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“I’ve been working harder than ever to keep my artists motivated”

Artist and art agent, Jehane Boden Spiers talks taking art virtual during the pandemic and why remaining pro-active is imperative.

What single word comes to mind when you think about your business in 2020?

Perhaps it’s ‘pandemic’ or ‘COVID-19’. For many in business, the first word will undoubtedly be ‘pivot’. In business terms, a pivot is intended to help recovery from a tough period or survive new competition or other factors that challenge the sustainable business model.

Prior to lockdown in March, the emerging virus was disrupting the UK sector. Conversations with my clients at the Spring Fair in early February were anxious – production in China was already shutting down. My appointments at the London Book Fair were first to be cancelled, followed by Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and subsequently my trip to New York to exhibit at Blueprint Surface Pattern & Design Show. All were significant events in attracting new business. High street retail was brought to a halt as the world went online.

Those early days were tough. Unforgettable for us all. The success of this industry is built on the sum of so many moving parts. It has been incredible to see the solidarity offered, the conversations shared and the profound effect of the world sharing this unprecedented global experience.

Jehane published Caring Colouring in response to a plea from Age UK in West Cumbria.
Jehane published Caring Colouring in response to a plea from Age UK in West Cumbria.

Within two weeks of the lockdown, as one of my initiatives, I published Caring Colouring – a colouring book to keep us connected.

Created in response to a plea from Age UK in West Cumbria, I printed 200 hard copies and supplied 2,000 colouring pens to go into the homes of elderly people in social isolation, raising an additional £1,000 with a downloadable pdf. It raised morale for all concerned including my artists.

I have partnered with multiple licensees to raise vital funds including donating my own designs to BookBlock for their ‘Positive Post’ campaign, which has raised £29,559 for NHS staff to date.

Business has been significantly affected with many clients completely shutting down their offices. New ranges were put on hold as production paused. Increased flexibility has been built into new contracts with minimum guarantees reviewed and increased flexibility built-in for us as licensors.

Gradually things have begun to settle and new enquiries have started to build. I am encouraged by the number of new licences and contact with licensees and publishers since lockdown began.

After enjoying success with Virtual Blueprint in May, Jehane is again taking part in this week's online show.
After enjoying success with Virtual Blueprint in May, Jehane is again taking part in this week's online show.

Running a trade show from my living room was a first. In May, I took part in the first Virtual Blueprint Show online. It was reassuring to meet art buyers and see that companies were focused on renewal. One client in the US licensed a whole collection on the spot, delighted to finalise all of their artwork for the coming season.

I am now preparing for round two of Virtual Blueprint from July 28-30. In an effort to support our industry as a whole, I have come together with my fellow agents exhibiting at the show. We have collectively researched and created on-trend artwork for next year, bringing added value to art buyers and looking ahead to 2021/2022.

My focus is always on creative collaboration with my artists. I have been working harder than ever to keep my artists motivated during the pandemic, giving guidance and creating trend-boards to support new work.

For my artists in general, it has been mixed. While sales have rocketed on their online shops, it has been challenging to remain creative and focused. Bearing the weight of home-schooling and personal responsibility towards impacting COVID-19, climate change and Black Lives Matter is heavy. As events have unfolded across the world, we have leaned into education and focused on our unique and personal contribution.

Caroline Bonne Muller is one of the new illustrators Jehane has signed during lockdown.
Caroline Bonne Muller is one of the new illustrators Jehane has signed during lockdown.

I have welcomed two new illustrators since lockdown – Caroline Bonne Muller, a Dutch illustrator established in children’s book publishing and Catherine Rowe whose clients include Liberty and Anthropologie.

Both artists have been positively received with new licences signed. I have started a series of Instagram lives to keep connected, promote my artists, and give wider support to the artistic community. My one-to-one coaching and portfolio reviews have been busier than ever.

There is no doubt COVID-19 will affect all of us for a significant time to come. Enormous events open up extreme challenges and new opportunities. This new situation gives us the opportunity to experiment, it is a chance to consider how we can offer new value to clients.

In such a quickly changing landscape we have to take more risks, both emotionally and in business. As entrepreneurs, artists and people it is imperative to remain pro-active, be positive and, most significantly, to pivot.

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