In August we ran a month long series profiling inspiring local small business owners, and we had so much lovely feedback that we decided to continue the series on a monthly basis from here on in! We've used this opportunity to really get into the nitty gritty of running a small creative business - you know, delving into the important but often forgotten stuff like admin and book keeping secrets, apps that help small businesses with productivity, and lessons learned through good old fashioned trial and error!
Today we shine a spotlight on the art world, with a profile on Daine Singer, an inspiring young art curator and gallerist with her own gallery in Melbourne's CBD. Daine opened her art space in 2011, and she still runs the business pretty much solo - with support from an occasional casual gallery assistant, and her husband Jordan, who is an artist and art installer. Daine runs a tight ship and says the secret to staying buoyant over the past few years has been to keep overheads low, and to stay close to the book keeping!
Daine started her gallery after working in various curatorial and commercial gallery roles over the past ten years, including a role as gallery manager at Anna Schwartz, associate curator at Experimenta, and as a freelance curator. After reaching some of the career milestones that she thought she’d always wanted, Daine eventually came to the conclusion that her most rewarding work always came about when freelancing and realising her own projects. 'I saw my contemporaries running spaces and thought I could make a go of it!' says Daine.
Daine is a great champion of Australian artists, and prides herself on maintaining a careful balance between boundary pushing experimental art and more commercial work. She represents 12 emerging and established Australian contemporary artists who work across various mediums, including Minna Gilligan, Sean Bailey, Madeline Kidd, Zoe Croggon, Katherine Hattam, Andrew McQualter and Jordan Marani. Currently she's showing a beautiful exhibition by Minna Gilligan, called ‘Long time no see’ (open until October 11th!).
We asked Daine about the highs and lows of running her own gallery, and the lessons she's learnt along the way -
The gallery is a proprietary limited company and like most commercial galleries I operate on the basis of earning a commission on artwork sales. I represent 12 contemporary Australian artists. The artists I show have varied practices and are at differing career points, I aim to represent some of the most interesting individual practices.
I’m the sole director and employee so basically I do the lot: from bookkeeping to washing the glasses after openings. I’ve just started getting an assistant to help on a casual basis when the admin is getting on top of me, but as the business is getting busier I think I’ll need to expand that soon. My partner Jordan is an artist and art installer (and former co-director of Hell Gallery) so he is great when I need extra help for example for art fairs and installing exhibitions.
Officially I don’t open the gallery until midday, so I often prefer to drop my daughter to school and then work from home for a couple of hours in the morning or use that time to do gallery errands – mail, studio visits, pick up wine for openings, etc.
The working afternoon is dominated by email and admin tasks: invoicing clients, stock database management, mail outs, web updates and liaising with artists. The other side to my work is front of house – talking with visitors to the gallery about the work on display, which is more important than all of the other tasks.
I leave each day on the dot of 5.00pm to collect my daughter, though I usually end up doing some more work at home in the evenings or we go to an opening.
Saturdays are for talking with visitors and a bit of bookkeeping. The books are boring but reconciling my accounts at the end of the week always leaves me with a sense of achievement. When I started the business my accountant advised me to learn to do this myself rather than employ a bookkeeper, so I would understand where my money goes.
Once a month I’ll deinstall an exhibition on Saturday evening and then install another on the Sunday. Weekends have a way of disappearing when you own a gallery!
I don’t really have any special systems… though the art changes enormously each month, the routine of the exhibition schedule is similar month-to-month, so I feel like I have an internalised exhibition planning schedule. If I make a really good sale I buy myself something online – that’s one little ritual that helps my personal productivity!
I use MYOB for bookkeeping (it’s not nicely designed software but I’m used to it!), Mailchimp for mail outs, a Filemaker database for stock and contacts that was customized for me by Datamine Solutions, and Dropbox for backing up and sharing files.
My website was set up for me by a friend, Andy Tetzlaff, and has a very simple backend in WordPress so I can do all of the web management myself. If I do a website upgrade at some point I’ll definitely continue to use WordPress.
International freight and customs!
1. Be frugal. While many galleries have closed over the last few years one of the reasons I’m still here is that I have kept overheads low and watched every dollar. I’m wary of my overheads so have cut costs in lots of areas by calling on favours or doing tasks myself instead of outsourcing. I’ve taken the approach that I’d rather start small and grow than burden the gallery with financial risk; for example, big expenses such as art fairs can only be done when I have the money for it. As the business earns a bit more I can make improvements, such as some upgrades to the space this month and doing two art fairs this August.
2. Be nice. Particularly to your artists, visitors and colleagues – both because you should be and because it makes business sense. Too many galleries size up their visitors and judge whether they are worthy of their time. I couldn’t count the amount of times that I’ve chatted away to someone who looks like a student or just a random walk-in who turns out to be a buyer. I also see it as my duty to the artists I show to represent the artists’ work to anyone who shows any interest, whether they be buyers, the public, the artist’s family or art students. As anyone who works in retail and customer service can tell you, some customers can be a challenge, but you just have to try and bite your tongue in those instances.
3. Maintain your integrity. Keep showing/making work that you believe in. I’m a small gallery, I can’t offer artists big budgets for shows, but I can assure them that I treat their work with respect and do my best to convey it to the public in the manner they want. Likewise visitors can trust that I am showing good work that I truly believe in, rather than art that is purely commercial.
I admire Melbourne gallerists on the whole – we really do have an amazing wealth of quality small commercial galleries in Melbourne. To single out some of the hardworking individuals who are totally committed to the arts and often run their businesses on the smell of an oily rag: Vikki McInnes and Kate Barber at Sarah Scout, and Geoff Newton at Neon Parc. Also my partner Jordan Marani, who founded Hell Gallery with his ex-girlfriend. They ran it downstairs at his house and in the backyard, and pretty much showed the work of artist friends while throwing a lot of parties. He’s taught me that if I run the gallery my own way and enjoy it, then artists and audiences will hop on for the ride (and if they don’t, at least I will have done it my own way).
Daine Singer Gallery
325 Flinders Lane