Be Smart About Art

'My mission is to help people in the art world survive and thrive'

written by: Sarah Woodley / University of the Arts London Nov. 11, 2013

'My mission is to help people in the art world survive and thrive'

Susan Mumford founded Be Smart About Art to support artists, art dealers and creatives to make a living doing what they love. Here, she talks about her own career, and also gives tips on getting a good life-art balance

You’re an entrepreneur in the art world – what first inspired you to go down that route?

I grew up in the Deep South of the US, in Arkansas, and there was nowhere to see real art. So I learned about art from books and became fixated with photography at the age of nine, when I got my first point-and-shoot camera. At the same time I started forming neighbourhood clubs – to provide services like leaf-raking. So from an early age I was combining creativity with entrepreneurialism.

You graduated with a degree in fine art in the States. How did you establish a career in the art world?

Within eight weeks of graduating, in 2000, I had moved to London. I had three months’ worth of savings and soon realised that no one in the art world was interested in the little girl from Arkansas. If I wanted to establish a career in the field, I would have to pay my way while I was doing it. So I got a job in retail management, then went part-time and offered my services to the Special Photographers Company two days a week for free. I opened the door to the artworld myself and three months in told the director that he could either offer me a paid job or I would go elsewhere. He offered me a job!

Many artists start out by juggling lots of different roles. Was that your experience in the early days?

Definitely. By 2004 I was doing a part-time Masters in Arts Management and Policy at Birkbeck University. I was also working in a sculpture gallery part-time, working in retail part-time and doing freelance work as a curator. I used to wake up every morning and say ‘Who am I today?’ It was hard but I’m very grateful for the experience, especially the retail management. I learnt lots about how to manage change, and how to motivate people. It prepared me for setting up my own gallery.

Tell us about that 

I decided I wanted to become an art dealer, and did that from my flat for over a year. Then in 2006 I set up my own gallery, Mumford Fine Art, in Soho. Nothing can prepare you for having your own business and you learn on your feet. In the early days I faced daily challenges such as finding artists with whom to work, working out how to do the accounts or set up contracts and deciding whether I should be a sole trader or limited company.

A few years on, I described the experience like being dropped into a sea of sharks. At one point, I got into a bad contract with an extortionate fee that I had to negotiate my way out of. If I had to give one tip to people setting up their own business it would be this: don’t make a single decision without first talking to people you trust, or who have your best interests at heart. Even if your family don’t seem interested in what you are doing, involve them as they really do care! Mentors are also really important too, and these days, there are loads of great workshops available to attend in addition to readily available online resources.

Was the gallery a success?

The answer to this question always depends on one’s definition of success! I was doing okay for a startup until the credit crunch in 2008 and then it changed overnight. We were set to launch our highest turnover exhibition of the work of a major Modern British artist, when everything unraveled. Many art collectors were running around like headless chickens unsure about what to do with their money, and by 2009 most art dealers’ sales had dropped off the cliff. By the end of 2010, I felt I had learned how to run a business, thanks to going through such difficult times, and I ceased trading. In hindsight, I can now see the silver lining of the whole experience. It means I am in a position to advise others going through similar things, based on practical experience, rather theory. It was during that time that I also set up the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD). 

Tell us more about Be Smart About Art

After the gallery, I set up an art consultancy, in which I was managing interesting art projects ranging from doctor’s surgeries to private residences. Then I was informally approached by an artist seeking advice and support. I felt I had found my niche and offered the service on my website. In under 24 hours, I had another two appointments! I was able to use my earnings through these ventures to finance Be Smart About Art (BSAA), which launched in 2012. Our aim is to inspire and advise art dealers, artists and creatives to advance their practices and develop successful businesses doing what they love. We offer talks, worskhops, webinars and mentoring, and also have an ever-growing Members Network.

What’s the philosophy behind it?

Our strapline is: Art is your life. Make it your living. My number one piece of advice for people trying to launch a career in the art world is to do a part-time job, no matter what it is, and keep it going for as long as possible, even if you have to do your art in the evenings. It takes time for a creative business to be profitable, and longer for it to be sustainable. And there are other benefits to part-time work too. You will build networks, you will gain social skills, lots of practical experience and you will get another perspective. When my gallery hit problems I had to take a part-time job in retail management to keep things afloat. At the time I was embarrassed, but now I say to people, if you don’t like your part-time job, be thankful. You will gain a lot from it.

Where do you want to go next?

Financially, I decided I didn’t want to get outside investment until we had established a proven business model. My one-to-one mentoring has financed BSAA to date, as well as the events we run and the Members Network.

But I want to use our website to reach people. Having grown up 2,000 miles away from New York City before the age of the internet, I am passionate about accessibility. As a result, I am dedicated to supporting people who don’t live in London, or who might be busy looking after a young family or elderly relatives. That’s why we offer webinars and audio-recordings, and are actively expanding the online offering. We will be launching a webshop at the end of the year, and as we grow we will need to find investors.

What have been the high points for you?

For me, it’s about helping people in this industry survive and thrive. Having worked full-on in the private sector I feel I can use my practical experience to benefit others. And the high points for me are every time people tell me that I have helped them in some way.

I recently ran a workshop with two art dealers, and told them how to recoup framing costs, while also make a little profit. Within the week, they emailed me to say they had put that in place, which had already paid for the costs of the workshop. In another instance, a successful sculptor emailed to say he had read one of my blogs, about creating time you didn’t realise you had. He was combing his practice with a day job job to support his family and realised the best time for him to create art was in the morning. So he got up an hour earlier to work on the sculpture, and this small change had made a huge difference in his life.

I’m passionate about working in 21st-century ways, and moving on from the traditional, 9-5 model. I’m also very mindful about what a person has to be grateful for in this precious life, and as a result laugh a lot while working hard. If someone asks me if my glass is half empty, or half full, I say neither… My glass is overflowing!

Susan Mumford gave a talk, Juggling a day job with an art career, at Creative Enterprise Week on Tuesday 19 November 2013. 

See the original article on the University of the Arts London website here