Turning Artists Into Entrepreneurs

Turning Artists Into Entrepreneurs

The image of a solitary artist painting on a canvas in a quiet secluded studio, oblivious to the business world that revolves around him, is about to change. At the Malaysian National Art Gallery (Balai Seni) a “movement” is underway, initiated by its Director General, to transform that image by involving artists more actively in business, ultimately turning them into art entrepreneurs.

A small group of dedicated staff assisted by a team of professionals is forging ahead with a new found mission to turn visual artists into entrepreneurs. As a first step, Balai Seni recently acquired twelve used shipping containers. They are parked at the rear entrance of the gallery and have been repainted in bright colors, refurbished, air-conditioned and aesthetically stacked, to house seven young artists, handpicked to pioneer this bold venture to change the mindset of visual artists to make them more business savvy.


This is a lifelong dream of its Director General, Dato’ Dr. Mohamad Najib who is a self-made entrepreneur himself, before venturing into academia and eventually helming the National Art Gallery.

As a young artist who once struggled to make a living from peddling batik paintings on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, he confessed that he and his colleagues who started selling their wares in front of Wisma Yakin and later at Pasar Seni in 1980s, would be better off in their careers, had they been adequately exposed to some knowledge on how to run a business.

He said, “As artists, we had no idea about forming a company, prepare a business plan, or roll out a marketing strategy, much less apply loans from financial institutions!”

Disillusioned with dwindlingg sales in his batik paintings during the recession of the 1990s, he abandoned street life and made his way to Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), to study fine art. Later, he pursued his master’s and doctorate overseas and was subsequently appointed Dean of the School of Fine Art at USM.

“Regrettably”, he said, “fine art schools, locally and abroad only focus on teaching techniques without adequately preparing their students to enter the business world”.

As a result, he added, “Many of our visual art graduates are not as successful as they should be!” He cited several cases of graduates who moonlighted between tedious day jobs, for instance working as waiters in cafes, in order to pursue their passion for art. Yet they are other talented artists who have unfortunately sacrificed their chosen profession for their entire life, to work in unrelated fields, just to survive.

Dato’ Dr. Mohamad Najib is determined to convert as many ordinary visual artists, as he possibly can, into business savvy individuals. He wants them to be able to sustain themselves and profit from their chosen vocation.

He is not alone in trying to realize this dream. The gallery’s board of directors is equally committed to assist young artists by giving them an opportunity to attend this Bootcamp-cum-residency at Balai Seni, and equipping them with necessary skills to thrive in an economy that is now becoming more accommodative towards visual artists.

Young Art Entrepreneurs (YAE)

To help him attain his goal he formed a “Young Art Entrepreneur” subcommittee of the board, made up of professionals and executives from Balai Seni, headed by Johan Ishak, the CEO of MyCreative Ventures. This committee too is equally sold on the idea that visual artists should be trained to sustain themselves and profit from their careers with appropriate exposure in entrepreneurial skills.

The committee deliberated at great lengths on approach and methodology for selection and training of participants. They settled for a five day intensive Bootcamp followed by a six-month residency with the artists housed in cabins parked on the gallery rounds. Not wanting to be overly aggressive in this first ever venture, the committee chose only seven candidates from a list of applicants obtained through social media advertising, to undergo Bootcamp training starting 17th July, 2017.


The training prospectus, distributed to participants, describes it as “an introductory course on entrepreneurship that focuses on required skills needed to succeed as an entrepreneur in visual art”.

Mindful that participants, who may be unaccustomed to entrepreneurship, the Bootcamp is designed to acquaint them with basic understanding of the fundamentals of sustainability and profitability in visual art, including exposure to strategic planning, bookkeeping, finance, business law, sales and marketing.

The Bootcamp too, offers participants an opportunity “to learn how to utilize creativity in business innovation and career development by changing their mindset from that of an artist towards becoming more of an entrepreneur”.

The Prospectus indicates that throughout the six month residency period, participants would be guided by dedicated mentors and experienced coaches to develop required mindset, knowledge, understanding and specific skills needed to smoothen their transition as an ordinary artist to becoming more of an entrepreneurr in visual art.

It further suggests that by the end of the six month, participants are encouraged to “choose whether they want to be an art professional or an owner of an art business or a combination of both”.

Mentors and Trainers

During the forty contact hours of Bootcamp training, the Young Art Entrepreneur committee members and invited guest speakers interacted with participants and freely shared their entrepreneurial experience.

On the very first day, Johan Ishak introduced the concept of business planning and showed participants what investors expected to see in the Business Plans of potential applicants, including the young artists themselves who might, someday, turn to MyCreative Ventures or any financial institution   for loans or investments.

Later, Low Ngai Yuen, President of Persatuan Kaki Seni followed with a two-hour intensive workshop to change mindset of participants to become more positive towards entrepreneurship and in developing their own personal branding strategies.

