Open Eye: MBA: Making a Business of her Art

Creative management takes on a new meaning for Sue Townsin MBA, now working as an artist in rural Ireland
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Not all Open University MBAs produce solo art exhibitions based on cardboard boxes, particle physics, fruit and vegetables, the I Ching and watercolour painting. For Sue Townsin, it was the natural outcome.

Now an artist in rural Ireland, Sue's personal journey began teaching maths in a Northumberland comprehensive. Although initially failing her A levels, she wrongly suspected she was genetically programmed to teach. Sue entered teacher training college but found herself "running to art lectures and dragging myself to the education ones."

Through a chain of mistaken choices (and poor career guidance) Sue took up maths and art teaching jobs in Hexham and Washington schools in the North East but eventually sensed the need to escape.

"As in the D.H.Lawrence poem Last Lesson of the Afternoon", she recalls "I heard the clock ticking." A seven year spell in management followed with the Technical and Vocational Initiative (TVI), managing change in the classroom through enterprise projects. "Creativity was one of the tools we used to help teachers change the way they worked with children. Teaching had already given me a strong belief in individualised learning."

Tipped off that an MBA could give her an edge in the job market, Sue signed on with the OU after rejecting the prospect of evening classes. "I also liked the idea of self-contained learning units," recalls Sue. "This is especially interesting as my current work deals with my preoccupation with boxes!"

The only woman in her MBA group in 1990, the personal renewal of Sue Townsin had begun. The OU MBA units arriving at her door released an unstoppable change.

"The Strategic Management option was very good for seeing the big picture and sorting order out of chaos," she says. Corporate finance was even better for my confidence and great for business planning along with Manufacturing Management. We had a small framing business for a couple of years and our values and strategy `If it's for an artist it's got to be perfect and delivered on time' differentiated us from other picture framers and won us a lot of business."

Progress through the MBA and the all-too-perfect world of the business case-study made Sue's own working environment seem seriously flawed: "I also experienced the slow realisation that I wasn't as fond of working with people as I thought I was!"

But it was the Creative Management course that generated the profound change in Sue's life when she gave up her management career. "The radical change of direction was mainly due to the insight, self-confidence and discipline I got from my OU MBA experience, but the influence of Creative Management goes much deeper than that." Through a visualisation workshop at residential school, Sue envisaged a house with a spiral staircase, but where she could not see the top, and sensed she was on the brink of major change.

After a few months of testing out a variety of business ideas, she decided to go for broke and apply to do a fine art degree. As artists pay no tax in Ireland, it seemed an attractive option so she moved to County Carlow with her artist husband John and won a place at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven at art college," said Sue. "But thinking of myself changing from `non-artist' to `artist' was a bit like turning an ocean liner around!"

With creativity assumed at art college, but rarely taught, Sue's use of the Creative Management techniques were thought to be slightly `off the wall.' Her art-work constructions grew out of a developing preoccupation with boxes.

The 12ft cube sculpture entitled Everything: A Machine for Deciding What To Do Next contained her year's work, ideas, sources and some of her creative management materials. The Idea Machine drew directly on MBA ideas. "Idea Machine contains a bank of a thousand images which can be selected randomly and used either as a trigger or force-fitted to generate an idea. It's low-tech but I used it for my work Frame Painting which won an award."

With a final project involving a creative re-working of Antonello da Messina's Renaissance painting St Jerome in his Study ("a painting full of symbols, riddles and puzzles needing to be unwrapped - boxes again!"), Sue triumphantly achieved a double first in Fine Art (Painting) last summer as well as the Staff Prize.

Her re-invention of herself as an artist was complete.

Sue's first solo show this summer was an experimental meditation on observation entitled, naturally, Observing Boxes. Inviting the active participation of visitors, Sue is now analysing the responses. Continually returning to Creative Management precepts, Sue `sticks to the knitting' by always beginning a new project with drawing or watercolour.

The MBA remains Sue's creative ally. With John, a successful painter, she has been developing a strategic plan for the next five years of their lives. "It includes building our own house by the sea and getting John's work into the European market. For me, it's also How to win the Turner Prize in four hours a day!"

The OU MBA may also prove to be a broader catalyst in altering the structure of the Irish art world. With artists themselves creating new ways of economic survival, Stella Coffey, Director of Artists in Ireland, is currently completing her MBA Project on the Irish Art Market.

Sue is now working on a CD-Rom of her Boxes project and a business plan, thus keeping faith with her creative management precepts. "I know the danger of finding a working niche too soon - I had enough trouble getting out of the last rut!"

For Sue, the experience of the MBA kicked open a benevolent Pandora's box. It's proved to be a personal route map from Hexham in Northumberland to the cottage in County Carlow and a road to freedom.

Sue Townsin's website is

Simon Newton