Book review: The Essential Guide to Business for Artists and Designers

  • The Essential Guide to Business for Artists and Designers by Alison Branagan

Artist and writer Rebecca LaMarre reviews Alison Branagan's helpful handbook, The Essential Guide to Business for Artists and Designers.

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This book contains 12 chapters of practical advice for anyone who is interested in making their creative practice into a self-sustaining business. It also provides an appendix with a glossary of terms and a list of organisations and books that can provide further information.

The first section of the book explains how Branagan has defined specific areas of art production, boiling widely different disciplines down into simplified marketing terms. To get the most out of this book it is vital that an animation, a sculpture, a conceptual text and a design brief are all thought of as ‘the product’. Creative practice is described as a service that can be bought, sold, negotiated and licensed under contract. Branagan differentiates between arts and creative businesses, underscoring with a wobbly line what separates practitioners who are hesitant from those comfortable with the idea they are working to a brief and engaged in commerce.

The rest of the book deals with the nuts and bolts of running a creative business: writing a business-plan, managing money, networking advice, more networking advice, self-promotion (thinly disguised networking advice), funding and loans, taxes and copyright issues.

When dealing with practical matters the book boasts an impressive set of tools that can help a reader with any questions that will inevitably come up as they gain experience in the business side of the art world. There are examples of budgets, letters to request funding, invoices, tax forms and other administrative paraphernalia. In addition, the points made in each section of the book are clearly and concisely summarised as lists to reinforce the content discussed. There are also mind-maps visually outlining the connections between all of the different areas covered. At the end of each chapter is a list of each book referenced and websites where further information can be found.

For context the book also features interviews with current creative practitioners who run a successful business. The disciplines they work in are chosen at random, most of them being designers of some variety, and the majority live in London. All schools mentioned in the book and all laws relating to copyright and taxes are relevant to the UK and current as of 2011. Similarly, there are many references to the timely release of the book, noting the recent cuts in arts funding and advocating pursuing loans rather than grants that no longer exist.

In fact, this book can only exist in a world that values economic principles as the bottom line, and in that sense it is understandable and useful that Branagan wants to teach artists how to frame their practice within that way of thinking, perhaps as a survival strategy. However, this being the case, this book is not one to be read with your critical thinking cap on. It seems to be very much a product of the YBA era, and takes as its motto a Tracey Emin quote: “If business is not for you, then the art world is not for you.” It is worth mentioning that this is the opening to a chapter called Creative Crimes and that Emin has stolen the quote from Damien Hirst.

This brings me to what the book is less successful at, which is the disproportionate emphasis on networking.  It is full of contradictory advice such as, “If you’re not sure what to do, be confident!” On page 98, Branagan emphasises the importance of not going to private views alone and inviting a friend. Then in chapter 10 she tells us to consider self-image, warning that bringing the wrong friend might make you look bad and prevent you from meeting what she calls “key players”. Immediately after this statement we’re advised that friends can be useful after all: “Call in favours. Ask your friends, or friends of friends, if they would put in a word for you or recommend a contact. Many artists and designers feel nervous about asking for assistance from friends as they think it’s unethical. This is total nonsense. If friends don’t wish to help, are they really your friends anyway?”

Another issue frequently highlighted is the link between body language and perceived levels of confidence. Speaking as someone who was once an awkward teenager, I am not so sure about this approach to ‘networking self-help’. Trying to be confident through self-conscious attention to my body language inevitably results in disaster.

That complaint out of the way, this book does offer many useful, coherent strategies for beginning to conceive of your artistic practice as a business. (Though it is worth mentioning that this is not the only strategy for having a meaningful career as an artist.) Context and many relevant outside sources are provided so you can do further research when required. Overall, this is a book to be used as a tool when specific situations arise, for instance, when you find yourself presented with a contract you don’t understand. It is a very useful book to skim for the information you currently require: take the practical and legal advice and leave the rest.