Conversations: Jessika de Wahls

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Screenshot of Jess's Indiegogo Page
After getting off a stop late and starting at the wrong end of a long street, then knocking on the wrong door and remembering post-script about a side entrance, I found myself at home in Jess's flat and studio in Brixton sipping on a very nice cup of tea chosen from an impressive selection, whilst Jess finished off the last of a homemade smoothie. I caught Jess on a studio day, in financial support of her practice and also for the enjoyment of it Jess also works as a hairdresser at the Salon de Wahls where you can get an exceptionally good cut, (as I now know personally), whilst hidden away in the basement of the Soho Theatre. Her determined and vivacious demeanour lent itself well to both trades, and undeniably benefitted her crowd funding project. Leaving the flat well past necessary time for interview a hug, a business card, advice, and later Facebook friends, were exchanged.

Guidance, Ingenuity and Gossip with Jess de Wahls, Tuesday 10th February, 2015

Zara Worth To start with the most obvious question, why did you decide to start crowd funding?

Jessica De Wahls Well, to finance an exhibition which I curated, and it seemed like the easiest way to get funds quickly. Because I have lived in London for ten years I have quite a good network of people that I know, that support my art in other ways than just money. I had tried The Arts Council but it was not straightforward at all.

ZW So you have previously applied to The Arts Council for funding?

JDW Yes, I had applied for this project, but I left it too late and when it came back pointing out why it didn’t work, I could’ve just applied again. But, a girl I know who had crowd funded her project had applied to the Arts Council and been refused three times. I just realised that actually I wanted the exhibition in March and so that’s why I went for crowd funding. I just figured why not! There’s nothing to lose, well your dignity maybe! Because you are begging for help, but that was the main reason.

ZW As you said, was it quite hard to go ‘begging’ for money for your project?

JDW You give stuff in return for donations, and realistically people do want things off you, but they also just want to support you. So more than anything you just have to sell yourself. It was difficult at the beginning, because I was doing everything for the campaign and the exhibition all at once, whilst also having to finish two pictures, all within two months. It was like having six jobs at once. At the beginning you are really polite, but then you reach a point when you are much more direct. There were people explaining to me how much they like my work and rambling on about how they would love to support me but can’t right now etc. and I just wanted to say it doesn’t really matter! If you can’t support me that’s fine, I am asking thousands of people and I don’t have time to waste if you aren’t able to support me this time!

ZW Did you feel a lot of pressure from the impending deadline that made you become much more direct in asking for money?

JDW The crowd funding felt never ending. Looking back the good that came out of it has outweighed the bad. I have never slept so little in my life, it was hugely stressful, I hadn’t confirmed the venue, when we got the venue I wouldn’t have been able to make it usable without the Soho theatre technicians. I had to paint the place and everything. It was good to have all that pressure because it tied everything in together. If you are doing a project like mine, where there is an exhibition immediately after the campaign, I think online crowd funding is the best advertisement you can get, because you are constantly online and it’s great for marketing. If the exhibition hadn’t been for another year after the campaign had finished, then I would have been much less stressed, but you don’t have the same momentum. I got quite a lot of write ups about the crowd funding which in turn promoted the exhibition, so although it was stressful I think if I would do it again. Though I would be more prepared. I had to do all the perks afterwards.

ZW Obviously you missed out on Arts Council support, but where there institutions that supported you indirectly?

JDW Yeah loads. I think that’s my advantage of being a part-time hairdresser. I have worked in Soho for ten years now, and I’d say 90% of my clients work in production, film, the arts. Soho Theatre helped me in terms of their technicians helping set up, the lighting, the building that we used will be ripped down next year, we were right by the National Gallery, so it was really central, but it was just a run-down, empty shop space. They had to make the building safe! They helped me loads. They are funded themselves by other organisations so couldn’t fund me financially, but provided amazing ‘in-kind’ support. I’ve got a client who printed most of my flyers for me for free, because he’s got an advertising company and another client of mine works for Frame Stores, so he was helping massively promoting. The wines for the preview I got again a really good deal through a client, so there was loads of people helping me. I exceeded the goal on Indiegogo, but I would say I got an extra £2000 worth of ‘in-kind’ support. The amazing thing is that when you are clear about your plan that there are so many people that want to get involved without me having to ask. I just went for it, there was no ‘what if’, I just decided, this has to happen! I allocated two hours every morning where I went through all my email contacts, all my Facebook friends and I addressed everyone personally, because I know what I’m like, if you see anything remotely generic you just delete it. Friends of mine, other artists who had also used crowd funding said the same, it’s much more difficult to get out of a conversation that is directed personally. It takes way more time but it definitely made me way more money!

