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Conor Mccreedy

South African artist proves that he can make it anywhere by applying his mind to business.

Monique Verduyn

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South African Conor Mccreedy has achieved a level of success in the international art world that most artists only dream of. At 25, the Hilton College old boy has attracted the interest of curators, gallery owners, collectors and established artists around the world.

He is also the youngest artist in history to have a solo exhibition at the prestigious National Arts Club, a fixture in the New York art world, located in Gramercy Park.

Uniting originality and marketing

It’s a success that is due partly to his unique style, and partly to his ability to market himself in the tradition of entrepreneur and artist Damien Hirst. Today, Mccreedy’s commissions start at around $15 000 to $20 000 and he aims to do ten to 15 a year.

Mccreedy’s Indigo Blue collection demonstrates his interest in expressionism and the techniques of 14th and 15th century painters who used only ultramarine and indigo blue pigments – their goal was to challenge themselves with materials that were considered highly restrictive and of the purest form.

It’s this interesting style that secured him a project with US television giant Time Warner Cable to capture its trademark on canvas last year. He was commissioned to paint the new blue-and-white logo of the technology and cable entertainment company for a lavish Manhattan launch party.

The hard yards

But success did not come easy. After graduating from Hilton College, Mccreedy attended university in North Carolina on a golf scholarship, but art remained his true love. He eventually gave up golf in 2007 to pursue an art career in New York, where he attended the Pratt Institute in Manhattan and studied under many great illustrators before dropping out.

He spent some time selling his art on the streets, but it was a tough job. It did, however, give him the opportunity to meet people and network.

“By starting on the streets, I was able to surround myself with the right people, people who could open doors,” he says. “I became friends with college guys who were highly educated but knew little about the real world. We were able to learn different things from each other.”

He started to work on a business plan with a major art collector so that he could start to think about raising capital to build his brand and his art business, and use his own finances for day-to-day living. Part of the plan was to raise $250 000 per year for three years.

Business savvy

“Talent alone is not enough if you want to make it in the art world,” he says. “You have to back your skills with business know-how and entrepreneurial flair.” Unfortunately, he discovered that his business plan was not tailored sufficiently to vanity investors who like lots of publicity and he soon realised that he would have to finance his work in a different way.

To get his canvases stretched, he would offer his local art store an A4 sketch in blue pen as payment. Without money, the good old method of bartering – exchanging goods and services for other goods and services – gave him access to much needed supplies.

Networking works

Through his connections built up over time, he has also created a database of art collectors and investors that makes him the envy of many galleries. He’s traded this valuable information in exchange for solo exhibitions which have helped to put him on the map in the art capital of the world.

“There is no doubt, even in a world dominated by social media, that good old word of mouth still reigns supreme when it comes to building a worthwhile database. Social media can make you look like a king, even if you’re operating from a garage, but face-to-face relationships based on your reputation is what enables you to build a loyal clientele in the art market.”

Mccreedy recently held a private show at Ernie Els’s wine estate in Stellenbosch where a selection of 21 works from 2006 to 2012 went on silent auction, in which people write their bids down on paper.

“It’s important for me to reconnect with South Africa from time to time. I want art collectors in this country to see me like those in New York see me. The people who attended the show in Stellenbosch are the right crowd to do that. You have to remember that art is built up on a lot of hype, so you need to keep on generating publicity in order to build your brand.”

Interestingly, because the art world is not regulated in any way, people buy and sell based on a type of insider trading as they have access to non-public information. Mccreedy is happy for anyone to buy his art, but he stresses that people who have insight and are able to identify talent and understand the story behind the artwork are those who help to develop and grow an artist’s reputation.

Magpie collectors – those who buy a piece of art because it’s fashionable – play less of a role. Of course, the work itself must be powerful enough to warrant attention and the hefty price tag.

Unsurprisingly, Mccreedy is a hard worker who has no need to wait for inspiration. “I’m inspired by the things I see in the world around me, by plants, landscapes and people – especially those who have overcome problems and setbacks. I work every day without exception.”

Words of advice

1. Be proactive

Mccreedy is a big fan of proactiveness. Being proactive means creating a set of goals for yourself and taking the steps necessary to make them happen. When you are proactive you work to create your own opportunities, and you equip yourself to anticipate any challenges that may arise so that you can make them work to your advantage.

2. Hustle

It’s important to be slick and stylish, and to sell and promote yourself energetically and aggressively in the art world.

3. Execute

You need to have the discipline to get things done because accomplishments do not just happen. Execution is seen by many experts as the business leader’s most important job, with the biggest obstacle to success being the absence of execution.

4. Don’t procrastinate

If you have a good idea, get it out there. People will either love it or hate it, but isn’t that what you want ultimately – to know whether it will work or not? And if you succeed, how cool is that?

5. Be bold

Mccreedy designed his own business card which featured just his name in his trademark blue, his reasoning being that he knew his worth and wanted people to think that they should know who he was. The result? A spike in traffic to his website and Facebook page, as well as more than 270 000 followers on Twitter.

Vital stats

Player: Conor Mccreedy

Company: Conor Mccreedy

Launched: 2007

Contact: conormccreedy.com

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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