For Michael MacMillan and Jackie Crow, their boutique art business supports a special lifestyle. But making a living from art also presents some unique challenges.
Time is of the essence for sculptor Michael MacMillan, and Jackie Crow – the couple behind MacMillan Sculpture and Country Homeware. Time to create, time to be inspired, time to generate interest in their creative output, in order to make a living from their art.
“All our products are handmade, which requires attention to detail. That means time is our biggest challenge,” explains Michael. “We also have to manage supply and demand. The market is there, but with limitations on the amount of stock we can create we need to command a price which reflects the time spent making our quality French Oak homeware, sculpture, and limited edition bronzes.”
The MacMillans’ business is in Moutere, near Nelson, and next door to Neudorf Vineyards. It’s part of a strong, local collective known as the Moutere Artisans.
As business owners, Jackie and Michael are grateful to this community of like minds for their ongoing support.
“As a group we have far greater marketing power and knowledge than if we were acting alone,” says Jackie. “It’s also important to surround yourself with positive people and to network in other groups such as the local Chamber of Commerce to see what other businesses are doing and how they might help yours.”
Since buying their property eight years ago the couple have worked hard to establish their studio, accommodation and gallery spaces that position them at the high-quality end of the market.
“Detail is important in terms of the way we present our gallery, branding, and our highly-visible property,” says Michael. “To give you an idea, about 40 percent of my time goes into production and 60 percent into other areas. That’s something that needs to change!
“We can spend time looking at our business and working on the business but at the end of the day we need to produce the goods to sell. We strive to keep our business a family affair and very boutique and aim for small but special.
“People often comment that we would do well in Auckland, but in all reality we would not be able to keep up!”
If the couple had a magic wand to make business life easier there are a few items for the top of their list. “A more simplified council resource consent process would help,” says Jackie. “Council makes it very tough for small business.
“We’d also like to see more support for people in tourism-focused businesses.”
Working in New Zealand has its advantages, however. “New Zealand is seen as a very safe and inexpensive place to visit,” says Jackie, “and our clients’ comments suggest that they view the art on offer as being priced very reasonably.”
Currently, exported commission work makes up about 40 percent of Michael’s sculpture sales and contributes about 60 percent to the business’s total sales. This area of the business has grown 15 to 20 percent in the past year.
The couple work hard to cater for customers across the price spectrum and regard their French Oak homeware products as their ‘bread and butter’.
Michael’s sculptures have certainly attracted attention, leading to corporate and private commissions. Michael enjoys the process of crafting a piece to meet a brief.
“Like any job I need to be able to be challenged and this type of work is great fun and allows me to be creative on a larger scale. Working with the client’s requirements, briefs, and objectives and working through the logistics is all part of it.”
Advice for artist entrepreneurs
Michael and Jackie have some useful tips for other small business owners, especially those looking to make the business of being a professional artist work for their family.
“Start with finding a good accountant that suits your business and have both a short-term and a long-term plan,” says Jackie.
Michael recommends deciding what areas of the market you’re aiming at and producing products that fit within those areas. “Be able to adapt and diversify and change direction if you need to in order to meet the needs of your target market. Be aware of the economic climate, trends and the impact they may have and allow those to influence the direction you’re heading in.
“Aim to produce work which you are confident will sell and price it right.”
Belief in yourself and your products goes a long way, adds Jackie. “You can stay small and retain the qualities that set you apart while still being receptive to bigger ideas. Be optimistic and dare to dream, the world is full of dreamers achieving great things.”
Recently Jackie and Michael discovered the power of actively telling their story, hiring a local PR company to help them. “We have also had success via social media using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and creating a shopping platform on our website for our French Oak products has worked well.”
However, there are only so many hours in the day for a business run by just two people. “We need to be efficient with our time but also keep our enjoyment alive,” says Jackie. “And maintain a family life with our 12-year old daughter Poppy, and with Michael’s grown-up children whose visits
The irregular income that comes from self-employment came as a bit of a surprise for Jackie, explains Michael, but the big advantage is seeing more of Poppy.
“We also never know who is going to walk through the door of the gallery and over the years we’ve had some fairly famous visitors.”
So what does it take to be a successful professional artist?
“Stubborn determination and commitment,” says Michael. “Being creative is good for the soul and we are very lucky to have the opportunity to live and work from home. That said, I’d love to have the cashflow to travel every year to somewhere that ignites my artistic fire.”
With eyes focused on the future, the couple are hoping to complete current building projects and increase the number of visitors they host at Neudorf Hall, their beautiful on-site country accommodation.
What really puts a glint in Michael’s eye is the thought of producing more large-scale sculpture and leaving an artistic legacy behind.
“Sculpting is my passion.
I really want to spend more time on that going forward.”