Georgina Adam chats with Francesca Bellini-Joseph for Art Mavens

news Apr 25, 2021
Art Mavens exclusive interview aout ACT
Published in Art Mavens on the 21st of April, 2021.

GA: Francesca, tell me a bit about yourself…

FBJ: Hi Georgina! I am from Colombia, and I have lived and worked in London for over a decade. I have been a faculty member of online studies at Sotheby’s Institute Global Online since 2014. Work during the pandemic became much busier!

I am also co-chair of the International Council of the Maeght Foundation in the South of France and a TATE Executive Committee and TATE Latin American acquisition committee member. ExCo supports acquisitions, conservation, displays and learning initiatives, while LAAC supports regional acquisitions for the permanent collection. I support other art institutions such as Delfina, Gasworks, Flora Ars + Natura and MAMBO. 

I studied Fine Arts, but I left my practice shortly after graduating to write for a national newspaper. As you know better than anyone, it consumed all my time! But it was a special moment in my life, which marked the beginning of my career working in different capacities in the art world. 

In 2012 I did an MA in Art Business at Sotheby’s, which was a milestone in my life and career. My head exploded with ideas and possibilities, many of which haven’t rundown yet!  All these academic and professional experiences are key to understanding everything we will talk about today.

GA: And now you have conceived and launched ACT! What is it?

FBJ: Yes! The Art Career Transformation, ACT!, is a platform that offers professional development programmes to artists, galleries and other participants in the art world. The ACT programmes are not courses in the typical sense. We have designed our programmes based on a do-it-with-you model, which means they must play the game instead of sitting on the grandstand clapping while others do the work for them, or tell them what to do.

Two programmes are currently available— one for artists and one for galleries. The ACT Gallery Programme is for mid-size galleries, and it lasts six weeks. We work on three modules, namely Audience, Market, and Website. Galleries take it to improve their SEO rankings, but they soon realise the extent of its impact on their overall business.

‘Getting it across: communicating your art practice’ is a 4-week intensive programme for artists looking to improve the way they communicate. Participants have scored the programme 9.9 out of 10 points on our programme's positive impact on their professional lives. 

ACT! is the result of 20 years in the art world since going to art school in the early 2000s. Everything I’ve ever done is represented in ACT. And although most of it I have done for a few years now, the lockdown allowed me to develop a format to reach more people worldwide. We have had participants from the West Coast to Bangladesh, from Saudi to Bolivia, taking these sessions. It’s truly international!

GA: ACT! is the result of the research you carried out before starting it. Can you tell me more about that research, how you carried it out, and what were your findings?

FBJ: I wanted to test if my personal experience going to art school still stood up. So, I surveyed nearly 200 artists globally about their career struggles and the professional skills they wished to develop. I was fortunate to receive support from Delfina Foundation and Gasworks in London, Residency Unlimited in New York, and NC-arte and Flora in Colombia, which shared the survey with their artist networks.

I found that artists experience three main problems in their careers: they lack the visibility they want, feel unrewarded reputationally and financially, and lack confidence, probably due to the previous two. And, if you think about the three problems as a constellation, artists' biggest fear lies in the centre— fear of selling out.

Surprisingly, artists can experience these problems across age groups. We tend to believe senior artists are more confident than younger artists, but it’s not necessarily the case. They can feel dissatisfied about their career achievements, making a dent in their self-esteem. I also found an overwhelming interest in developing communication and networking skills from all age groups—even younger ones, which indicates that art education hasn’t made much improvement in this respect.

None of the findings surprised me, except for one. I found that 76% of respondents were interested in understanding their role in the art market. I was expecting nearly zero interest for that question! I guess it helped that the survey was anonymous. 

I also surveyed international art collectors who sit at museums’ acquisition committees or have leading collecting practices for the gallery programme. I wanted to develop metrics from qualified respondents, who we define as people who care about artists and art institutions. The numbers are probably less than the entire art buyer population, but we want to focus on quality responses above all else. 

