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In the last post on this series, we covered some basic tips for working on art commissions.
On this post, we’ll discuss in more detail things you can do when working on art commissions for businesses.
Creating art for businesses is very different from creating commissions for individuals, because there will often be a lot more people involved in the process. Whereas some organisations (such as city councils) regularly commission artists and will have a clear process in place, others have never done so before. Because you might be working with feedback and expectations from a large team of people, communication can be even more challenging.
Keep in mind some of these tips to help you during the process:
Know who is making decisions and giving you feedback.
Even if you deal directly with only one individual in the organisation, they will often be the spokesperson for a group of people that all have a say in the artwork. Understand who is involved and what process they use to discuss your work and come to agreements. If someone is passing on the ideas between you and a larger team, do something so that they can be easily presented (such as a PDF explaining your concepts) or try to arrange a meeting to present them yourself.
Establish your creative context.
You need to understand from the start what they expect from you as an artist and how much your creative input will be valued and listened to. Some businesses will have a designer / creative team, and they might see you as a collaborator on the conceptual phase or merely want you to reproduce their ideas, as well as anything in between those two extremes. If there is an existing creative project in place (such as interior redesign or a rebrand of the company) try to speak to the designers to understand what your creative context is.
Always understand their brand and who you are creating for.
Even if you have complete creative freedom with your piece, make an effort to understand the company’s brand and values, as well as the audience of your artwork, so that you can sell your ideas. If you have to justify any creative choices, it’ll be much more effective to do so explaining how they are relevant to the company and the people involved with it.
Make art for the audience, not the boss.
Inevitably, sometimes you will receive feedback that is based on the personal taste of an authority in the company or the individuals working with you. Although their understanding of the organisation is essential, their personal taste should NOT determine the direction of the artwork. It is essential that the conversations about your piece centres around its audience, whether it's existing customers, prospects or staff. Be prepared to explain your creative decisions and stand your ground on important points.
Accept that some people will hate it.
The bigger the business, the smaller the chances that every single person in it will love your work. Do the best art you can in the context of the project and don't worry too much about individual opinions.
In the first two posts within this leadership series, we considered how leadership is a flexible concept that has changed over time, and explored reasons why creative practitioners may be reluctant leaders. This third post discusses how we can learn to be leaders when working in or running creative organisations.
When many of us consider “learning,” we immediately think of courses and programs facilitated by experts in the field. In recent years, there has been an explosion of leadership courses and books, both academic and professional, many of them aimed at those working in the creative sector.
But developmental programs, workshops, and tertiary education can be expensive and, for many in the arts and creative industries, out of reach. While there are professional development grants available from government funders such as the Australian Council for the Arts, they are few and far between, not to mention highly competitive.
How to learn leadership (on the cheap)
What alternatives, then, are there to formal development? Management research shows that on-the-job experience—such as jobs, work-based hardships, and special projects—is the most useful for leadership development. This correlates with my research, which shows that creative workers learn leadership primarily through practice. Importantly, however, it is our collaboration with others that builds the most effective leadership capacity and understanding. When we engage professionally with peers, we participate in a process known as “social learning.” Traditionally, learning was represented as the transfer of knowledge from experienced practitioner to novice learner. Social learning, however, explores how learning relates to the social environment. This approach sees learning as a collective activity, where knowledge is not acquired or passed on from one individual to another, but developed through participation in shared activity. Through collaboration we learn what it is to be a leader within our specific community.
Learning leadership through practice
Even if the most effective way to learn leadership is through social engagement, work, and practice, you can’t just sit back and let leadership "happen." To maximise your capacity to build leadership knowledge, understanding, and skills, you need to be aware of what social learning is and how it can benefit you. Here are a few strategies that might help:
Participate in social learning through professional work or individual creative practice.
The number one way to learn creative leadership is to collaborate with other practitioners. For some, this comes with the job, working in teams to achieve mutually defined goals. (Yes, all that group work at Uni was for a reason!) If you are a solo practitioner, you can still get involved in collaborative projects in the creative community. Think about joining a co-working space, or getting involved in local groups that provide opportunities to learn from (and share with) your peers. Forums like Creative Women’s Circle are perfect for meeting like-minded people; be proactive and put out the call. Other examples include knitting groups and writing groups that share feedback or evening art sessions. Once in these environments, test out your leadership skills by sharing ideas, exploring group dynamics, and teaching others. You might not recognise it at first, but these environments will give you confidence to lead in more formal settings.
Explore different kinds of leadership and then embrace the style that supports your practice.
