Why the commercial world needs artists

By thinking past your art and focusing on the underlying skills that make you a good artist in the first place, you can hone the skills that make you employable in any sector.
Why the commercial world needs artists

There’s lots of ways to make a living as a creative. We’ve tended to focus on two main ways to do so: either by working as an artist, or by working in arts-adjacent roles.

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But according to Mike Hutcheson, adjunct professor at Auckland University of Technology and a mentor for TBI's Mentoring in the Arts program, there’s a third way: applying your arts skills in a commercial context. I caught up with Mike to find out what this means, and how you can do this.

A bit of background

But first, a bit of background. Mike Hutcheson has his feet in three camps: art, business and academia. He trained in fine arts, then ended up in the advertising industry. In 2004, he made the shift into academia, but he also works as a consultant to organisations looking to encourage their staff to be more creative.

Not long ago, he finished a Masters in Philosophy thesis that looked at the role of creativity in New Zealand businesses. Along the way (and helped along by his experience in the field), he developed all kinds of insights that creative people can use to make a living in the commercial world.

The artist’s eye

The main value a creative brings is 'the artist’s eye'. As an artist, you’re trained not just in your craft, but also in something deeper – the ability to look at things from different perspectives, and see things differently. 'It’s the difference between looking and seeing,' said Hutcheson.

This skill is incredibly important for problem-solving, brainstorming and identifying opportunities – all things that every organisation needs to do, every day. Your skills as an artist give you the ability to bring a lot of value to these discussions, and in turn make you valuable to the organisations having them.

Bringing ideas to the table

Over the long run, business need to be innovative. This is the process of both inventing something ,then implementing it in a way that saves or makes money. Businesses who don’t innovate will eventually get replaced by businesses who do innovate – so with this in mind, businesses don’t just need innovation, they rely on it for their very existence.

To innovate, you need a constant stream of ideas. Most of these ideas will end up rejected for one reason or the other – but some of them will be gold. Hutcheson told me, 'the people with the best ideas are the people with the most ideas.' Again, this is an area where artists can thrive. To produce your art, your brain needs to be constantly coming up with new ideas to test and refine – in other words, what artists do every day. This underlying skill is valuable in organisations that need ideas to stay alive.

Bringing a sense of beauty

At its core, business is about convincing people to buy whatever it is you’re selling. But this persuasion conversation goes much further than sales. Businesses and other organisations constantly need to convince people to to something or the other. Charities need to convince funders to give them money, employers need to convince people to work for them, and employees need to sell their managers on their ideas.

At the same time, Hutcheson said 'people like beautiful things.' As an artist, you probably have a sense for aesthetics – whether that’s beauty in an image, a photo, a sentence that connects with people, or a script that tells a compelling story. The ability to recognise, and create beauty is relevant in all sorts of areas in the commercial world, because that beauty can help with persuasion.

As an easy example, you can consider how many artists you’ll find working in fields like advertising – the advertising industry has embraced the role of beauty in their product, but they’re not alone.

Wrapping up

So if you want to make a living as an artist, think bigger. Think really big – past the art itself, and into the underlying skills that made you a good artist in the first place. Those skills can make you a real asset to any organisation, and if you apply them correctly, you can have a great career doing a version of the work you love.

Sam Grover

Monday 25 February, 2019

About the author

Sam Grover loves telling quirky stories about New Zealand’s community of artists and interviewing successful arts practitioners to gather insights about funding and commercialising their art.