ASTONish Masterclass with Dr Mark Sealy MBE

ASTONish presents its first Masterclass in this series:

Following a series of powerful Masterclasses from its sister programme RE:Present, Birmingham Hippodrome and Lara Ratnaraja would like to invite you to attend our first ASTONish Masterclass with Dr Mark Sealy MBE - Director of Autograph ABP. Please join us for this FREE event.

Dr Mark Sealy MBE

Dr Mark Sealy MBE

Dr Mark Sealy MBE - Director Autograph ABP
Mark was appointed Director of Autograph ABP in 1991. He was awarded the Hood Medal for services to photography in 2007 by the Royal Photographic Society, and in January 2013 he was awarded an MBE for services to photography. He gained his PhD candidate at Durham University, where his research focused on photography and cultural violence. He has curated several major exhibitions, and his many publications include Different (Phaidon 2001) with Professor Stuart Hall.

Autograph ABP

Established in 1988 with the mission of advocating the inclusion of historically marginalised photographic practices, Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally in photography and film, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights.

Autograph ABP is based in London where it runs a photography gallery and a programme of talks and educational activities. It also works internationally promoting exhibitions, events and publications.

For more information about Autograph ABP visit their website at

Our free ASTONish Masterclasses spotlight the best of diverse cultural leadership as part of the innovative ASTONish programme which supports both emerging and established cultural leaders in Aston and Newtown.

Here's what you need to know:

Spaces are limited so book your free place now via Eventbrite 

Join us to hear Mark share his insights into leadership, the challenges he faced and how he has created his achievements and success. This event is open to all and will include a drinks and canapé reception and networking opportunities.

This masterclass is in partnership with GRAIN Photography Hub, New Art West Midlands, Aston Business School and CREATE.

Chris Brown - Building your online narrative

Chris Brown held a session for our ASTONish cohorts recently to break down the best approach for using social media in the most effective way in building a business, maximising impact and talking to the world about your work.

Chris has a background in broadcast media, as a freelance journalist having written articles for Guardian Culture Proffessionals, Birmingham Mail and a-n among others, and is now Editor of arts blog Polaroids and Polar Bears and Account Manager at technical and technology PR agency Stone Junction.

Chris Brown

Chris Brown

The session started with a couple of games to get everyone thinking about the main reasons artists, cultural organisations and business's use social media, and to help everyone to focus the main target audience that they are trying to connect with. 

Let's play a game!

Let's play a game!

A large emphasis throughout the session was how not to waste time. Which platforms do your target audience use? Working out the difference between your end user and audience is important for distinguishing this information. If your business works with children, it is their parents who are actually your target audience on social media, not the children. Working out the age of your target audience is very useful for not wasting time as different social media platforms, or channels, have quite distinct age range appeal.

Key points for building your social strategy were;

  • Identify your target audience
  • Pick your channels
  • Identify your aims and objectives
  • Define your tone of voice
  • Measure and evaluate success (and failure)

In creating a narrative Chris pointed out how consumers think both emotionally and logically when making purchasing decisions so when creating content it is best to enhance it with visual elements (use pictures) to feed both the left and right sides of the brain!

At the end of the session Chris left us with some food for thought;

  • Look before you leap
  • Get to know your users
  • Leverage any and all connections
  • Prepare to fail
  • Think about advocates not just numbers
  • Expect it to take time
  • Connect and help your community
  • Take chances
  • Have a personality

Follow Chris on twitter as @pipedownmrbrown 

How I Did It - Mohammed Ali

We were very excited to have artist, educator, curator Mohammed Ali talk to our cohorts as part of the 'How I Did It' series. Here Emerge Cohorts Cordeillia Cooper and Tara Buckley share their thoughts about the discussion.

Mohammad Ali with his work in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Mohammad Ali with his work in Edinburgh, Scotland.

It would have been so easy to slip into the familiar ‘there’s so little of us… please don’t pick me!’ mind frame upon entering the small and intimate setting of the most recent session on the Astonish Leadership Programme “How I did it with Mohammed Ali”. Instead, this tiny room proved to be the little spark needed to light a beautiful fire of imagination, creativity and debate.

For many of the artists in the room, this was the first time we had encountered the work of international artist also known as Aerosol Ali. He began by allowing us the opportunity to introduce ourselves, demonstrating his interest in our practice as well as his own, which immediately gained the respect of the room.

