The Business of Art: Interview with Art On King

Since 1979, Art On King has been a place for artists, writers and readers, and its mission of providing quality, affordable art education continues to this day.

Creativity 7 min read Sep 25, 2019

Art On King and Modern Times are deep rooted businesses in Newtown, Sydney, established by John Butler and his wife Pia in 1979. Not any bibliophile or artist can walk past their shop without slowing their step, and they will stare at their amazing collection of art supplies, titles and novelties. Above the book and art stores, are the studios dedicated to Art On King’s course offerings - as the owners aim to provide affordable art tuition to anyone and everyone. As Art On King and Modern Times celebrate over three decades of success in their business, we chat with daughter Joni, who now runs Art On King’s store operations and manages their course offerings.

We’re also happy to share that Art On King is offering a $25 discount to any of their June TERM classes. Simply enter the code [ARTONKING25] at checkout. (Valid until June 10th)

What is the story behind Art On King?

We basically started off as a second-hand bookshop called ‘Dollar Books’ in 1979. My father started the business, it’s family-run and owned. We gradually expanded into different lines, to selling new books and stationery, and then we saw a real emergence of artists in the area wanting art supplies. My dad was very proactive in trying new things. He noticed a lot of artists in the area asking for things, and there weren’t any art supply shops in Newtown. We just started selling it and it just became more and more popular.

What was the motivation behind starting the art school?

My dad started that and he just thought it was a really good fit, because we’re an art shop and we had a studio upstairs we’ve been renting out to artists. He just had this idea - because he likes to have lots of crazy ideas and he’s always inventing things. So he’s like, “Yeah, let’s run an art school!”.

When he originally started it, he actually convinced a couple of our staff who were artists to start running classes. We advertised to some more art teachers, and we put on a few courses. They were very cheap back then when we started - we used to run 7-week classes for $150! We’ve been running the art classes for about 12 years now.

How did you get involved in the family business?

Being family, I was born into it. My brother, who also works here, looks after the book side [and I look after the art side].

When it came to the time when our parents sort of retired, we either had to keep running it or close it. But we knew it was the kind of business you couldn’t sell. We didn’t have the heart to close what my parents had worked on for so long. The thought of it closing would be like my family home being closed down. I’ve grown up in this business and when I come to work, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like going to my mum’s house. And I think for it to close down would be really heart-breaking. So far, it’s been good. Business has been going on for so long that it runs by itself now. 

Where there any major changes you’ve had to make coming into the business?

When my brother and I took over, we did a big renovation. We just got to the point when Newtown was getting trendy and cool. We’re like, “We can’t keep having the shelves looking so old.” Haha!

So when we came in, it was about 2009, we officially said, “Right, we’re taking over and we’re renovating.” So we had this massive renovation which nearly killed us, having to empty the entire shop and reset it all!

But since then, that was the major change to sort of bring us into the modern era.  Because we are family-run, we’re very flexible and good to our customers. We give a level of service you don’t see in a lot of shops anymore.  I really believe in customer first, and bending the rules. If you make someone happy, that’s going to benefit you in the long run. All the staff that work here are really passionate about their jobs and offer great customer service.

Any particular struggles you’ve had throughout the past years?

We’ve always been a pretty busy shop and Newtown has just become more and more popular. We always listen to what our customers want, they set the trends. We don’t often put products in just based on what our supplier tells us and what they want us to sell. We go very much on what our market wants. We look for quality, affordable products and try to support small suppliers and Australian made where possible.

What about the art classes?

We used to just run beginners classes, and it was the same course that would run each term. It was going really well for a long time, but gradually in the last couple of years, enrolments really started to drop off. We were finding that we just weren’t getting repeat students. And obviously because we weren’t offering anything more than beginners classes. Art is something you really need to keep practising.

So now every five weeks it’ll be a different course. And each course builds on the previous course. So you can keep re-enrolling and you’re learning something new and you’re extending yourself each time.

Are there any successful student stories you’d like to share?

Oh yes, we’ve definitely had a few students that have gone on, continued painting and have their own exhibitions. One of the students was April White. She has her own studio. She’s pretty much a full-time artist and she joined one of our mixed media classes years ago. She does amazing work and she experiments a lot, producing something totally different at every one of her shows.

Another one is Justin van den Berg and he also completed a few of our mixed media classes. He has produced an incredible mount of work and had quite a few exhibitions since then, he is very committed to his art practise. I’ve even bought a couple of his paintings. Both artists are regular customers of ours, too.

Does anyone in the family dabble in art or anything creative?

My mum does. She’s always been quite creative. She’d often do pottery, sewing and in the last 10 years, she’s turned more into painting. She likes testing all the products we have in the store. I like painting and life drawing too. I was also really into film and photography.

Any business in the art industry can be tricky. What advice would you give for someone who plans to run one or is running one?

I think you can’t go wrong with doing your market research. Find out what people want, supply what people want. Too many people open businesses because they have this idea of what they want and they want people to buy into that idea, instead of actually giving people what they’re looking for.

And that’s what we’ve always done. I’ve never said, “I’m going to sell blue hats because they’re cool.” And that everyone’s going to buy these blue hats, you know?

What do you see in the future for Art On King?

I think we’ll just keep going. I believe we’re doing a service to the community. We’re not about trying to franchise or take over the world, we’re just happy to be doing what we’re doing. And we’ll continue as long as people are happy to support us.