House of Illustration puts on ten exhibitions and turns over £1m every year - all without public funding. Colin McKenzie explains how.

Photo of Sketchmeet
Sketchmeet, a monthly sketching evening at the House of Illustration

House of Illustration opened in 2014 as the first public gallery in the world devoted exclusively to exploring illustration and graphic art in all its forms. Now celebrating its third birthday, it was not only created but also operates entirely without public funding. 

Be ambitious and don’t be afraid of doing something that hasn’t been done before

House of Illustration was the brainchild of a group of leading illustrators including Sir Quentin Blake. They wanted to create the first place to celebrate the breadth of illustration and the work of illustrators, something that – extraordinarily – has not been done anywhere else in the world. We spent five years working almost exclusively on fundraising to raise the £1.7 million required to create our beautiful gallery and education space, a significant portion of which has also underpinned our first few years of operation as we develop different income streams.

If you fail to plan you plan to fail!

Though it’s an obvious one (and a real business cliché), generating significant levels of income from a variety of different sources does require detailed business planning involving the entire organisation. As well as providing a route map that sets out how you are going to grow your income in different areas, this is a vital management tool in terms of setting clear targets. 

Programming well in advance

One of the particular challenges of opening a new gallery was getting a strong and balanced exhibitions and events programme in place from a standing start. It is often advantageous to be able to programme opportunistically or at short notice when particularly exciting exhibition opportunities come our way. But it is only by having the majority of our programme in place at least two years in advance that we can really ensure that we develop audiences,  maximise potential income and create the most publicity around what we do.

Invest in fundraising and recognise its potential

Though we are a comparatively new arts organisation we already have a turnover of £1 million pa, of which over 40% comes through fundraising. We have a full time fundraiser but also have very significant fundraising experience across the senior management team, helped by an extremely effective, active and generous board of trustees. Though organisations often shy away from the initial expense of investing in an experienced fundraiser, the return on investment should be very quick.

Create an entrepreneurial ethos

There isn’t a single part of our operation that we don’t look at in relation to income generation. There are the obvious ones like our shop (thinking innovatively about exhibition-related merchandise means that our spend per head is over £4.80), venue hire and corporate and individual membership programmes. But we also generate income from our workshops and masterclasses that subsidises other parts of our learning programming. And we recoup increasing percentages of our exhibition costs by touring exhibitions within the UK and overseas, as well as raising the profile of our work and reaching almost 100,000 more visitors each year in the process.

Recognise the importance of making friends

From the outset we wanted House of Illustration to be a vibrant hub for artists and all those interested in illustration, and illustrators have been absolutely invaluable as ambassadors and advocates for our work. Our extensive learning programme is delivered entirely by professional illustrators and a huge number of the 50+ volunteers we depend upon are early career illustrators. But we work hard at making friends with everyone; one of the oldest adages in fundraising is that people give to people rather than to organisations, so developing relationships with the widest group of people is really important to us.

Friends organisations and patrons groups are a perfect way of identifying and starting a relationship with individuals who can become some of your most valuable and generous supporters, but even casual conversations with visitors or at private views can lead to important new relationships for the organisation. And don’t just think in financial terms – everyone has their own network of contacts and all individuals can be powerful advocates for what you are doing.

Be innovative in your fundraising

Fundraising is constantly evolving and the most successful arts organisations are those that adapt to the changing landscape and diversify their fundraising. You can spend a lot of time applying to the same trusts and foundations as everyone else, but the odds of being successful  are increasingly against you (one major trust on everyone’s target list now turns down over 85% of applications). Developing individual giving programmes is probably a much better long-term strategy. And don’t be afraid to steal ideas that seem to work for others, from crowdfunding (which we’ve just used successfully to fund a new exhibition catalogue) to fundraising events and auctions.

Ensure that your cultural offer remains distinctive

While there is a temptation, when you are reliant on self-generated income, to prioritise programmes that have broad popular appeal, it is important to remember that your reputation is created by the quality and diversity of what you present. We put on 10 exhibitions each year across three galleries, exploring contemporary and historic illustration and the work of both leading and emerging illustrators. Our Quentin Blake gallery is the only place in the world that is always showing Quentin’s original work in frequently changing exhibitions, much of which has never been on public display before. Supporting new talent is a very important part of our work: we are the only public gallery in the UK commissioning new work by illustrators, and we have the UK’s only residency for illustrators and graphic artists. There is no doubt that our distinctive offer is a key factor in persuading individuals, trusts and foundations to support our work.

Colin McKenzie is Director of House of Illustration.
Tw @illustrationHQ

Inset photo: House of Illustration exterior. Credit Paul Grover
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