Interesting article in The Herald this morning about Glasgow artist Frank To and how he makes a living..

WHILE development agencies come under frequent attack, supporters often insist that the impact of the work they do may be underestimated.

In this week’s SME Focus, an artist explains how he found a way of making a living while indulging his creativity after getting some helpful input from business advisors in the not-for-profit sector.

Name: Frank To

Age: 29

What is your business called?
F. To Fine Art

Where is it based? Glasgow

What service does it offer?
Fine art. I create works of fine art (mainly paintings and drawings) for personal analysis, experimentation of ideas, clients and exhibitions.

Who does it sell to? Young graduate professionals to serious art collectors. Predominately, the clientele are UK-based, but in recent times there has been a rise in interest from the US.
I have a collector in NYC called Michel Witmer, who is a major art dealer/specialist and who introduced me to a number of his US clients.

What is its turnover?
Last year’s turnover was about £38,000. The estimated turnover this year is approximately £60,000, which is reasonable at this stage of my career. Overall there has been a steady increase in annual turnover.
The turnover of my business depends on the amount of work I take on, such as commission, exhibitions etc.

How many employees?
I’m a sole trader. I don’t just make the art work, I’m also responsible for the marketing, promotion and sometimes transportation. In essence, I’m a one- man army in my business.

When was it formed?
F. To Fine Art was formed after I graduated from my Masters of Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee in 2005.

Why did you take the plunge?
When I studied my BA (Hons) Fine Art at the University of Huddersfield, I took an industrial work placement in a Sandwich Year in 2003. During that time I was gaining work experience as an art therapist. Although I did well, I always had the urge to create art and when I didn’t have a studio space to do so, I missed it.
So, in a sense, I have always had the yearning of becoming a fine artist. I have always clung on to the notion that I didn’t choose art, it chose me.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
Before I graduated from my Masters in 2005, I was picked up by a London gallery which wanted to exhibit my Master’s paintings at the Affordable Art Fair. This was the first time I had gained exposure in a London market and I exhibited eight pieces. By the end of the art fair, I had sold all eight.
I had already gained a studio space from WASPS (Workshop Artist Studio Provision in Scotland) and needed official documentation/recognition that what I was intending to do career-wise was a viable business. That’s where Business Gateway and The Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust came in. When I approached them, they helped me make that transition from student graduate to self-employed sole trader artist.
PSYBT gave me a low-interest start-up loan in 2006 after the committee approved my business plan and proposal. I was also allocated a PSYBT after-care adviser.
The combined funds from Business Gateway, PSYBT and the money I made from my debut London exhibition gave me a good solid foundation to start my business.
Although I have long since paid back my loan to PSYBT, I still keep in contact and occasionally help the charity. My relationship with PSYBT has enabled me to extend my network with other businesses they support, such as accountants, framers and so on.
When I first told Business Gateway that I wanted to become a full-time self-employed artist, I half expected them to laugh but they were very supportive. They gave so much time in helping me with my business plan and a £1000 start-up grant.
Business Gateway have supported me through the allocation of an after-care adviser that I can speak to, and useful business contacts.
One of the key lessons that I’ve learned as a result of my contact with Business Gateway is to devise plans and tactics for the business when it comes to big projects.
There’s no point in just making a product and hoping that someone takes notice – you have to mentally and physically give it your all. Luck doesn’t happen solely on chance – it’s a mixture of hard work and thinking.

What was your biggest break?
When the Royal Shakespeare Company and Hollywood actor Sir Patrick Stewart purchased some of my Masters paintings. Over the years, he has continued to buy my art for his collection. Through Sir Patrick Stewart, I’ve been fortunate to network within his community.

What was your worst moment?
A flunked-out showing at the Glasgow Art Fair in 2006. I was represented by a London Gallery at the time. There was a massive hype about me showing at the Glasgow Art Fair, as I had done quite well in London. But I completely underestimated the audience and the market and didn’t sell anything. That first defeat was quite hard to accept.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?
There’s the creative part, which is the most crucial, but recently I’ve been enjoying planning marketing tactics to promote an exhibition. This allows me to engage the general public in a more fun way. For example, earlier this year I dressed up as a mediaeval plague doctor to promote my Edinburgh exhibition. This actually went viral worldwide (on the internet) and even made it onto BBC One’s Have I Got a Bit More News For You, which was completely unexpected!

What do you least enjoy?
Paperwork. It’s more time consuming than anything else.

What are your ambitions for the firm?
I want to be a major player in the Scottish/ British art scene.

What are your top priorities?
To further develop my knowledge and skill in social networking. This will allow me to branch out further to the general public as well as to my existing audience.
Social networking is constantly changing and there are still discussions about how best to utilise it for business. Despite this, it’s important for artists and galleries to reach out to the mass audience using social networking.
Another priority is to expand into the European market, especially Germany.

What could the Westminster Government and/or Scottish Government do that would most help?
I believe there should be a fuel allowance for small businesses and sole traders. In recent years, the price for diesel and petrol has gone up dramatically, despite the economic downturn. Many businesses are struggling because of this; almost to the point of ceasing to trade.
The Government should re-examine its budget cutting to city/ town councils nationally. The arts have been hit the hardest.
The absence of arts events also harms local businesses, such as restaurants and hotels, which rely on that tourism.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned?
Not to underestimate the general public when it comes to exhibiting my art; they are the ones who can either make or break me. It took a while to understand this myself.

How do you relax?
It’s either a night with the boys with a couple of beers and poker or going out with friends for a nice meal and wine; basically anything that is non-art related. 

Posted by MMac