How can artists run good businesses that earn them a living and are sustainable?

Convener(s): George Mann

Participants: Malwina Chabocka, Tanja Raaste, Sue Emmas, Kelli Des Jamais, Ellie Griffiths, Sarah Gee, Zoe Cobb, Matthew Smallwood, Dan Woods, Ira Brand, Adam Milford, Imogen, Kathryn, Maja Milatovic-Ovadia, Simon Pittman, Kate Hall, Annie Fitzmaurice, Alex Lehman, Liam Jarvis, Amelia Bird, Angie Buaz, Alyson McKechnie, Jules Munns, Helen Mugridge – apologies for any mispelt names


Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Started by me saying that what we learnt (our company) about being a business and not only creative artists, was learnt through our mistakes and by diving into the deep end as it were –I felt there was a distinct lack of support for artists who need and/or want to know about how to make a living through what they do, and some even feel guilty about wanting to be paid for what they do. So there are issues regarding how artists value their skills.


Here’s what followed: 

  • Before getting down to ‘business’ the group leapt to the issue of getting paid, per se, and how it’s a currently issue of difficulty. Asking to be paid, valuing what they do –and as it’s essentially the ‘income’ part of having/being a business, it is after all fundamental and if lacking, well, we can’t live off thin air… 
  • we tend to work with friends, or with those who become our friends, it was noted that this can potentially make asking to be paid difficult and create feelings of guilt, or make it feel ‘strange’, etc
  • But still, it was agreed that when one thinks about it, if you and if your ‘employer’ (friend or no) values your skill, should they not be more than willing to pay for it? So even though it’s difficult it’s important to ask to be paid, to work for pay.
  • HOWEVER.  Some raised the issue or benefit of free work, that it can create work and make contacts and achieve wonderful things –it’s just there’s a danger of getting into a cycle of doing only unpaid work, and like can attract like. In this case it was agreed that once more, despite it being difficult, it’s vital to insist on being paid most of the time, or at a certain stage in your career, if not from the start.
  • There is a MAJOR failing here the UK: we don’t teach artists how to make a living out of what they do, their skills, so they’re forced to learn from their mistakes.
  • A producer in the group said there is a hunger for this knowledge that she witnesses on a regular basis and it’s frustrating to see. She teaches 3 hours a week on business management and running a business for artists every week at an arts school –but feels this is lacking in most drama schools and arts schools in the UK despite its value
  • a theatre company representative said that when she first set out she knew nothing, not even how much it costs to hire a venue or how much to charge for her new show –as a result she was forced to go through a long a difficult period of learning through mistakes
  • It was sited that 50-75% of those in the arts industry leave within 5 years because they don’t manage to make a living off it
  • Again the issue of it being difficult to ask for pay arose, however someone quite rightly said ‘get over it!’ You need to do that, you need to be paid, how else will you make your living or value what you do and what you offer?
  • It was noted that people can perceive the arts to be a luxury, because you love doing it, so it seems odd to be paid for something you love to do. Interesting, because that suggests that we associate being paid with work that we don’t enjoy. It’s a myth of course. But it might help further explain the feelings of guilt surrounding asking to be paid for your ‘art’ skills and services…
  • There are those that take advantage of good will and someone’s offer of work for free, theatres, individuals, organisations, and in some cases an assumption that artists will work for very little or nothing at all. Lots of examples were sited whereby a reputable organisation approached an artist or company and asked them to work for nothing or for expenses, -more than once, and that this trend is something of a norm at present, moreover, one that is having an extremely negative effect on artists who cannot make a living. Where did this begin, why is this thought of as the norm?
  • It’s agreed that working for free or for expenses can be of benefit but in specific circumstances and so long as it benefits all parties involved. It cannot be the norm however, if we want a sustainable arts industry where arts can make a living.
  • Work made for ‘free’ as it were is said to be of a lesser quality. Not everyone agreed. But we agreed that it was harder to ‘direct’ and lead a group of unpaid colleagues as you cannot assume any authority or truly push your ideas, it was found that quite often this way of working leads to conflict.
  • Many people had found that when they ‘decided’ to pay their employees they then found a way to pay them and went out to search for funding or a way to raise funds, something they didn’t do when they thought they had no money, the difference in approach and in mindset was phenomenal
  • The issue of proving your worth in order to be paid arose. It was agreed by some that yes, you may have to make an initial investment, take a loan, use your savings on a first project in order to gain support, funding, donators, bums on seats and box office takings –but then no one ever said that being in the arts was easypeasey. There is an element of risk, and no one can truly take that risk for you at the beginning…
  • Arts Council England/Wales/Scotland (ACE from here on in for ease of writing and not to exclude Wales or Scotland in anyway!) was discussed, and that the way subsidy is given right now is problematic in that it seems to create ‘utopian subsidy bubbles’ that companies are able exist within, then when that bubble bursts, as it did for many in the last round of NPO grants given/taken, those companies collapse. Proof that many companies cannot make a sustainable living from their business and because the subsidy model exists, people instead learn how to exist with this model thus becoming dependant on it.
  • What about other arts sectors, music concerts sell out, cinema’s do too, etc, why not theatre? The group felt that theatre can and does sell out, but when it’s good. This raise the issue of funding for theatre that is not so good. As well as the issue of less ‘populist’ theatre/art that needs subsidy to survive and enrich the cultural landscape –not everyone agreed that the less ‘populist’ theatre/arts were actually any good, and that if they were they’d attract an audience…




