Why work with an artist? Five things an artist will bring to a project
February 14, 2024

You might consider art as the diametrical opposite of business, and therefore believe artists do not belong in business. Many people may also believe that it is for the best, that the artist’s job is to critique and act against the overbearing social injustices rained down by the capitalist mill, which is powered by this thing called ‘business’. And, you know, in some ways these people may be right. However, these ideas bunch all artists up together, when the truth is artists are as varied as the humans we all are, and art is unique in its ability to operate across systems and power structures. Art has a habit of being in all the places that humans are. The good, the bad, and the ugly ones. Including the ones with monetary transactions as the basis for progress. As Herbert Read points out in his book Art & Society ‘art, is everywhere, in its manifestations, universal and eternal’.

Of course, we cannot talk about all art and all artists, and so this discussion looks at a particular modality of artistic practice and training that is predominant in the United Kingdom and the Western-centric art schools that follow this particular tradition of art making. And I must add, that this is a complex issue with multiplicities of political and social meanings, that different artists will feel strongly in different ways than others. But all the same, I believe this will offer you some food for thought and hopefully a better understanding of what artists can offer outside the gallery space and in the boardrooms.

In 1965 the artist Barbera Stevini had the rather new idea to put artists into business. She, along with her partner artist John Latham and others, formed the Artist Placement Group to ‘form a coalition of artists to enter industry itself.’ This revolutionary idea, bringing together some of the most radical and progressive artists into a coalition entering into the beast itself understood two things: firstly, that art does not sit outside society and its mechanisms; secondly that artists have unique and important skills, knowledge and training that can actually benefit both the workers and the business development itself. Artists make things better, even business. I may be biassed as an artist myself, but I tend to think she was right.

The Artist Placement Group ended up running through up until the 1980s, with offshoots still operating today. They had placements in major industries in the UK and negotiated more across Europe. The work that they did changed the way that art and artists are understood and the language used around art and industry. It is interesting to think about what might be some areas we can focus on that would be particularly pertinent to business now, a time with very different industries and business needs. 

In this article I will discuss five reasons why a contemporary business should consider working with artists, to highlight five things an artist brings to a project. I hope you find it useful, and it motivates you to bring more artists into your workplace.

One: Innovation

It has long been said that art is the testing ground. Whether that’s in its structures or in its technologies. What becomes mainstream will have been tested in the arts. This is because artists are innately innovative, kicking against the status quo and the confines of what is there, they are trained to use their imaginative potential and to have the skills (and the strength) to follow that through. Artists find new ways to do things, often with very limited resources. Having an artist on a project can bring in an innovative mindset that will open up new channels of investigation and new methods of activity.

Two: Conceptual thinking

A common misconception is that artists are primarily trained in the techniques of art technologies such as oil paints, colour theory, and visual language skills. In point of fact artists are really trained in thinking. A specific critical prodding, problem-solving, thinking. A practical yet imaginative thinking. A thinking that has results. Artists make things. An embodied thinking. It’s quite different to analytic methods and yet, when done well, it offers a conceptual integrity of equal value. For a business, this means that by consulting with an artist, you will have a conceptual understanding and vision that can offer an alternative to the standard data-driven analytic methods. Artists bring a unique perspective and creative conceptual thinking to a project.

Three: Communication

Artists are used to working across specialisms and as such they can often be very good at communicating complex ideas effectively to many different people. For example, artists will operate within technical specifications (for example one artist may develop knowledge of fabricating bamboo structures, another of photographic printmaking, and so on), alongside investigations of philosophy and theory texts, while also collaborating with community members, funders, and institutional stakeholders.

Four: Aesthetic understanding and technical skills

Although it may seem like I have brushed the aesthetic and technical concerns a little under the carpet, let’s get one thing straight here, artists are obsessive about their technical and aesthetic concerns. They each hold streams of investigation into technical and aesthetic knowledge and skills, this is how they think. But I want to put a word of warning here: artists are not designers. Artists are messy and instinctual and don’t like to follow the rules, which might be just what you need to stand out. So, bring in an artist, let them use their skills to help you shape the brand’s identity right from core values and contribute to a collaborative and dynamic team environment

Five: Leadership

Finally, let me bring in what I consider the most important aspect of an artist’s skillset. In many ways, artists have built their careers on their ability to have vision, to communicate ideas and collaborate and to follow through. Artists have also spent a lot of time thinking and discussing ideas and problems and solutions with many people, building a repertoire of support and leadership skills. If you bring an artist in on a project and allow them the independence to bring their leadership qualities to the fore you will be bringing in a strong asset to your team, a motivated and obsessive communicator with empathetic and proven and effective leadership qualities. But let me be clear, leadership is also a supportive skill, great leaders are great because they are adept at supporting and understanding what people need.   

I hope that by reading this you will have come to the realisation that I don’t think the best place for an artist in your business is with a pencil drawing a new artwork for you. No, they are better suited to defining this role in dialogue with you, through wider conversations. That in fact it is highly likely that the artist in question will not make anything artistic at all.

I believe that art should be a bigger part of all human life, that it is a fundamental part of the ecology of humanity, so I say bring in an artist to your project: let them foster a more creative culture for your business success; bring fresh innovative solutions to your business challenges; bring flexibility and adaptability in an ever-changing business landscape.

It is interesting to consider what it might mean for you to incorporate an artist into your project, both for you and for the artist. An artist is just a person like any other, and in that way, it is as open to possibility as any other encounter with any other human.

I encourage you to consider how artists will make your business better at business. And what that might look like for you and for the artist as a mutually beneficial relationship.

Along with the benefits for business owners and teams, I want us to question from an artist’s perspective, how does this impact an artistic practice? How does this dialogue between the artist and the business bring new understandings to both parties? And what might be language we can use to better formulate this artistic position?