Be Smart About Art

Yes, you may pick my brain... at a price

written by: Susan Mumford Aug. 3, 2014 1) RECOMMENDED-> Susan's weekly blog post 4434 views

Yes, you may pick my brain... at a price

from our Sunday reading series - a weekly blog post (subscribe here)

The more experienced and widely known you are, the more people will want to know what you know. It’s flattering, and sharing knowledge is the best thing any of can do. At the same time, valuing your own time must be non-negotiable.

I frequently come across people whose careers are exploding or who have already arrived, and they’re experiencing some new challenges that come with it. They’re creating new works of art, exhibiting at fairs, curating and staging shows. As much as they want to help people at earlier stages, they’re time challenged with what they already have on their plates.

A few years back, I started receiving requests from individuals who wanted to “pick my brain”. It’s initially flattering for sure, but there’s a problem: people who are often asked this are usually short of time to spare, too.

I would love to have all the time in the world to be able to share what I know. But this is the real world, and time is precious.

Here’s what I do:

My first rule is this: Help students, if their area of study is relevant.

I highly value education, and sometimes help students who are researching for specific projects. I’m particularly likely to help someone at MA or PhD level. Students at BA level or below normally speak with someone else in the Be Smart About Art team, or are recommended to someone we know.

My second rule (for everyone else) is to arrange a value exchange, which may or may not be monetary.

In my work, I talk a lot about the concept of value. Monetary is but one form.

A researcher who had a huge list of questions for me was able to “pick my brain” for an hour, while we were simultaneously photographed for BSAA’s photo library. I was able to give him vital insight into the industry, and he was modeling for images of one-to-one sessions (which are otherwise confidential, and thus aren’t suitable for photographic sessions).

When you find that you are reluctant to accept “picking your brain” meetings, with the knowledge that if you accept you will be annoyed with yourself for doing so, it’s time to be honest with yourself, as well as the other person. Sometimes, it means not meeting at all, and other times, you’ll find yourself in a win-win value exchange.

Remember that you run a business, not a charity. Much like the key principle of first aid, you need to look after yourself first and foremost to be in a position to help others. 

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Photographs © Chris King.

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I agree that key information should be traded in certain circumstances.
I have struggled and worked hard all my life to acquire the information and skills I need to run my business.
I have recently had two people doing work experience with me. They learned skills first hand and had their lunch and transport paid for them and they also helped me to achieve a deadline.

Likewise, I offer a mould making and bronze casting course for people to get specific knowledge. And the cost is low considering the price I have paid for the knowledge over the years.

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Posted by : Diane Harper 03/08/2014 19:57

I like that you brought up this topic. In Little Rock, I started a loosely organized group of artists from various disciplines at various points in their careers who meet weekly at a coffee shop for breakfast. I have a total of 30 artists on my email list who come in and out, but there's usually anywhere from 10-15 at breakfast weekly. I am almost always there and am the defacto "leader." The value of this group is immeasurable in terms of support, information, leads, ideas, critique, etc. There's no format, but we start with about 15 minutes of chatter and getting caught up with each other, then take the rest of the time for updates on where people are in their art endeavors, updates on upcoming exhibits, question and answer re: art biz topics, looking at an artist of interest on the web, or in books, etc. This time allows new artists to get to know the more established experienced artists. We make connections that otherwise would not have happened. Its one way to share what you know without thinking you're giving it away.

I helped one artist in the group who has decades worth of experience establish a consulting fee. For meetings outside of the group, she can choose if she wants, to charge for the time. For example, I use her services as a "guest curator" when I hang certain group shows. I have less experience than she does, and she doesn't want to give away her knowledge so I can make money. Although she is one of my closest friends, I don't want to take advantage. So I track her hours and pay her an hourly rate that we both agree on ahead of time. I pay her after the shows when I am paying the artists. We've done this twice with good results. I am learning from her and she is getting paid for it.

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Posted by : Susan Mumford 03/08/2014 19:40

Claire -

You are absolutely right that 'giving' is important in this world, and that you do stand to get something in the return... Although that is not why one gives in the first place. You might be interested in a saying coined by BNI (Business Networking International): "Giver's Gain". It's exactly the principle of which you write.

It is also essential that people in the art world share knowledge as yes, the old art world held knowledge close to the chest. Thankfully in the 21st Century, transparency and collaboration are being encouraged, of which I and all of Be Smart About Art are a big proponent. This is why I started the 'Daily #besmartaboutart tip' on Twitter back in 2010, and continue it to this day. I also write this blog post to share knowledge, and offer free webinars for every single person who is keen to continue learning in and about the art world.

Sometimes though, one is approached by an individual, and the tone is along the lines of, "I know that you don't have much time, but I'm new in my role as Gallery Manager and would really like to pick your brains." It's very much a 'take', and not at all 'give' mentality. If the other person is more considerate in their approach and at least makes an effort to give something in return, even if it's that they will invest in the cuppa tea and a piece of cake, the response stands to be different. In other words, they're recognising that there is value to be gained, and are of the mindset that suggests they will return the favour in future times.

What is essential here is that people value their own time and expertise. An hour of your time is not literally one hour, for it's the accumulation of your many years' experience. If you do meet people, make certain that they make it easy on your end; for example, meet at a coffee shop round the corner from your studio / gallery.

So if you are to meet people, try to meet the right people. And if you are approached by someone who you think wants to take too much or you get the wrong vibe, please be sure to set clear parameters and if appropriate, create an exchange of value.

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My first thought about this is: I wish more established artists were more giving in their knowledge and experience. They make all the right noises at the time, but it soon dwindles, or never really materialises. Yes time is often the issue, but I feel it's more than this.

I have worked professionally as an artist for about 10 years. I'm one of the few that can just about pay my way, but it's non stop. Now and then I get emails or asked from either graduates, or as often, artists who have been practising for a long time. For the graduates the first question is usually 'should I take the risk and go straight into it or should I get a job first.' Never an easy one to answer. For the the older artist it is usually about marketing and such related things.

Recently I helped an artist get a double page spread and front cover in a well established local publication. What do I get in return? I suppose at first it's the gratification of giving and helping. I like it. I'm able to do it, even though I'm relatively time poor. And perhaps it's working on the premise that if not now, at some point people remember and the giving is reciprocated (I can see you nodding and saying 'Yeah but...'). If I was to do a lot more it would become a different thing and I would want the return. Right now, artists can and need to give a little bit to one another. There's no harm in it and a little help and encouragement goes a long way. Many work in isolation (I for one do) and though it's the only way I can work, I long for the community of other artists too.