Silence : )


    • Subsidy issues, the way it’s given out creates dependency and doesn’t encourage independent and sustainable business models
    • The fact that there’s no or very little ‘business studies’ or arts management courses run as part of drama/art schools courses, which it was felt should be a fundamental and very important part of any course for an artist of any kind, for those running self employed businesses and those wanting to set up companies, it is essential and currently largely MISSING.
    • Many theatres are also not truly supportive or dependent on subsidy and therefore ‘lazy’ in their relationship to companies. The following examples came up:

-------Not adhering to contractual obligations especially with marketing issues, so a company regularly experiences turning up at a venue on tour to find flyers and posters have not been put up, that no one knows about the show, etc, and because no one is regulating said theatre, and because politically the company cannot really complain too much else risk ‘upsetting’ these venues and the friends of these venues… there’s no one watching out for companies or insuring theatre do their job, no independent regulator.

-------Theatres that could offer mentoring support don’t.

-------Artists are invited to be a part or create a project for a theatre for little or no money, or it was felt, to tick a box for theatre funding, artists also seem to experience being picked up and dropped for the same reasons…



Producer Tanje Raaste is running arts business sessions currently at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, London –if you want to know more contact here at [email protected]


Join the ITC. It’s expensive! someone said. Do you expect them to work for free? Find the money, they’re a great organisation… they also run many extremely useful courses:

There are so many positive aspects to paying people and getting paid, what you get back in return is enormous, and it’s not only financial of course… 

Look at different business models to help you decide what is best for you:

Charity? Not-for-profit? LTD company with or without shares? Self employed?


Go to Arts Admin:

 A great website/organisation

 Look at the voluntary sector for help, examples would be:

  • Southwark Arts Forum
  • Creative Islington

There are many more, check your local council, area, for more info. All run courses, subsidised or for free and can help you and your business

  • Despite the negative way this session has spoken of theatres we agree that for every bad apple there’s a bunch of great grapes (well that’s my awful phrase, apologies) –so do look out for the theatres that do a wonderful job, that will mentor you and help you if you but go in and simply ask. This can also help the theatre who in many cases should be helping artists in such a way to tick their own ACE boxes… so embrace this.
  • If you’re starting out. If you really cannot pay anyone and have really tried. Look at profit share models where you are open and transparent about the financial part of the deal, everyone has access to ticket sales and box office reports and the budget –everyone feels ownership, everyone has agreed to be lead, and everyone is clear about the way a project will run and about how they will get paid if and when money is made. It means that everyone involved is a kind of co-producer. If run correctly, this model can function very well. Many people just want to do something.
  • WHY SHOULD ARTISTS RUN BUSINESSES EVEN THOUGH THEY MAY NOT BE THE RIGHT PEOPLE TO RUN THEM? This question was also mean to assert the idea: why not join up in partnership with someone who can run a business and wants to… It was said, however, that someone with such skills will want to be paid, to be sure they’re working with someone creating good, sellable work, etc, so in order to find this person you’d have to at least taken the first steps by yourself.
  • And this is often the way people work. For example many companies are run by or with a producer such as Fuel (Gecko (used to be?)), or Ric Watts (Analogue), or Seabright Procductions, etc… But all of these companies/artists proved themselves first before forming a relationship…


