How this artwork-for-offices startup kept all of its clients during COVID-19, and expanded into brightening up hospitals

ColourSpace art for rent.

ColourSpace helps local artists rent their work to offices.

In a quirky twist that suggests art really does improve health, an art-rental startup has proven to be immune to the worst effects of COVID-19.

From June to December 2019, ColourSpace Gallery tripled its revenue and was on track for 400% growth before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

But instead of taking a hit like so many other businesses, the social enterprise art-rental platform — which uses offices as exhibition spaces for local artists — managed to keep all of its clients despite many workplaces being unoccupied. It even picked up a fintech business in Melbourne’s CBD as a gallery space.

Founder and director Scott Ko says the Melbourne-based business’s system of rotating artwork every three months was a factor in its impressive client retention rate, because it had just begun a new three-month installation period when Australia went into lockdown.

He says ColourSpace’s role in making workspaces more engaging and humanising — while supporting local artists and communities — is especially crucial now as people return to ”pretty cold” office environments that will be marked by social distancing.

“Lots of our clients said they’d continue to pay for this service, and maintain that environment for people to come back to. At most, one client asked for a temporary reduction in their service fee,” Ko tells SmartCompany.

“Once we get them through the door, they [typically] stay with us for quite a while.”

ColourSpace, which lists the Reserve Bank of Australia, Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt and Prahran’s Revolver Lane among its clients, is now launching a year-long exhibition in NSW’s Liverpool Hospital.

The exhibition — which starts this weekend and aims to enrich hospital wards and improve patients’ quality of life — is the first step in ColourSpace’s plan to expand its project to hospitals across the country. A study will assess the impact of the project.

“We’ve been doing a great deal of research on the impact of art on health and [they show] a statistical and quantifiable benefit. It’s part of a broader holistic approach toward a better healing environment,” Ko says.

“We know that hospitals can be pretty stark at the best of times so we’re thinking of what we can do to make that environment a little bit better and improve that space. ”

Despite a ”pretty lean” team of three in-house staff, Ko says a custom-built platform enabled ColourSpace to get the artwork up within two months of the project being approved.

He adds that, if a new client signed with ColourSpace today, they could get artwork into their office within two weeks.

“We put together a curation of 250 individual pieces within a few hours [and] our system generated all the types of things that will support artists and their artwork,” he says.

“We can now turn around projects like this really quickly.”

From fake flowers to real art

With a background in management consulting, Ko’s inspiration for the project came after someone was hired to change fake flowers in the office reception area every month.

He says that discussions about changing the artwork, which had been on the walls for almost a decade, were seen as “too hard and too difficult”.

“I wanted to use art in a way that wasn’t just decoration, but would improve the overall energy of the space … and that didn’t cost as much as a refit or refurbishment,” he says.

“I also wanted to help local artists get their work out there [and] get their work for sale too.”

Since ColourSpace launched in 2016, it has accrued a network of almost 250 artists and has displayed about 500 individual pieces of artwork.

Predominately working with emerging artists, its demographic includes a “diverse range of age-groups,” and an emphasis on female, LGBTQI and Indigenous artists.

Ko says it has contributed more than $45,000 in revenue to artists through royalties and sales, with 10% going towards art programs for local and disadvantaged communities.

“Artwork [can] be a vehicle for a new perspective and new way of engaging with people, which is really important in a modern and evolving workplace, and especially now in COVID-19 times” Ko says.

“[And] there’s a growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of art on mental health. It’s been shown to reduce stress by 15%, improve productivity by 17%, improve quality of life by 54% … and every dollar we invest in making our workplaces mentally healthy yields a 230% ROI.”

ColourSpace operates under a subscription model, where businesses pay $50 per piece and per month for each artwork. From that, 25% goes to the artist on display and, if they sell their work, the artist gets 75% of the sale price.

According to Ko, their sell-through rate is about 10%, which compares to an average gallery sell-through rate of about 30%.

But, he says, the project is facilitating a way of viewing artwork that otherwise wouldn’t be seen.

“Every time we bring in a new artwork, [people are] thinking about whether this is the one they want. At the same time, from a business perspective … we’re putting a value on the service we provide, with meaningful benefits created for the businesses and the shared spaces.

“In doing so, it allows us to generate income for the artist as well, which makes it sustainable.”

Transforming cities into gallery spaces

ColourSpace is in the process of expanding to Sydney, to see if it can scale the business.

Ko says the business is also looking at Thailand as a potential entry into the South-East Asian market. He went to Bangkok as part of the Collider Accelerator Program, where learned about how art is and isn’t supported there.

But, Ko says ColourSpace’s core vision involves transforming as many city spaces into galleries as possible, and in a way that supports local businesses and artists.

“Whenever I look at Melbourne and all the spaces there, I think they could be [used as] enormous galleries that support local artists like they supports businesses,” he says.

“There’s an opportunity to enrich all of our lives with art, but not in an elitist or expensive way.”

NOW READ: How Renew Australia is turning abandoned shops into rent-free workspaces for local creatives

NOW READ: A focus on mental health in the workplace is both good management, and good business sense

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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