'Our biggest struggle has been that people don't recognise how art affects life'

Tools of the Trade: Artzone’s Gillian Blaney Shorte on wake up calls and learning to lead.

By Zuzia Whelan Reporter, Fora

EVERY WEEK, FORA gets inside the heads of some of Ireland’s top entrepreneurs to gain insights into what got them to the top of their trade. This week we spoke to Gillian Blaney Shorte, founder and creative director of Artzone. 

Gillian Blaney Shorte didn’t spend much time thinking about creative outlets for kids, but that changed when she had one of her own. 

With a dearth of options, the then secondary-school art teacher decided to fix the problem herself and start a school. Now, 15 years on, she is seeking franchise partners to help grow her business beyond Dublin and the 2,000 students it teaches per week across 35 outlets. 

Artzone employs 65 full-time and part-time staff and is run by Blaney Shorte and her husband, Paul Shorte. 

In our weekly Tools of the Trade series, we spoke to her about learning to lead and the book she recommends when learning to go your own way. 

What was a big turning point in your life?

Having children. I was a secondary school art teacher, so when I had my first child, I’d never really thought about younger kids, what they did in school or do they have an art programme. 

When I had my first child and she was old enough to take part in outside activities, there were a lot of things for dance, drama or music, but there wasn’t anything for somebody of her age to be creative. That was the starting point for Artzone. 

What differentiates your company from the competition?

We work hard to help children think and act in a creative way. A lot of the children that come to us will stay with us.

Originally we had five to 12 year-old children, then at 12 we found the children didn’t want to leave. We ended up having to have teenage classes, then the teenagers didn’t want to leave and we had to create portfolio classes because they wanted to go on to art college.

We’re always looking and pushing those boundaries, and making sure that we’re working in a very creative way to keep them challenged.

What is the most important skill you have learned?

Leadership. I can’t do it by myself and I’ve got a fabulous team, but I have to be able to lead. I’ve had to work on that.

What tool could you not do without?

My iPhone. I’m the creative director, so as I walk into work or get the bus I take photos. I use my iPhone now as I would have drawn or written in the past, I find it helpful. 

What’s a common misconception about your industry?

Our biggest struggle has always been that people don’t recognise how art affects their life. They don’t realise that the house they live in, an architect would have built, or the cereal box you have at breakfast would have been designed by a product designer with a graphic designer. The videos you watch, the books you read, the clothes we wear: Art is everywhere. 

I think people are grasping that more and more, but in the early days people just thought it was just drawing a picture or painting some things. 

Ireland is a little bit behind, but in the US and UK art is now being recognised properly as part of the curriculum, as something they can’t do without. That’s been amazing for us. 

Is technology a friend or a foe in your sector?

Technology has been amazing for us. We would previously need to go to the library to research, now have the computers and the skills to research. It brings the whole world to your doorstep.

It also allows us to see what exhibitions are happening across the world, what other artists are working on. It keeps us very inspired and connected to the art world. 

Source: SON Photographic

What’s more important, education or experience?

Life should be a cycle of both education and experience. Education should be inspiring so  you just want to go on and do more of it.

What was your biggest business wake-up call?

The recession. I had an amazing team but businesses were closing down all over the place. We were running art classes and needed to maintain our numbers to keep the team on. We worked hard, maintained a team and grew the business during the recession. 

I also found that when we got to full employment in Ireland that caused problems for us as well. In the early days, we would be hiring new art teachers all the time. We would put out an ad and have 50 people apply for one job. With full employment, the numbers weren’t there for that. We had to look at that as well, so we created a training course for staff.  

Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think? 

My Aunt Millie, my mum’s sister. She was a very strong, energetic person and she ran her own travel business. I was always really inspired by her running her own business. I always thought that that’s something I’d like to do. 

I had done some work experience with her when I was in transition year and I think she’s probably been one of the most influential people in my life.

What book would you recommend the most?

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson, because of its positive attitude about going out and doing what you want to do, not living in fear and worrying about what people think. 

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