The Magazine of Ceramic Art and Craft Subscribe now

The Benefits of Greater Co-operation within the UK Studio Pottery Sector

21 Jun 2012

This article is a synopsis of the paper written by Dr Ian Jackson and Dr Phil Tomlinson. The full paper is copyright, but copies can be obtained from the author for personal use and research. I think this paper merits considerable further discussion and i would welcome comments to me at Studiopottery.co.uk, via the blog, which I will be happy to publish to aid further discussion - Stephen Dee, Editor.

The Benefits of Greater Co-operation within the UK Studio Pottery Sector

In recent years, there has been plenty of business research into the potential benefits of co-operative ties (with suppliers and customers, for instance) for firm performance. Much of this research has tended to explore co-operative ties within large manufacturing industries and/or also within service sectors. The conclusions have tended to suggest that closer ties can improve a firm’s profits and possibly innovative performance. However, what is true for large scale manufacturing may also hold true for smaller craft based industries, such as studio pottery. For instance, co-operation with suppliers over the use of different clays and glazes can often enhance ceramicists’ levels of product improvement and variation in artistic design. Similarly, exhibitions and trade fairs provide opportunities for fellow ceramicists to meet, network and draw ideas and inspiration from one another (and also with customers), while also opening up new marketing outlets. Such networks can enhance a creative atmosphere, from which new ideas and inspirations can emerge.

In order to investigate these possibilities, a few years ago (late 2007, in fact), Dr Ian Jackson (from Staffordshire University Business School) and myself conducted a small survey of the 203 UK based ceramicists, who were then listed on the UK Studio Pottery web-site. The survey asked questions about the various networks studio potters were engaged in and the extent to which they co-operated with suppliers and buyers (known in technical terms as vertical co-operation) and also with other studio potters (known as horizontal co-operation). We also asked them about non-business related activities, such as the importance of leisure time to take account of vocational aspects of the business. To measure these variables, we asked respondents to rank their degree of co-operation (with suppliers, buyers and other studio potters) on a 5 point Likert scale, over a range of business (and non-business) activities. In total, we received 57 completed questionnaires, which represented a 28% response rate (this is slightly above the norm for questionnaire response rates). We also conducted an in-depth telephone interview with Stephen Dee, the founder of the Studio Pottery website. Stephen provided us with invaluable background information about the nature of the studio pottery network, the artistic and business environment and the importance of business education within the sector. 

The survey provided us with some very useful empirical data. We were particularly interested in the importance of co-operation within the sector and how it might affect the performance of studio potters. Measuring performance in the arts, however, is extremely difficult. For instance, how do we measure ‘creativity’? As studio potters, you will quite rightly point out that art has an inherent, ‘intrinsic’ value and this is often difficult to capture in monetary terms. In addition, within the sector, there exist studio potters who produce a range of (possibly) small and very different artistic outputs, while there are also those who specialise in producing ‘bespoke items’, specifically made to order. How can one differentiate between the degree(s) of creativity embodied in each of these very different types of output? Moreover, some studio potters see their business primarily as a vocation and put less emphasis upon reaching certain so-called business targets. How do we account for this, in comparing different business performances? 

 I hope that you will forgive us, in that being economists, we took a rather crude approach to the ‘creativity’ measurement problem. We reasoned that while studio potters may have very different objectives, they would still have an eye on increasing their turnover. This would help them to sustain their livelihood and their craft. Using a Logit (probability) regression model, we thus sought to assess the effect of co-operation upon the sales revenue performance of studio potters. In doing so, we also controlled for leisure time (to account for those with more vocational objectives) and other key variables such as experience and the competitive environment. 

The results were very interesting. We found that co-operation at all levels increased sales revenue growth. Our estimates suggested that, for instance, if studio potters increased their degree of co-operation with suppliers and buyers from, say a ‘low level’ to even a ‘medium level’, then he/she is 17% more likely to achieve higher sales revenue. Similarly, if studio potters raise their degree of co-operation with fellow potters (say from ‘no co-operation’ to a ‘low level’ of co-operation), the possibility of generating higher sales revenue increases by 18%. The mechanisms by which such results can be achieved are linked to the reasons discussed above – co-operation over clays, glazes, designs, marketing and general information sharing and discussions can all lead to ceramicists designing artistic products that are perceived to be of higher value in the consumer’s eye and may command a higher price, and/or a greater awareness of the ceramicist’s art. 

However, despite the purported benefits that co-operation and network ties can bring to a studio potter’s business outlook, overall our survey data revealed a general lack of co-operation within the sector. According to our survey, possible reasons for this included a difficulty in finding suitable partners, a lack of trust and co-operative culture, communication barriers and a lack of public funding for such activities. One inherent barrier may be the fact that studio pottery is often ‘highly individualistic’, with the craft often practiced in isolation and does not lend itself to a high degree of social networking and firmer co-operative ties. 

In this regard, regional ceramics associations, craft fairs and web-based networks such as Studio Pottery potentially offer useful forums and opportunities for studio potters, their suppliers and customers to engage more openly about the artistic environment and the nature of the business environment. Given the potential benefits that closer co-operative networks can bring to the sector, this is something that could be explored further. 

Dr Phil Tomlinson, is Lecturer in Business Economics, in the School of Management at the University of Bath.  This article is based upon published research entitled ‘The role of cooperation in a creative industry: the case of UK studio pottery’ in the International Review of Applied Economics, Vol.23, No.6, (Nov, 2009), 691-708.