A key factor in the development of creative leadership is the ability to lead in a way that aligns with your creative practice. To do this, you must learn about leadership. Observe the leaders around you: the good and the not-so-good. Read books and, if you have a chance to participate in a program, go for it! But observe with a critical eye. Beneficial development expands the idea of leadership and adjusts for personal approaches rather than projecting an idealised set of behaviours.
Create space for personal reflection.
Leadership reflection is the ability to relate theory back to personal experience. Consideration of past experiences may offer new perspectives when coupled with an expanded idea of what leadership looks like. Take the time to consider your role as leader and how it relates to your work and creative practice. Think about key experiences—both positive and negative—and what you learned from them. Consider those around you who are role models and what makes them good at what they do. But refrain from personal judgement, understanding that there is no perfect leader.
Share your leadership stories and learn from others.
Through the sharing and co-construction of stories, and exposure to role models, emerging leaders are exposed to new leadership ideas that take creative leadership from the theoretical to the personal. This means we need to hear a diversity of voices speaking about creative leadership. Moreover, it is important for emerging cultural leaders to be exposed to more than just stories of success from established leaders. Hearing about struggles and failures paints a more realistic picture of what it is like to lead in the creative world. If you can tell your story, do so with gusto.
If you’re an organisational leader, understand your role in developing others.
Lastly, a tip for those who run their own creative organisations or manage others: just because you may not have the resources to send staff on training programs doesn’t mean you cannot contribute to their leadership development. Organisations have the power to create learning through job structure and a focus on learning through experience. In addition, organisational leaders can encourage social learning by creating space for dialogue in meetings, encouraging collaborative work through projects, and through physical workplace design. Developmentally oriented organisations focus on how learning helps achieve organisational goals without having to pay consultants for expensive training programs.
There’s so much more to learning leadership than understanding a set of requisite behaviours that will turn you into the perfect leader. For creative workers, learning leadership involves the melding of creative practice and leadership opportunity in a way that provides a safe, enjoyable space for learning.
Kim Goodwin is an academic researcher and arts manager with a background in leadership, human resources, and career development. Since leaving her corporate career, Kim has focused on building understanding in how creative leaders are developed while working in a variety of arts organisations and academic environments. She can be found on LinkedIn, or follow her on Twitter (@KimAroundTown).
Deb Hudson welcomed me into her home for a cup of tea at her rustic kitchen table, which doubles as an art table. Her pencils, organized in tins by colour, are spread out at one end of the table. The room is flooded with natural light. Sometimes, it’s a case of too much of a good thing and Deb has to draw under a brimmed hat, tilted askew to shade the midday sun. Her border collie chases sun shadows about the room and her canary chirrups in the background. Today, her seven-year old son, home from school sick, adds to the menagerie. Deb’s bright, intricate illustrations and daily posting have attracted thirteen thousand followers on Instagram. But as she explains, it took her a while to find her groove.
No, I want to do art In high school, everyone said, “Don’t do art. You’ll never make any money.” So I studied teaching. Then I travelled. I lived in Japan. I taught English at an all-girls school and at an English conversation school. When I was approaching thirty, I was living in the Solomon Islands. I was doing office work. I wasn’t using my teaching degree, and I’d never even really liked teaching. The part I liked most was organising craft activities! I’m not sure—maybe it’s because I thought I hadn’t done anything with my life—but I realized, no, I want to do art.
A degree interrupted I enrolled in fine art at Queensland College of Art. I knew right away I wanted to specialize in illustration. Two years into the three-year degree, I deferred to go overseas again. I had children and, when I wanted to go back to university to finish my degree, I was told I would have to start from the beginning. I didn’t want to do that.
eBay inspo What got me started again was seeing people sell their artwork on eBay. My sister said, “You could do that.” I created a series of three paintings: a bee, a butterfly, and a beetle. I called it The Three Bs. I put them up on eBay. I had tracings of the designs and a stack of blank canvasses. When a set would sell, I’d go out to my workroom and paint them. It was a lot of work: executing, packing, and shipping the paintings. But it was exciting to see my work sell. Then I had my third child and the artwork sort of petered out.
A reboot, by way of adversity I have rheumatoid arthritis. There was a period where I was unwell, and I was really unfit. I couldn’t close my fist for six months. When I got better, I was so happy to be able to hold a pencil that I couldn’t stop drawing. I like drawing birds because they’re a symbol of freedom. Also, you can decorate them however you like. I used to use Gerald, my canary, as a model. Now I’m inspired by folk art.
The pencil person I’ve always used coloured pencils. At university, I was called the “pencil person.” I like them because they’re clean, colourful, and easy to transport.