The survey focuses on customer service in the gallery sector, a term we rarely use in the art world. Galleries taking the ACT Programme have access to these metrics and the customer satisfaction barometer we have developed exclusively for this training.

GA: How do attendees participate?

FBJ: Enrolment is by application. We want to make sure we work with individuals and organisations that align with our principles and values. We must fit in with them, and they must fit in with us. 

It can vary a bit from programme to programme. But in general, participants have Zoom sessions where they either define and solve problems, prepare for their assignments, practice delivering a pitch, network, and more. 

Every participant has access to an e-Training platform where they must complete tasks. They find information, exercises, resources and a workbook. They can post on the discussion forum anytime during the programme, which is great for galleries because they don’t need to wait until the next Zoom session to answer their questions. We’re in constant communication. 

Artists spend more time online interacting with the content, posting their assignments, getting feedback and helping each other. It is great to see them giving feedback and suggestions to their peers after just a few days through the programme. The level of collaboration is fantastic to experience as a tutor. Some artists choose to get in touch on Zoom to practice their pitch, compare notes and learn about others' practices. We don't ask them to do that, but we love to inspire them.

GA: So what do those attending learn by doing ACT!?

FBJ: For us, it is more about what they gain than what they learn. Sure, they learn methodologies for developing a pitch, writing a statement or website content, networking, defining problems, optimising SEO, growing an audience, and much more. We give them practical and effective methods for answering all their how-to needs.

We are more interested in what they want to achieve with these how-tos, though. We focus on the importance of understanding their audience and improving their engagement online and offline. From working in the gallery sector before and collecting now, I see the profound empathy gap between sellers and buyers. For us, it is essential to develop empathy. This is the main driver of why we have created modules, exercises and assignments focusing on audiences. 

Our most important success metric is the extent to which our programmes can positively impact our participants’ work and life. We monitor this constantly through our satisfaction surveys. Currently, we score nearly 10 out of 10 points in both programmes. This is fantastic! From the feedback, we can see they appreciate the clarity, confidence and energy they gain from doing the work. 

GA: And you have already started - who are your first participants?

FBJ: Yes, we started in January. We now have a group of 20 artists finishing the communication programme. They come from New Zealand, Lebanon, Saudi, Slovenia, the UK, the US, and Bolivia to name a few. Most have done residency programmes in Delfina, Gasworks, Residency Unlimited and Flora. Older participants have their work represented in international museum collections. All of them place significant value to the institutional endorsement of their careers. This is the artist profile we want to support. 

We are also working with galleries of a size somewhere between $1m to $10m annual turnover. They must have online rankings competition for their artists to gain something from doing the ACT Gallery programme. Although we see much more than SEO and online presence, online rankings are a good way to test a gallery’s eligibility for this programme

We are soon launching a programme for art businesses with a turnover below these figures. There are so many in the world with wonderful initiatives and exciting artist rosters that struggle to grow a sustainable business. So watch this space. 

GA: And tell me about your plans for the future, how are you going to expand and in which fields?

FBJ: We are expanding the reach of our current programmes to attract international artists and galleries. We want to offer our training to art schools, associations, art fairs, and institutions. As our natural partners, they can play a significant role in addressing the problems we have identified. We are surfing the same wave, and we share the goal of making the art world sustainable.   

The programme development pipeline is enormous! We will launch the ACT Growth Programme this Summer, catering to galleries and art businesses with a size of around or less than $1-million annual turnover. 

Adding modules to the artist programme is a priority. The next one is on commercial models where they will develop various skills from self-management and productivity to using NFTs to protect their work. 

I constantly receive so many ideas about what to do next: “you should do this…”, “this topic would be so useful..”, “we need that…”  I invite everyone — artists, gallerists, curators, educators, and more — to tell us here about the professional pain points they most struggle with and for which they wish you could learn a skill to solve them. We want to develop programmes people really need!

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Learn about the available programmes and download the infographic from our website, www.actprogramme.io.