Art in the age of creative entrepreneurship (2014)

R.J. Preece
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 13 September 2014. This interview was written in March 2014.

With changing economies, shifting funding sources and government initiatives, many spaces and artists over recent years have had to shift strategies and embrace more of a creative entrepreneurship approach. This applies not only to the US, but also some other countries like England. One such space that has been affected is Castlefield Gallery in Manchester in the northwest part of the country, which has a 30-year history of exhibiting and supporting artists.

Central to Castlefield’s activities over the years has been an artist development program. This however has strengthened over recent years. As a sample, they’ve recently hosted talks and sessions focused on proposal writing; media relations strategy; setting up studios, exhibition spaces and local networks; web marketing; and website development. They’ve also secured temporary, empty retail, office and light industrial units for temporary art exhibitions in the Manchester area working with landlord partners and a professional space broker. They also have an ongoing partnership with a university art school in Manchester, and are working with a-n The Artist Information Company to offer a series of training events for artists. Further, over the years, Castlefield has exhibited and promoted artists at key stages of their careers, from those starting out to those more established, including subsequent Turner Prize nominees / winners.

To learn more about the now Castlefield Gallery / Agency, R.J. Preece interviewed Kwong Lee, the Director, and Jennifer Dean, Communications and Audience Development Coordinator of CG.

R.J. Preece: What brought about Castlefield Gallery’s relaunch in 2012 and how did the organization change?

Kwong Lee: In the current era of austerity Castlefield Gallery (CG) had lost its revenue funding in 2012. So we had to work quickly on a new business model to ensure its continual significance as an artist development gallery and agency. As a small organization that was started in 1984 by artists, we had evolved the artist-led ethos that makes use of the knowledge, skills and networks of artists to curate high quality contemporary art exhibition and to develop the careers of artist, especially those in the North West of England. In fact we have brought back the entrepreneurial spirit that got the gallery going in the first place. The new CG had to create opportunities to bring in a mixed economy of public, private funding and earned income, and at the same time to make sure our programmes are better known beyond the arts community.

A good example is our fundraising auction in May 2012 that was generously supported by artists and curators of national and international standing, including Haroon Mirza, Pavel Büchler, Tim Noble & Sue Webster, Olivia Plender, Mark Leckey and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The auction brought in a much needed £33,000. But moreover, it brought attention to CG on its public worth and showed the art community’s value of it.

When we re-launched in August 2012, we were developing a number of partnerships, including ones with Manchester City Council, Arts Council England and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Previously I think what we do was known mainly to the arts community. Now a lot more people understand why and how we develop artists and contemporary art practice. Our programme consists of a curated gallery exhibition programme that shows emerging and mid-career artists, a membership scheme for artists and independent curators and writers that offers a package of artistic and career development opportunities, and off-site ‘pop-up’ project spaces for artists to produce and exhibit new work. As a re-purposed organisation, we are also gaining consultancy work from other arts organisations to deliver artist development work.

R.J. Preece: Castlefield has stood out for decades as a place facilitating practical arts entrepreneurship, when frankly, many other places including art schools couldn’t be bothered. Since the economic crisis, new players have entered the picture securing government arts and centralized higher education funding for professional practice and creative entrepreneurship. What do you think about this? Is it people chasing funding or is it sincere?

Kwong Lee: This seems to have been happening for some time, with various professional development schemes that include contemporary art within the creative industries. We often find that these schemes are quite narrow in their focus of what artists need to make a success of what they do, and obviously they play to the agendas of the prevailing government. The current trend is towards business development and business entrepreneurship. Nothing wrong with that and as we know being an artist now requires many skills other than obvious ones like making art. My critique of this is that many organisations engaged with professional practice and creative entrepreneurship activities focus on singular pathways and immediate results. We are more interested in a holistic approach with longer-term results, as good art and artists do not develop overnight.

R.J. Preece: What do you think delivers real, transformative results—and what doesn’t?

Kwong Lee: I think our best achievements happen when we work with artists on a number of occasions. In this way, we are able to give timely and appropriate levels of support, opportunity and advice. For example, an artist may come to a talk or discussion, then have a one-to-one advisory session with an invited curator, be part of a group show and eventually have a solo exhibition. During this non-linear journey, we will be talking and tracking his/her progress and intervene when we can, e.g. promote their projects via our networks, or make introduction to commissioners and curators. And because we are not a commercial gallery, we can work with many artists and plug them into the art ecology.

For us the ecology is made up of the various players, from the art schools to the cultural institutions, from the local authorities to the artist-led scene, from funders to gallerists. Artists need to connect with and navigate through all of these players to be successful. At CG, although we are one of these players, we think of our distinctive role to be a bridge between some of the other players.

R.J. Preece: While the US art school scene probably still bizarrely has the international reputation for producing more artists with a business, marketing and media coverage mentality, it seems that the UK has taken that lead by far since the YBAs, and especially now with government initiatives. What do you think interested schools and organizations in the US can learn from the UK?

Kwong Lee: I am not sure we have a better system of producing more successful artists. But I do think that we may have more diversity, from artists who are very market aware to those who reject profit-making on principle. I like the fact that we can still have a dialogue between too much and not enough business focus in artists and the art sector. I really value the mix of public and private funding we still have in the UK. The smart and talented artists can have opportunities to develop their art to a high quality in the publicly funded scene before they seek out the art market.

R.J. Preece: Jennifer, with the initiatives mentioned above, how important is communicating these developments, how do you do it, and who are the key audiences?

Jennifer Dean: We are now much clearer about our role within the art ecology and have learnt to be better at telling people what we do, by sending out key messages through digital media like websites, Facebook and Twitter. As a result our audiences have expanded to include business groups and local residents. We are also building stronger relationships with our stakeholders such as strategic partners, funders, donors and collectors, sharing with them our progress and achievements.