A ‘bumblebee’ arrived and charged the discussion with:





A heated debate followed. The result of which was that people felt that like it or not, a theatre company is a business, it sells its production through tickets for seats –with the theatre, and has an income (hopefully) and expenditure and budget like any other budget. Of course it’s not like being a masseur (this is what was discussed, honestly), but it is essentially business, like it or not. 

-I don’t think the word ‘business’ sullies the word art in anyway, its another creative part of being an artist and it’s the reality, we shouldn’t be afraid, or ashamed to look this reality head on in order to make a living from what we do.  

  • An example of a company who make pretty medium to large-scale work was brought up, they don’t make a profit and source funding from ACE and donators and looked to attracting entrepreneurs, if possible takings from previous shows help fund the forthcoming productions. Therefore they don’t see themselves as a business in the formal way.

-It was suggested that they were making art beyond their means, and that making large scale work can be built up to, so over years you make shows you can afford, gaining an audience and building the business and support for it up little by little, so if your ambition is to make large scale work, you can do that, after you’ve put the work in. The model sited above is great if you can get it, but not everyone can, it can’t suit everyone. It was agreed that there are ways in which companies can be good businesses, and be sustainable and independent and achieve their ambitions –but they need good business planning, to work within their means, to have help and support, etc… There’s evidence of companies working this way, and succeeding and growing, and equal evidence pointing at a large percentage of artists/companies that don’t have the knowledge to do this. How can we give them this knowledge?

-‘NEXT !’ CULTURE. Many  companies have the means to make money and a  living, they have a great production which they could tour, instead they want to create the ‘next’ thing and leave their working production to rot and die a sad and dusty death… the rep model can be a very good way of making a living, there’s a great touring network out there gagging for new shows and original work, but artists either don’t know about it or haven’t a clue how to begin touring their work and creating relationships with venues who can help them in more ways than just touring… My own company survives through this model, three of our shows are still performing to date and will continue for as long as their legs carry them.



-One lady suggest artists get out of the theatre bubble and speak to businesses and business people in the ‘real’ world who have a lot to offer and teach us 

-If you’re a company get yourself a board of advisers who can meet you 3-6 times a year. Many people with extraordinarily useful skills would love to help, surprisingly and will do it for free, or free tickets to a show, you can business mentoring advise and much more, including marketing help etc, from such a board…



A charity and enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to todays social challenges… They can perhaps help you, take a look at their website. 


–from another more experienced company –go on, just ask

–from venues, or festivals, or arts orgs… JUST ASK, if they say no, ASK SOMEONE ELSE

Apparently NPO’s are obligated to help those who ask for it, find an NPO near you and JUST ASK.

Your London Business – a blog for all businesses, perhaps we can create a blog with all this info on it for other artists who have a hunger and need for advice and to be pointed in the right direction. As communication seems to be the sticking point anything that help artists communicate is going to be very helpful…


I suggest setting up a blog or web page with all this info on it for anyone who needs it, it can be updated, people can leave tips, etc…? Or maybe this can be put on the D&D website, coming soon?


Marketing advice? Chris Cardell offers some for free, thereafter you have to pay and subscribe, but apparently his free newsletter is very useful, so go and sign up:

Creative Boom – an arts business ‘how to’ site:

Gomito Theatre Company also have an extremely useful PDF “How to set up a theatre company”, which you can look at free of charge:

Go to their downloads page…


THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO MADE THIS SUCH AN INVIGORATING, PASSIONATE AND INFORMATIVE SESSION. .. the result of which will hopefully be a blog, or webpage on the D&D site with all this info and a space for new emerging information that can help artists with their business to make a living and one that is sustainable for the long term.


Thank you!