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9 August 2013

An interview with Melanie Burnell on finally achieving success

Artists Info's Melanie Burnell had a lovely interview this week with Frances Follin from Casseone magazine about her journey to become Co-Founder of one of the world's leading online art galleries. Read about the trials and tribulations of creating and running a large arts centre in the height of the recession, her first attempt at online success and what she attributes to finally succeeding in the difficult world that is the art business. Read the full article in next month's Cassone: International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books. www.cassone-art.com

Casseone art copy

How did you get into the world of art, did you paint as a youngster or was a member of your family working in some aspect of art?

Art was always my favourite subject at school and my parents were very supportive of me to carve a career out from it. My dad was very good at drawing and my mum can’t even draw a stickman, so I must have got my skills from my dad! I used to want to work as a Creative Art Director in a big ad agency in London. I did my work experience at DDB Needham when I was 15 and loved it. I was good at English too so liked the idea of developing strap lines and copy as well as creating visuals. Oddly enough I found business studies at school really boring and was completely uninterested in business!

When I left school I went to Watford School of Art & Design because that was the place that I was told the top ad agency’s picked new graduates from. My areas of study included fine art, graphic design and photography. I passed with Merit two years later and got my first job as a Junior Designer in the small studio of an advertising agency local to me in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. I learned a lot from the two senior designers, Keith and Pete who mentored me and I designed logos, leaflets and POS marketing material for the company’s clients, including large blue chip drinks brands like Tia Maria and Carlsberg. I also learned how to use design programs on the mac including Photoshop, which I really enjoyed. I then got a job as a Graphic Designer at a high tech (at the time!) American-based company in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. They produced interactive kiosks for supermarkets in the UK, France, Belgium and Germany. It was a much larger company with a smart top floor open plan office. I worked in the design studio with Paula and Christian who again took me under their wing as I was young and ambitious and eager to learn. We designed the screens for the kiosks and I became proficient at designing in various mac programs. I enjoyed it very much but felt a little unsociable as a creative in the studio and sometimes wondered what it would be like to be going out with clients on the sales team.

I left at age 20 to have my daughter and was invited back when she was 7 months old but declined. I wanted to stay home a little longer with her and was enjoying decorating my flat, making a nice home for us both. I was very much into interior design and had always enjoyed painting and when she was two, I had the idea of creating bespoke artwork to match people’s decor. I was inspired by TV programs like ‘Changing Rooms’ which were very fashionable at the time (lets MDF everything!) I embarked on business courses funded by the government and was supported by The Princes Trust. I was assigned a business mentor from The Trust who helped me write a business plan and even awarded me a small loan and grant (£1500 in total.) I developed a real passion for business, especially for sales and marketing and I took various stands at House & Home exhibitions across the country, wrote press releases which got published in the local press, and began getting regular artwork and interior design commissions for domestic and commercial clients.

I loved painting but got tired of selling through commercial galleries who took such steep commissions on sales and thought there must be a better way so I set up my own directory-style art gallery in a small rented barn near Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 2007. I showcased the work of 15 artists at any one time using a different model to traditional art galleries - I rented out the spaces to the artists so that it worked like a co-operative. Everybody chipped in to exhibit but they all kept 100% of their sales. And it worked. Customers were able to purchase original art direct from artists saving a fortune and artists loved the transparency. There was no secrecy from staff fearing they would lose commission when customers wanted to find out more about an artist; or those  awkward instances when a sale is made as an indirect result of exhibiting at a gallery (is commission owed to the gallery?)

At the time social media was in it's infancy but most artists had a website and they liked the fact that their business cards were openly displayed next to their work, something commission-based galleries would never promote - why would they encourage a customer to go direct to an artist and lose out on a cut from the sale?

And therein lied the grey area. Artists were beginning to represent themselves, online. Customers were beginning to search for them too. Instead of moaning about this growing trend, we encouraged it. We had the model of a new way of exhibiting and it was exciting.

My waiting list grew for artists space and two years later, despite being at the height of the recession, I was ready to replicate my business model on a much larger scale and took on the lease of a huge, split level derelict old building in the heart of Bedfordshire. I turned it into a thriving arts centre, with a business partner. Word spread quickly and we exhibited the work of hundreds of local and emerging artists and stocked the work of many published artists too. We ran art workshops and soiree evenings, life drawing classes, offered a bespoke framing and printing service and even had an on-site family portrait photography studio! People came from miles to visit our lovely arts centre and we had ten staff. Sadly, the overheads were too high for us to sustain it and we knew we needed to make some changes in order to survive. Things were moving very quickly online, social media was really beginning to take off and so we decided we needed to move our artists online. We would create an online art gallery that connected customers directly with all our artists, linking to their own web and social sites.