Last Christmas, I did a series of cards in red and blue. That was good because I only had two tins of colours to pull out and pack up! Sometimes the drawing gets waxy and the white pencil won’t lay down. I spray it with fixative and that helps give it some tooth so the white will stick. People often ask what materials I use: Prismacolour (premier) pencils and plain old Kraft paper.
Online tribe I first saw the 100 Day Project [#100dayproject] three years ago, and decided to try it. Now I’m addicted; I have to do a drawing every day. I also do [Lilla Rogers’s] Make Art That Sells Assignment Bootcamp, which is a five-month online program. I’ve made great friends through those online communities. I use Redbubble to sell my work on a variety of merchandise. I don’t do heaps of marketing. People don’t like it when you use Instagram for advertising. When the Redbubble site features me on their home page, I see an increase in activity. I recently created artwork for the swing tags on a friend’s clothing line. Next, I’d like to execute on the advice I was given by an agent: to design a new collection of greeting cards and refresh my website. With three kids, the challenge is finding the time. But I love it.
Jo Watson is a Melbourne-based screenwriter and artist. Visit her on Instagram (@diary_of_a_picture_book_maker).
Are you thinking about changing careers? Perhaps you’ve been wanting to take up your creative pursuit full time and quit your day job, or maybe you’re taking the leap to start your own business, or doing further study to advance your career in a new direction. Whatever your situation, career change can be a minefield. Once you’ve made the decision to move onto something new, it can be difficult to know to where to start. Should you enrol in a course? Create a website? Ask around for advice and find a mentor? Or should you be networking like crazy to get your foot in the door?
All of these options are important when starting afresh in a new industry, job, or business, and it’s easy to concentrate on the practicalities and neglect to pause and look inward first. But career change, like any major life change, requires cultivating skills that we don’t always think of as relevant to our working lives. So take a look at the steps below before you touch that LinkedIn profile, CV, or website theme.
Reflect on your long-term goals (and not just the career ones)
When at a career crossroads, it can be useful to pause and reflect on the bigger picture of your life. This is your chance to plan your career and work around the life you want to create for yourself. What sort of hours do you hope to work? In what sort of environment would you like to spend your time? How much money do you want/need to earn to keep up your security and lifestyle? How much time would you like to dedicate to your family, social life, and volunteer or “passion projects” outside of work? In other words, it’s a good time to think about what sort of life you want, not just what sort of job/business you want. What is your ideal life, and what sort of working life will help you fulfil this in years to come?
Learn to back yourself
Let’s face it, it can be hard to tune out the voices of criticism when you’ve decided to go against the herd and start something new. There will be plenty of people who try to tell you that you can’t—or shouldn’t—do it. The quicker you learn to shut out those voices, the better. One of the biggest mistakes we all make when initiating a big change is to seek out advice…from anyone who will listen. This invariably leads to a melting pot of opinions that can be confusing at best and discouraging at worst. People project their own fears onto you if they feel threatened by your bravery (because you are taking a brave new step!).
Instead of asking anyone and everyone whether they think you should take the leap and how you should go about it, seek out people you know will champion you. They are the ones you want to hear from; simply tune out the rest. And then concentrate on building your confidence and reminding yourself of your strengths and how they can be applied to your new role.
Particularly if you’re looking to leave the world of nine-to-five and pursue your own freelance career or business, you’ll need to recalibrate your working style to ensure you can self-motivate when external deadlines are not present. Even if you’re just looking to move from one industry to another, you’ll need self-discipline to get yourself up to speed on developments in that area, market yourself properly, and get out and meet people who can help you succeed in your new field. Develop a singular focus (eyes on the prize!) and remember why you set out to do this when there are a million other tasks and fun plans vying for your attention.
Get used to being uncomfortable
You probably already know that this career change business is uncomfortable. From the very beginning, even before you’ve made the change, planning to take this sort of leap requires stepping out of your comfort zone. You’ll have to learn new things, develop networks, and put yourself out there in a way you may not have had to do for years (if ever). The good news is that being uncomfortable equals growth, which is exactly what you want: to grow into your new career. Not to mention the fact that once you get comfortable with being uncomfortable, you will find this serves you for years to come as you continue to learn and grow and take on challenges in your new role. Discomfort may not be our preference, but when it comes to creating the career you want, it will be worth it.
Bec Mackey is a writer, teacher, and producer of screen-related things. She uses a decade of experience in the business sides of media and arts to help creative people fund and promote their work in ways that work for them. Bec writes about funding, promotion, creative careers, and life on her website, Brightside Creatives.