ZW So it was the personal approach that made your campaign a success. I noticed that you had 302 backers, a large number in comparison to other campaigns. How did you approach marketing?

JDW I think because I know a fair few people that write blogs, and I was continually asking around, it got coverage. That was how the ‘Time Out’ coverage came out. I did a press release. The most valuable advice I got, again from a client, was that I needed an ‘elevator pitch’. That ‘elevator pitch’ helped me to get people to notice the email. My boyfriend’s business-partner’s girlfriend is a journalist, and she said that unless she knows what an email is about from the header then she doesn’t open it. So I had to form something really short and sweet, catchy, that would make people open the email. The one thing that I found didn’t work for me when I would received emails from friends doing crowd funding campaigns was when I got an extremely long explanation of what they are doing. I find it off putting and irritating, even if it’s somebody that I like, I am probably not going to donate unless I am a big fan. It is really off putting getting these massive emails! I think it works better to have an elevator pitch, then have a video, and not bombard them.

ZW I noticed that your Indiegogo page was very succinct in what you were setting out to achieve and had lots of images. The detail only came in where you broke down how the money would be spent.

JDW I had been reading everything on crowd funding to make it successful, I watched Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk The Art of Asking, because she had massively exceeded her goal. Palmer said you need to be really honest, be really clear on exactly what you will be spending the money. I feel in the arts it’s especially difficult because people don’t realise the cost of making art and putting an exhibition on. With Amanda Palmer it is really straight forward, it’s like I need this money and then you get a CD. With art it’s less obvious to people where all the money goes, rent, framing, people were surprised how much I was asking for. All the frames for my work are custom made, for example; so there is an additional expense.

ZW Do you think that people’s lack of understanding of how much it costs to produce art and put on a show affected how much you asked for?

JDW I think it affects it always, unless your campaign goes viral, it is much more straightforward if you want to produce a film or CD. People seem to have a much better understanding of how much that will cost. For the general public, they don’t really understand the life of an artist, they don’t count being an artist as work because I enjoy it. With visual arts people seem to find it hard to understand it as work, and hard work! I have friends who are full-time artists and they work harder than anybody else I know, but people don’t understand that, and it definitely affects how much your goal is in that respect. For me, what really helped was that I know a lot of people, and even if people weren’t donating then they were sharing and promoting for me.

ZW I noticed that you received one particularly large donation, of £1,500 for the second highest reward band: an A2 bespoke RETEX sculpture. Was that through your contacts or through word of mouth?

JDW Yes, that was via my friend Sue who was tweeting about my campaign. Sue is the founder of #techmums and has over 2,000 followers and so it was a friend of hers. Actually, I was working at the venue when that donation came through, it was only a week before the exhibition, and I came outside and suddenly got all these texts saying “Oh my God! Somebody bought the big perk!!”. It was great!

ZW Have you formed new relationships as a result of the crowd funding campaign?

JDW Oh god, loads! Through the crowd funding as well as the exhibition actually. People approached me afterwards, people that wanted to know about crowd funding as well. Interestingly it was the girls that were up for it and it was the guys that didn’t really listen to what I was saying. I think they overestimated the number of people they knew well. I tried to express to them how important it is to know as many people as possible. Through hairdressing I see a lot of clients more regularly than they might even see their friends. And, because I work in a basement it is word of mouth only, it is up close and personal, I have known these clients for years, I have been to their weddings! A lot of people use crowd funding and assume it will be picked up and go viral, my friend Lucy Sparrow - her project went viral, it was picked up in America, it was huge, but it doesn’t happen often. You have to think realistically. Crowd funding platforms usually say that you bring one third of the funders, another third is friends of friends and then the crowd funding website brings the rest. I think that worked for me, but I don’t think you can generalise it like that, I think it is a huge personal effort to keep people interested. It is soul destroying in the middle, it is great if you start strong, there are algorithms that if you start with a third in the first week then in theory you are bound to succeed. You really try and push it at the beginning, and then another friend recommended that the best approach is to try and place it over two paydays if possible. My campaign actually got extended, Indiegogo actually contacted me because they wanted to extent my project to coincide with Women’s day, and the campaign was obviously going to be successful. So for World Women’s day they were promoting specific projects, and because my campaign was always on the first two pages of the arts projects they picked it up which made it go right over the next payday. I started really strong in the first week and then it goes slow, and you get desperate! You are already too far in it, everything you read suggests that, but when you are actually in that situation it is awful!