Another committee member Winston Peng, from Vedas Art and President of National Arts Symposium who has devoted a great deal of his time researching on the Malaysian art scene, spoke on the nation’s Art Ecosystem and showed our young artists the importance of their roles, as key players, in the nation’s art industry.

The fourth committee member Sheikh Taufiq, a Corporate Adviser shared his experience on fundraising and examined how grant agencies, angel funders as well relevant stakeholders might be able to assist our art entrepreneur source funds for their business.

The committee members are supported by other independent entrepreneurs. Among them is Dato’ Bruce Umemoto who hails from California and is now a resident in Kuala Lumpur. His entrepreneurial skills helped Melaka attract a large American manufacturer of solar panels to establish a production facility in the state. He showed participants the importance of business planning and why they need to be entrepreneurial to succeed in any venture. An avid photographer himself, Dato’ Bruce shared with participants his passion for photography and what motivated him to follow his dreams.

Another speaker is Mohamed Jafni aka Mat Jepp who is a respected man in the video and film industry, spoke to the artists on the importance of web presence and how to circumvent a variety of problems to sell online. He illustrated his talk with a variety of video clips that captivated audience and drives traffic to his site.

But most daunting of all, for the young artists, is accounting and taxes. Syakirah Hanim, a chartered accountant, who is pursuing a degree in Master of Finance, helped alleviate their fear and advised them on how to budget to set aside funds for the tax man.

A private investment adviser Jeshida Kamal had a long chat with participants on how to reach high net worth individuals in the country through her network. While Melissa Low from MyCreative Ventures and her two colleagues welcomed participants to exhibit their creative pieces at the upcoming Riuh in August and September that will feature pop-up stores, creative workshops and live performances.


After the Bootcamp, participants will be able to further deepen their understanding of business planning, budgeting, basic bookkeeping, financial management, contract negotiation and fund raising, by completing hands-on exercises or prepare papers for submission to relevant authorities.

For instance, they will be required to apply for grants to finance their own specific projects. They will also be encouraged to apply for residency overseas to gain international exposure. In both cases their assigned mentors would assist them in preparing their curriculum vitae, an artist statement, mission, vision and budgets for submission. They would also get a chance to rehearse their pitching techniques to perfection.

During the same period, they will be guided to form their own sole proprietorship, register a brand at the Malaysian Intellectual Property Office (MyIPO), open a bank account, practice controlling their expenses, keep proper records using a pre-prepared computer application that will ultimately prove handy when it comes to filing for taxes in the following years.

To those who are already accustomed to business, these may sound basic. But for the young art novices, these concepts are indeed new. Throughout the Bootcamp, they questioned their mentors as to why they needed to register a company when they have been selling their creative work without one? Or why they would need a brand to promote themselves? Or why they would have to open a bank account, if they could transact in cash? Or even why they should bother paying taxes, since they were merely small time artists, earning merge incomes?

Changing Mindset

Over five days of intensive lectures and discussion, coaches managed to change the mindset of these artists and reorient them towards becoming more business savvy. At the end of five days they were convinced that they would need those tools to get ahead as an artist-cum-businessmen who are expected to conduct their activities responsibly and ethically in Malaysian society or elsewhere in the world.

They are now eager to prepare their creative art work using their basic knowledge of project planning that will allow them to be ready in time for various events and shows that they have committed themselves to, from August to end of December 2017 and far into 2018.

With knowledge gained from Bootcamp alone, they are now ready for Riuh organized by MyCreative Ventures in August and September, the Malaysian Art Expo in October, an exhibition at Balai Seni Creative Space in December and a charity auction of their creative pieces in January 2018.

Also, on their own initiative, the team has secured an invitation to hold a team exhibition in the Maldives during first quarter of 2018. They are already busy getting organized putting to good use tools acquired, to prepare for the exhibition.


Feedback from participants thus far, is very positive. At the end of the Bootcamp, Jesicca Kuok (23) who graduated with a diploma in Fine Art from the Malaysian Institute of Art, reechoed the wish of the Director General when she said, “I came into this course with zero knowledge but after only five days I have learnt so much on how to do business, as an artist!” She had never taken any course in management previously and had no knowledge of business planning and marketing strategy. Prior to the Bootcamp, Jesicca had obtained a research grant to study cross-cultural art. Now she is confident of getting more awards simply because she has discovered a better way of writing for funds and an effective method of pitching before a panel of judges.

To Afiq Othman aka “Bob Sopan” (29) a graduate of UiTM, the course is an eye opener where business planning is concerned. He is now able to prepare a business plan to upgrade his studio in Tanjung Malim. A friendly donor had promised a substantial fund for the purpose, on condition that Afiq submitted a business plan. He has been delaying the submission for almost a year because he does not know where to begin. The Bootcamp is his life line. “Now I can submit my proposal!” says Afiq with a sigh of relief. “I kept postponing month after month, because I just didn’t know how to write one!”

