Shamrock Organisations

Gustave Courbet’s huge 20ft wide by 12ft high oil painting, The Painter’s Studio (A Real Allegory of Seven Years of My Life), 1855, represents among other things his view of the (then) new role of the artist in society.

He places himself in the centre of the composition, the main focus of the light source, sitting on a chair in front of a canvas and painting a landscape, with a naked model standing behind his right shoulder, and a small peasant boy to his left watching him work. The left of the composition is an array of clothed and mainly male characters, possibly other models. The right of the composition is a group of Courbet’s friends and supporters, including writers Charles Baudelaire and George Sand, his patron Alfred Bruyas, the philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and the art critic Champfleury. This narrative depiction and summation of a 19th century artist’s life also serves as an allegorical starting point for considering the way artists work today, a century and half later.

Irish author and philosopher, Charles Handy, is internationally recognised as one of ‘the most influential living management thinkers’. His specialism is organisational behaviour, and one of the ideas he has developed in recent times is the ‘Shamrock Organisation’, often also called the ‘Cloverleaf’. Artists (and other very small art businesses) can, and many do – like Courbet in his perceptive painting – operate as Shamrock/Cloverleaf organisations. Most do so unconsciously, and may benefit from considering and actively managing the Shamrock model’s main characteristics and ways of working.  The centre leaf comprises the professional core worker/s. The right leaf comprises ‘outsourced’ contractors from whom supplies and services are regularly bought. The left leaf comprises flexible specialists whose freelance services are bought in or ‘insourced’ to handle seasonal or periodic peaks of work or special projects.

Artists are at the heart their practices (the Handy model’s centre leaf) and are responsible for their own professional research and development, generating creative ideas and usually, though not always, personally executing them. They are also responsible for the ‘commercial dimension’ of their practices, including managing – though not necessarily personally undertaking – other business functions that can sensibly be ‘outsourced’ or ‘insourced’: the other two leaves of the Shamrock model.

Engaging and paying outside contractors (the Handy model’s right leaf) to carry out basic business administration can liberate artists’ time, to work on more interesting and creative core tasks. Possible outsourcing can cover the following tasks: insuring the fabric of a studio/workspace, materials and equipment, completed works and works in progress, and works in transit and/or consigned or lent to others. Basic bookkeeping: paying bills, issuing and chasing payment of invoices and banking payments received. Engaging a professional accountant to prepare annual income tax returns, and especially for offsetting tax-deductible expenditure against earned income. Establishing accounts with regular suppliers of materials. Hiring venues or transport for special projects, when needed. Printing basic information about the practice, on business cards, letterheads, invoices and so on. Hiring IT specialists for software updating, training, troubleshooting, website creation and management. Boring stuff: administrivia.

The most interesting opportunities perhaps lie in sourcing and managing assets, to extend and enrich artists’ creative outputs: the Handy model’s left leaf. This involves commissioning bespoke expert services to meet specialist needs, including the following: technical experts to collaborate with artists to fabricate custom-made articles, such as photographs and other prints, holographs, installations, sound recordings, films and videos, and so on – adding valuable creative skills and expertise that artists otherwise do not have, or possess to the standard they require. Curators and exhibition organisers, increasing numbers of which collaborate with artists to co-create and develop shared ideas for new work, or exposition of completed work. Agents and dealers offering representation to artists: for promotion and development of their reputations and standing in the marketplace, and among critics, scholars, curators and other artists; for attracting potential buyers, and negotiating sales; and for mounting and managing exhibitions.

Handy’s left leaf might also usefully include sourcing and working intimately with other specialists, such as follows: art marketing consultants, providing bespoke diagnoses and planning of artists’ engagement with potential buyers, galleries, exhibition venues, and organisers of prizes, awards, competitions, residencies and bursaries; and generally raising and maintaining artists’ profiles in the commercial and critical art environments. Art market and valuation consultants, providing bespoke advice on performance of the secondary art market – public auctions and private sales – and on current and future pricing of artists’ works. Art critics and scholars, providing critical discourse on past, present, and potential future, work and achievements. Art business consultants, providing bespoke advice and support for conducting commercial dealings, including contract negotiations, financial and business planning. Art lawyers, providing expert advice and assistance on artlaw matters.

Artists should manage their two networks of professional relationships – regularly outsourced, and necessarily insourced – through written contracts. Outsourced clients would normally be paid their going rates/prices, and have their own written standard business terms and conditions. But insourced clients need special contractual negotiations, because their services will be bespoke to the artist’s unique needs.

Discussions with specialist consultants should first develop what is often called a ‘specification brief’: precisely what the consultant will do, why, when, and how, and should include delivery of outcomes that can be measured. Having agreed and documented the brief, but not beforehand, the parties should then negotiate the consultant’s fees for doing the specific work – it is unrealistic to compare one consultant’s fees with another, because each one’s services will be unique and therefore different. Fee structures can vary between a fixed overall price for agreed consultancy work and delivery of measurable outcomes; a fixed fee for an agreed overall number of days’ work, at an agreed daily rate; and an hourly rate – only appropriate when the consultant is working at all times in the presence of the artist. Payment methods should then be agreed; it is normal practice to pay consultants in stages, as their work progresses and agreed outcomes are delivered. The parties should then agree any remaining terms and conditions of the deal, especially ownership of any future intellectual property rights (such as copyright in any original creative work delivered by the consultant), and mutual promises not to disclose to others all personal and commercially sensitive information or trade secrets learned from each other.

Transparent negotiations, leading to an agreed written specification brief and other terms and conditions of the contract, will contribute significantly to the success of consultancy relationships. But above all, the keys to success lie in mutual trust and respect.

Handy has very recently developed his Shamrock model by adding an interesting and potentially very useful fourth leaf, which he defines as: customers and clients. The rationale for this additional network is that some businesses may be able to persuade customers to work for them, potentially reducing their core tasks and overheads, such as ATM cash machines; self-service gas stations; and internet shopping, whereby ‘virtual’ retailers expose and sell their goods without the need for sales premises or sales staff. Obvious potential targets for inclusion in this fourth leaf of artists’ practices are: patrons and previous buyers of their works; friends, colleagues, relations, and organisations, who have been donated works; journalists; and artists’ champions. Artists can gain significant benefits through regular dialogue they maintain with all such people and organisations in their network of contacts, by encouraging them proactively to spread (around their own networks) any good news, and their own supportive views, about the artist and the work. The four-leaf clover has traditionally been seen as a symbol of luck and good fortune.

© Henry Lydiate 2008


Still need help? Contact us

Similar Artlaw articles

Related articles / resources

Featured project

© Helena Hunter, Falling Birds, 2021

Reaching audiences online

Pablo Colella of Disconnected Bodies and artist Helena Hunter in conversation with Nick Kaplony of Artquest • Date: Thursday 15 April, 7–8 pm • Venue: online via Zoom With… Continue Reading Reaching audiences online

Read more


This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.