ZW So was it very stressful for you?

JDW It was hugely stressful! I completely gambled because I borrowed all the money beforehand so there was no option for me to not succeed. It meant as soon as the money came in it went right out because I had already spent it.

ZW I was wondering a bit more about the rewards system, you had a fairly complex system of 17 bands, how did you decided upon the structure of the reward bands?

JDW I sat down with another artist friend of mine beforehand, and we just sat down and went through a load of other art crowd funding campaigns that could give me ideas. It’s not actually straightforward in the slightest! I judged by thinking about how I would feel if I was going to contribute, what would encourage me. That’s why I had rewards for as little as £3, because I know a lot of people that would want to be supportive, but wouldn’t have the money, but if I have ten people that support me with three pounds, then it all adds up. I thought I would rather have my campaign open to donations like that, I have been there myself where I have months without even a tenner spare, so I wanted to leave it open for those people, because I knew that they would want to be able to show their support. Perk wise, I just thought about what I could do myself, what people would want. The pictures themselves were too big and too intricate..

ZW And very expensive, no doubt…

JDW Yeah, so I just looked at things related to the project in a way that makes it unique. If people want to support you, they want something that you can’t get elsewhere, they want something unique to the project. People like a ‘one-off’, even if it wasn’t the art that I was displaying. People liked the drawings for example because it was connected to the project. I read in the field guides that you shouldn’t be shy to have big perks because you never know who is going to pick up on them, which is true!

ZW Was it hard to deliver all those perks as well?

JDW It was and it still is, because there are people that still haven’t replied so I’ve stopped emailing. It is only a handful of people but because the t-shirts, pants, prints and cushions were custom I needed to know what colours etc people wanted.

ZW You wouldn’t expect that when a person has invested in you; that they wouldn’t reply

JDW Having said that, I think there were people that probably didn’t fully read through and were more concerned with just supporting me and my project, and just wanted to give me the money and not have the perk. It has taken a long time, Lucy Sparrow had a lot of her perks already done, and I think that it’s a much better way of doing things. It is just soul destroying doing the perks afterwards. At the beginning you are working towards something, afterwards you are tidying up something.

ZW The more distant backers, the people you didn’t know before, or were friends of friends; have you formed more substantial relationships with them since? Have you had much face-to-face contact with backers that were previously strangers?

JDW Yeah, a lot of people came to the exhibition and actually introduced themselves. I was there and talked people through the exhibition a lot, and a lot of people actually became clients in my salon.

ZW So actually you built an artistic audience, but also a client base?

JDW Yes, it’s really funny. But, I think artistically it’s been hugely helpful because I’ve never studied art, I just ‘went for it’ when I was 27. I just decided to go part-time to enable myself to work on my art practice. So there are now a lot more people that have been interested in my art, that have started writing about my art. There is a lady who just interviewed me who I met through this, she writes a blog and has featured me a few times. I think particularly because of the feminist aspect of my work it was popular too. I think also, in terms of spreading what my project was about crowd funding was good, because the project had so many different angles; it is art, but it is also recycling, and it is also feminist, so there were three angles from which people might be interested in it, it wasn’t one niche. So that was another influence on how I pitched my project to people when I was emailing them, because I was emailing them personally I would pitch it tailored to what would interest them more.

ZW Would you use crowd funding again?

JDW Possibly… yeah, I think so. Not for a while though. Because this thing was so head over heels, I have only been making works like this for three or four years, so at the time I only had ten works, whereas now I have twenty. I almost think I would have an easier time the next time round. I didn’t feel like that straight afterwards, I thought, ‘I am never going to do that again!” But, I think so much has happened since, I have had quite a lot of group exhibitions and there is more interest in my art, so I think the more you are established, the easier it becomes. Then you have people that just want to support you because they are a fan, because you already have a fan base, the more successful you are, the more people are inclined to donate. I think what the project changed for me was that previously people knew me as Jess who was a hairdresser who also makes art. Now that has completely turned around. People now know much more about what I am doing, and the more people that know you and your agenda, the more likely you are to be successful. So I would do it again, but slightly different.

