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Posted on Mon 20 Aug 2018

What are the key challenges of creative business sustainability and growth?

The lens through which we measure creative business growth and design support systems needs to be shaped by the networked and agile ecology we are operating within.

Photo of woman talking to a group of four people around a table.

Mapping Your Business Growth workshop. Photo by Vanessa Bellaar Spruijt.

Posted by

Rachael Burton

Rachael Burton

Bristol+Bath Creative R+D Producer

In the current gig economy, creatives move swiftly from project to project operating flexibly across sectors and in the margins. The lens through which we measure creative business growth and success needs to be shaped by this networked and agile ecology, not the other way around. By really understanding how individual artists and small creative businesses operate; their successes and failures; we can start to put together a practical support system focusing on appropriate value structures and achieving economic sustainability.

Over the last 18 months, Watershed has partnered with The Guild, Knowle West Media Centre, Spike Island and UWE Bristol to deliver a programme of business support for artists and small creative businesses based in the West of England. Network for Creative Enterprise has been designed to offer a flexible approach to business support with free space, mentoring, skills workshops, producer support and small business development bursaries. In this time, we have designed and re-designed the programme several times, responding to challenges and need. Along the way, we have noticed a number of key challenges faced by many creative businesses, here’s a snapshot of three of them:

Building a team

Creatives often have a large community of other creatives at their fingertips. A theatre maker could relatively easily pull together a writer, director, cast, sound designer and stage management team by calling on their networks. There are of course innate problems with this approach, often leading to whole teams from white, middle class, non-disabled backgrounds. This leaves little room for new and inclusive talent to access opportunities and paid work. Working with people with a range of backgrounds, cultures, experiences and skill-sets will inevitably lead to a richer creative process and output. 

However, this networked approach is much less true when it comes to looking for a team member with a business or finance background. Creatives don’t often have these contacts in their existing circle, and the routes to finding them are unclear. Building a team with complimentary skill sets, covering creative AND business expertise – amongst a raft of other things – is a real challenge. Lots of the creatives we are working with are keen to find a business partner to grow and develop their business in a sustainable way, but they don’t know where to start looking. If they are lucky enough to find the right person, they also need a clear understanding of the best way to formally structure their company (often without sufficient funds to pay salaries initially). We need to support a system for creatives and business people to meet and to share and develop ideas in an informal ongoing way. It is also crucial to support inclusive talent development pathways into creative employment that critically includes business development skills.

Where will next month’s rent come from?

This challenge came as no surprise to any of us. It’s a bit of a cliché, but there is real uncertainty in this project-to-project funding climate, often leaving creatives with little to no economic stability.

This of course means that the creative sector is more accessible to those with a financial cushion, increasingly narrowing the pool as people without savings or family to support them move into different sectors with more stability. This problem is sector-wide, with rising university fees and unpaid internships playing a damaging role in the barriers to people from low socio-economic backgrounds starting out or moving into a creative career. 

This is where regularly funded arts organisations could use their resource to support creatives to take risks, develop their ideas in a safe space, prototype and test with an audience. The Pervasive Media Studio offers free space to all residents, and Network for Creative Enterprise has enabled the partnership to do the same across the region. Watershed is working with UWE Bristol to understand how to accurately research and respond to the socio-economic backgrounds of our current community. We hope this research will enable us to provide better creative and business support, to remove some of the economic and social barriers and to offer more tangible routes into the sector. 

The issues are complex and interrelated, but it is important to recognise the social and political context within which creative businesses are operating. Only once they have been given the appropriate space, time and money needed to set up, can creatives begin to make their businesses sustainable. We have started to see the evidence of this approach in addressing other areas of underrepresentation. Over the last couple of years, we have focused on developing pathways into the Studio for people of colour, because we recognised that our community was not representative of the wider demographic of Bristol from underrepresented backgrounds. We are trying and remove the barriers and provide bespoke support. Watershed Producer Zahra Ash-Harper has been supporting artists of colour to develop their creative ideas in the Pervasive Media Studio through paid micro-residencies. We have seen a rise in the percentage of BAME residents from 10% in 2017 to 19% in 2018. 

How do I maintain my values whilst increasing my value?

Why are we chasing the money? People don’t usually embark on a creative business with dreams of super yachts and big mansions (of course, there are exceptions to this). Creatives are chasing money – constantly completing funding applications, pitching to investors, scoping out sales routes and delivering talks and workshops – not for the money itself but for the opportunity it provides them to create alternative values. The artists and creative businesses we are working with are making human-centred work, adding more than monetary value to the world. We need to explore business models where value is measured in more than pound sterling.

We have recently been working with artist Kate Rich who runs Feral Trade, a grocery business trading internationally through a network of friends who are the product transporters as well as the end consumers. The business is only ever intended to be run by one person – the scale is fixed and sustainable. Kate is interested in alternative approaches to creative business, one of these approaches she calls radical admin – or radmin. Kate approaches all administrative tasks from a creative angle, from tax returns to strategic planning. Feral Trade operates with and around capitalism. Kate explores models that both offer the pragmatic needs for material survival in the current economy as well as imagining how this could be different in the future. We’re interested in continuing to explore different routes and structures to attributing value to creative business.

These challenges are very pertinent for self-employed artists and small creative businesses. We need to find radical ways to support them to take the necessary risks to grow and become economically sustainable. I believe key to this is to ensure we are finding inclusive talent development pathways into the sector, and exploring alternative approaches and models of business that work within this challenging landscape.