It was a very stressful time. I worked at the centre by day and on the website designs by night. Even though I had never designed a website, blogged, tweeted, used Facebook or even made a purchase online I had a very clear vision of how I wanted the site to look and function. It was very complex and quite high tech (at the time) and it was a logistical nightmare gathering files and images on each and every artist. I worked on it together with a web developer for some 18 months, desperately trying to get it finished and live before the centre closed and we ran out of time and money and lost everything. I achieved it, just. We closed the centre and launched our online art gallery at the end of 2011. It should have been the solution to our problems. Although it had cost a lot to develop, we no longer had the overheads of the centre and the artists were thrilled with the site. In theory this should have been it. We had big plans for moving forward online. Unfortunately we were never able to capitalise on it. I became very ill and my business partner at the time took over the website completely. The site stagnated and dated very quickly and sadly never reached the potential we had envisaged. Although I am no longer a part of that company I am proud to say that the website I worked so hard on is still going to this day. I was sad to lose my business in the way I did at the time but things were beyond my control and I used the time during my recovery to reflect on what I'd learned and learn about new technologies & digital media.

Once I returned to full health in the summer of 2012, I went into partnership with another business associate and set to work developing Artists Info, a much higher spec version of my original site. I knew from my first site what worked and what didn't and found the whole process of development much smoother and more enjoyable. There wasn't the financial pressures involved or the immense pressure of having to launch within a certain time frame as before. I also knew much more about what I was doing this time round and I didn't feel the huge responsibility I had felt previously to my staff and hundreds of artists, reassuring them all that the transition from arts centre to website was the right thing to do and 'it will all be OK' when I was so up against it that deep down I was unsure myself.

Within weeks of launching Artists Info we were already flying up the search engines as our artists and customers blogged, tweeted and shared their favourite artists and blog posts. It is now at the top of Google and YouTube, something I never achieved with my last site. I've learned how to harness the power of social media and use video marketing and digital technology, something that I didn't know a lot about when I launched my first site. I also have the support of an amazing team of marketing specialists and technology wizards. We have over 80,000 weekly art followers and have just won an award for the best online art gallery! We are developing pioneering apps and virtual art galleries - technology has come such a long way since my first site, especially in the last year or so and I feel so lucky to have such an amazing team working with me.

Artists Info is quickly establishing an international reputation for discovering and representing talented artists from across five continents and we are moving with the times. We are currently developing phenomenal 3D virtual galleries and a pioneering new app store which uses the latest cutting edge Augmented Reality to digitally show art in situ, to scale and in 3D. Things I never imagined could be possible in my wildest dreams are now happening. It's an incredibly exciting time. We are developing an art social media site and online art magazine as well as many other exciting projects. We have a great team, a strong vision and a strong following and I feel like I'm finally achieving what I set out to do all those years ago, and more.

What do you find is the biggest difference between working in a conventional gallery and working through an online gallery?

Buying and selling art online is now a huge industry. Massive. Amazon have just launched an online gallery. Rebecca Wilson, a Director of Saatchi Gallery was recently quoted saying they sell more art in a month than most bricks and mortar galleries do in a year. A recent report by the BBC reported that buying art online is now becoming an industry norm. It is an industry worth an estimated £40bn and is estimated to be growing by 20% each year. That's a market that I want to tap into and with great technology now available like Augmented Reality we are developing awesome view- art-in situ apps and virtual galleries to make the experience really quite something. Since launching Artists Info the biggest difference for me is the work load. There is no constant hanging of work and organising spaces. Everything is digital making things much easier. There are also not the huge overheads which takes a lot of pressure off. For time-poor customers who want to buy original art but don’t have the time to trawl art galleries, buying art online from an easy to navigate site like ours is a great solution. And for artists there is no insurance to worry about, manning an exhibition or the logistics of lugging their art around! There is also much less expense involved with exhibiting online and you can showcase more work. It's easier, faster to exhibit, organise, browse and purchase. WIN/WIN/WIN!

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