Charity inspiration interview - Access Art

Access Art logo

AccessArt is the brainchild of Sheila Ceccarelli and Paula Briggs. Both keen sculptors with an interest in education, they began their journey working in various schools around the country.

It was from here that both their interests and frustrations grew. Tired of the way art was increasingly left on the back seat in schools' curriculums, the two pioneers wanted to share their artist-led teaching approach with teachers, allowing artists themselves to give an insight into how their work is created. With studies revealing that the integration of arts into a school curriculum showed improved student performance in the "core" subjects, AccessArt set out to be an open forum to serve as an inspirational community for teachers, artists and pupils alike. We asked Sheila and Paula a few questions to try and discover more about their charity and its values, also wanting to learn about any challenges they faced along the way.

When did the dream of AccessArt become a reality?

Although the concept began in 1999, AccessArt became a registered charity in 2004 and that's when we appointed our trustees. Today, we have museum educator Tamsin Wimhurst, freelance consultant Joanna Holland, and mixed arts and culture project management expert Alistair Haines at the helm.

What are the main drivers behind AccessArt?

The fuel behind our community has always been the photos, videos and content documented by the artists themselves. We then use this content throughout our various social channels, in particular image-based Pinterest, in order to create dialogue, receive feedback and, most importantly, widen our audience. One of our principal values has always been that the art ideas shown on our site is of the highest quality, ensuring that all pieces are unique and aspirational.

Charities often face many challenges on their journey to building a successful organisation. What have been your biggest hurdles?

The main challenge we came across was financial support. AccessArt has never received any revenue funding. Instead, we began by applying for project funding which, when it was granted, was fantastic. However, we found that the process of applying was time-consuming and there was never a guarantee that it would actually be granted.

How did you overcome this financial challenge?

In 2011, at the height of the economic crisis, we decided to take a step back and made the executive decision to stop applying for project funding. Quite simply, we were forced to find another income stream or we were going to sink. It was at this stage that we pinpointed our two largest assets: our extensive resource bank of ideas and our huge database of loyal followers. Knowing the value of these assets allowed us to come to our final conclusion: we would now become a membership organisation.

How does this membership organisation work?

While any user can view half of the content on the site, we decided to keep the remaining 50% locked behind a membership wall. However, we had to strike the right balance; the price point had to be accessible for our target users whilst also giving our organisation room for growth. In the end we settled on £3.50 per month or £42 a year for schools – a price that remains the same today, three years later.

How did users respond to the membership fees?

The concept was incredibly well received; we now average two new users every day, have over 800 paying members and our revenue stream has gone from zero to a healthy amount in a relatively short space of time. Today, we now have enough cash flow to be able to actually pay artists to share their work – previously, it had all been based on goodwill.

What does this mean for AccessArt?

This has created a snowball effect for us: the more quality content we receive, the more members sign up and the more we can afford to pay our artists – and so the cycle continues. We are also paid to carry out workshops in schools, but our main source of cash flow is thanks to our membership fees.

You seem to have overcome this challenge extremely well. What can other charities learn from this?

What we would say is be confident in your assets and be sure of your worth. We think becoming a membership organisation only worked for us because we had already built a strong reputation and brand; we had a loyal following and our resources meant we had a strong offering. Timing was key in our situation.

Another bit of advice we would give is to not be greedy. We understand that many people are strapped for cash so, as we mentioned, made our membership fees very modest, but enough so that when added up they provide AccessArt with a secure financial ground.

Are there any other ways you have managed to save or make money?

Our love of teaching also led us to teach ourselves; we realised early on that we would need to slash our website costs in order to survive. We both taught ourselves how to manage everything in house, from controlling the backend of our site to infograms and our current project – the creation of a mobile site through self-taught responsive design.

Did you come across any other challenges?

AccessArt's second biggest challenge was making artists realise that sharing their work is a good thing. Of course, many artists would see their work as personal and were somewhat reluctant to share it on other websites. However, we try to convince them that sharing is beneficial to everyone involved; they would receive a lot of exposure through AccessArt's promotion and, moreover, it would help educate teachers, pupils and other artists. This is something that has been at the forefront of AccessArt's mind for over a decade – the desire to keep up "the voice", reminding the nation of the importance of visual art in learning.

Do you have any tips other charities could take away with regards to this challenge?

I guess our advice would be to make sure you keep the quality of your content high. We would also say to treat every individual relationship with your audience or artist as just that: individual. Always invest in such relationships, as you never know where they might lead.

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