ZW In what way?

JDW Be more organised! It was such a panic decision. My boyfriend filmed everything for the pitching film. I actually got into art because I started to draw storyboards for short films, and that was the first time I thought I could make money from my creativity. So one night we went to the pub, planned it all out. Then my best friend promised to keep the weekend of the exhibition free and to help. We sat plotting the video; which is so important. I saw there were so many boring pitching videos. It has to be something funny, catchy, so we sat brainstorming on the Saturday and then were up until midnight on the Sunday filming. I asked Brad how long it would take to edit the film, and said I needed it by Friday and he was like, ‘WHAT?!’ Plus so many of my clients work in post-production and couldn’t believe that we were editing a two-and-a-half minute video in four days! But he did it and he did a great job. It really helped that the video was so strong. I think that is the down fall of a lot of campaigns, that the video is weak. It is ridiculous to start a campaign without a video, if you are likeable and appeal to people you will be successful. You might get friends of friends looking and just thinking, ‘..oh yeah, this looks interesting, I will donate a little…’

ZW It’s a bit like signing a petition, just giving your seal of approval.

JDW This is another reason why I thought that those tiny perks were good. Because people are crowd animals, if they see lots of people supporting something then they want to be a part of it.

ZW Do you think it is a more democratic form of funding as opposed to other current forms of funding, like the Arts Council, or Awards and bursaries?

JDW It is difficult to say. I have just done an embroidery course and there was a fashion student from Central St Martins on the course too, and she was going on about how hard it is there, and she told me I would do well there because I do everything myself. She was complaining that her lecturers tell her to go out and find everything themselves and that she doesn’t feel like she is learning anything. So I said to her, anything creative, if you don’t have a natural drive, then don’t bother! With crowd funding, I don’t know whether it is democratic, because it is about who you know, not what you know. You could be an amazing artist, but not a very social person, whereas if I am a social butterfly, then I will be able to pull a lot more people in. If an artist hasn’t switched on their self-marketing skills and self-promotion, then don’t bother! If you aren’t good at marketing, find a friend who is! You need to be resourceful. There is also a new form of crowd funding, where you register as an artist and accumulate ‘fans’ who basically pay you a wage. There are fabulously rich people in the world who want to support the arts and artists, and this is a way of putting them together, it also makes the artist feel obliged to produce good work.

ZW Do you think crowd funding is the future of how the arts will be funded?

JDW I think it will be, and not just for the arts. I think it’s brilliant because it cuts out the bodies that exclude artists and other people. If somebody has the drive, and they really want to do something, crowd funding opens it up to them. You don’t have the hypocrisy of exclusivity and people putting up barriers.

ZW It removes institutional nepotism?

JDW Exactly, I think it opens up a great market for artists. To be honest I think it works well especially in England. I don’t think it would work in Germany, which is a lot more bureaucratic. Here there is more of a mentality that if you are good at something, then you can do it. I’m from Berlin and there is a misconception that everyone is much more open minded, but if you have to do stuff then there needs to be certificates etc. To not drift off topic too much, yes, I think crowd funding is the future for arts. Yes, the Arts Council has had a lot of cuts, and I probably would have been successful with them if I had, had more time and they do give you feedback and mine mistake was just a silly miscalculation of sums! It was something that I would still explore in the future, Lucy Sparrow did it well, in that she applied for some money from the Arts Council as well as crowd funding. I think crowd funding is brilliant, and it is a great way of getting artists to produce what they want to, without the filter of the critic or the institution.

Summary of Jess's Project

Jess's Project Icon on Indiegogo
  • Project Title: Big Swinging Ovaries
  • Crowd Funding Platform: Indiegogo
  • Initiator: Jessika De Wahls
  • About Initiator: Independent Professional Artist
  • Associated with other Institutions: Yes
  • Arts Council Support: No
  • Goal: £10,000
  • Actual: £10,390
  • Date Successfully Funded: 12th March 2014
  • Total Number of Backers: 302
  • Number of Reward Bands: 17

For more information on Jess's work please check out the links below:

Research conducted by Zara Worth

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