On the other hand, Teh Nadirah (27) who has a Master in Fine Art, the Bootcamp and the design of the course is far superior compared to all courses she followed on campus. She said she did take some components of entrepreneurship at the university but this Bootcamp is more practical. “This course is true to life. I can apply everything I learned immediately. And it is specifically focused on visual art. The entrepreneurship course on campus was very general, without any connection to visual art, at all! I certainly appreciate the caring attitude of our instructors. They are so helpful….!”

Meanwhile, Fong Yeng Yeng (22), when asked to pitch, responded  “Wow, I was so nervous! I have never spoken on camera before! I became more relaxed only after I was advised to take three deep breaths and to read the script that the professor, at our Bootcamp, wrote for me. Now, I know, next time, when I have to speak on camera I will write the speech first and breathe deeply before I talk, to stop from shaking!” She is excited about having her own small business with her own logo that she could put on her paintings and use the opportunity given by Balai Seni to show to the world her creative skills. “I cannot wait to participate in exhibitions planned for us!”

Another participant is Ahmad Fikril (24) who is dyslexic finds the Bootcamp challenging at first because he takes a longer time to read and understand materials handed out in class. However, he says the Bootcamp is “enjoyable” because for the first time in his life he is exposed to business management in simple clear language. “Before this course I knew next to nothing about business. I only knew how to draw. But now I understand what the Balai Seni is trying to do. I think they want us to know that we can go very far in art business with the help we get from instructors and mentors here! I also enjoyed listening to speakers who are all very knowledgeable”. He added that he would be able to do better in business once he has registered a company, print his own calling cards and create a brand for himself that will be trademarked with Malaysian Intellectual Property Office. “Basic accounting skills I learned in class will also help me prepare accounts…for myself and for taxes, required by Lembaga Hasil Dalam Negeri (Internal Revenue Board)”

Fikril’s close friend, Muhammad Farhanshah Mohd. Zaini (23) who is one year his junior recently graduated from UiTM felt that the Bootcamp is “very good and will certainly open not only my mind but will show me how to make my plans more systematic. In fact, after the Bootcamp, I am more confident about participating in art business. I have made up my mind that after my residency here, at Balai Seni I would like to venture overseas to do shows in Abu Dhabi, Maldives and elsewhere!”

Last but not least is Abdul Mohsin bin Aminuddin (30) who initially wanted to know how to venture into the interior design business, got more than what he bargained for when he enrolled in the Bootcamp and made a commitment to be on site at the Young Art Entrepreneur camp for six months. He was only interested to sell his work directly to hotel owners instead of going through interior design companies that were excessively profiteering from his creative effort. But he found friendship and although the oldest he was able to fit into the team quite easily. “The Bootcamp offered us an insight into how to better run our art business!” He felt that in just forty hours he was exposed to many ideas that could make him a better businessman. “I have accepted the offer to participate in the Young Art Entrepreneur because I know I can use it as a launching pad to better promote myself in the art industry. Some may not see this opportunity but for those willing to put in the extra effort, the returns will be tremendous!”


Has the Bootcamp changed the mindset of these young artists? Would they become art entrepreneurs by end of January 2018 when they complete their residency at Balai Seni? Can the Director General now take credit for having converted this pioneering group into entrepreneurs?

Only time will tell. But for now, the words of these artists have partly proven Dato’ Dr. Mohamed Najib’s contention that visual artists could go further and will likely become more successful when they are given some entrepreneurial skills and provided with basic tools in business management.

In fact, compared with those unfortunate ones who entered the art business world without any entrepreneurial skills, the seven Young Art Entrepreneur participants are indeed better prepared to face future challenges in the market place.

Dato’ Dr. Mohamed Najib and his colleagues at the Balai Seni may want to congratulate themselves for initiating this movement, knowing full well that these seven young artists have shown us that they have seen the value on the need to be more business savvy in their chosen profession.

That they have also seen the reasons for changing their mindset and stepping out of the quiet confines of their own studios to be actively involved in the business world and participate meaningfully in the nation’s goal to develop our very own art industry.

Obviously, we can safely conclude that it is almost impossible to turn ordinary artists into entrepreneurs overnight or make them into businessmen in six short months. But as demonstrated, you can successfully impart knowledge on business management over forty contact hours to help ordinary artists to

Improve themselves and learn to conduct their business more effectively and systematically.


Dr. Abdul Rahim Said
Business Coach and Mentor,
Young Art Entrepreneur,
National Art Gallery (Balai Seni)
Kuala Lumpur
31st July, 2017