income to be made in Ireland. “The free thing is very strong,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to travel across the country to a gig only to receive €20 for your trouble. If I did that in Germany, the promoters would be delighted to have me there, would feed me and pay me an appropriate sum. It is hard to make real money in Ireland.”

Moriarty has a daughter – and an imperative to earn a crust. However, he also appreciates that part of the problem in Ireland is the excess of talented singer-songwriters. “It’s great being part of a strong and vibrant community. We are all very supportive of each other and I like that – but it does dilute the pot somewhat.”

As a result Moriarty turned to crowdfunding for his second album, raising €2,000 largely through presales. His first was paid for by his SSIA. “It’s a balancing act for a singer songwriter,” he says.

Ciara O’Keeffe is a ceramics artist specialising in stoneware clay. She did a fine arts degree in Limerick and then ran a framing shop and gallery. The recession closed those doors and the onset of a family pushed her into a PAYE lifestyle. O’Keeffe now works as a ceramics teacher for the Kildare VEC. She teaches young and sometimes troubled teenagers who have dropped out of school, and finds her job both demanding and incredibly rewarding.

“It would be my ideal job, except actually producing clay art is my dream job,” she explains.

Danielle Serpico, half-Italian and half-Irish, studied fine art as a student but found her confidence knocked by a lecturer who did not share her style – despite the that she had very successful career while in college.

She was in huge demand both in Bray and in Dublin for her distinctive window paintings, but the loss of self-belief led her to drop art totally for a career as a restaurateur. At one stage, she owned and managed two restaurants and employed 40 staff. However, the recession meant she had to close the business, and left her to examine what she wanted from life.

“I had a choice and I decided to believe in myself,” says Serpico. “I started painting again, especially in the summer, and I found I had a ready supply of clients. One accidental trick was to carry my large paintings around in the back of my car – I have subsequently sold several to people working in carparks where they viewed my work. The car as a gallery!”

Serpico retrained as a mind coach and uses the same confidence techniques that revitalised her artistic life to help others. “It’s all about facing fear and doing it anyway,” she says.

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