Image by Inés Elsa Dalal

Image by Inés Elsa Dalal


The images that displayed Mohammed’s portfolio of work oozed passion, technical skill and collaboration but funnily enough we weren’t shown Mohammed’s work until about half way through his talk… Instead he told us gripping stories from along the way, all of which contributed towards his current values when it comes to making art. Because of this, we felt as though we had formed a relationship with his work before even setting eyes on it.

“Take off your headphones while you are painting, engage with people that you are supposed to be serving” Mohammed Ali

Mohammed was painting a new piece of work in Sparkbrook when a local resident pulled up to him, child in car, and asked “what are you doing? I don’t like that”. Mohammed was left bemused, wondering why someone would ask this, why the residents wouldn’t want a new piece of visual art in the neighbourhood, why the residents wouldn’t want their stories told through art… when it dawned on him. He had never once consulted the community about what they wanted. He realised that he had been imposing his art upon the people that lived there, on people who already had so many of their decisions predetermined for them. And as a result, a key part of Mohammed’s practice became centred on engaging the people he is representing in the work he is making for them.

Image by Inés Elsa Dalal

Image by Inés Elsa Dalal

“As a community artist this is one of the stories which will stick with me” Cordeillia Cooper

Mohammed’s work is no longer solely based upon the wall; he is now involved in creating outstandingly unique and immersive experiences which bring stories to life.  “I aim to make work which not only tells a story, but enables others to relive the story, a story which is accessible to all’

“Finding other artists who want to create experiences, rather than traditional face on performances, gives me faith in my own vision and practice” – Tara Buckley

Based on his dad’s curry house in Cotteridge, “Knights of the Raj Exhibition” aims to retell the story of Mohammed’s humble beginnings. Find it at on Friday 22nd September 2017

How I did it - Mohammed Ali: A truly inspiring, and indeed, thought provoking talk.

HOW I DID IT - Laura Dyer


Last week we had the opportunity to have a behind closed doors conversation with Laura Dyer, Deputy Chief Executive at Arts Council England.  

As part of our ‘How I did it’ series, the evening brought us her insight, wisdom and knowledge about Laura’s influential position and journey within the creative and cultural sector.

Laura portrayed the qualities of a highly experienced and humanised leader as she spoke with confidence and thoughtfulness and took time to meet with participants afterwards in case any of them did not want to ask a question publicly.

In a room full of curious and enthused minds, we had questions around funding routes, ACE's vision as well as exploring wider areas including, education, health, gentrification and the role the cultural sector might play in a changing society and economy.  

It was an absolute pleasure and privilege to engage with a key leader within our sector. Our How I did it talks create the platform to allow participants access to leading policy makers, artists and academics who can demystify the grey areas.  With candour and by providing simple explanations of complex issues, they provide access to valuable knowledge that you can't necessarily always find on the internet.  

These talks are always guaranteed to bring something new from both speaker and cohort as they provoke interesting discussions, an exchange of perspectives and spark new ways of thinking.

Thank you Laura for being ACE!  


EMERGE Session 4 - Charlotte Clark Designer

For our foray into marketing we focused specifically on speakers who had found a way or growing their business or changing their practice by finding their "tribe" - people who are fans, people who love what you do and will come and find you and your work out.


One speaker we heard from Charlotte Clark of Charlotte Clark Designer Maker 

A selection of Charlotte's work

A selection of Charlotte's work


Charlotte worked on identifying her business values - and in particular her core value of happiness.  "Happiness is at the core of what I do.  I look at every piece I make and ask "Does this make me happy", because if it doesn't I don't make it."


 Charlotte doesn't' just sell home wear - mugs, crockery and cushions - she also aims to tell a story and make people think about things differently.  And her work is strong - with anatomical images, sweary slogans and a strong aesthetic.

Ceramic work by Charlotte Clark Designer Maker

Ceramic work by Charlotte Clark Designer Maker


In recognition of the niche appeal of her products, she made "Not my cup of tea" - but on the upside she has discovered that if you find people who love what you do  then" the stuff sells itself".


In order to engage more people and get a bigger following she chose key events - Comicon, tattoo conventions, Goth fair  - her best one was Bart's hospital in London. While it was a huge stress to get there,  it was full of science minded people who really got the context.  Success there made her focus more on the right shows and try out what works - being more selective about shows.

Teapot by Charlotte Clark Designer Maker

Teapot by Charlotte Clark Designer Maker


"Find your people and find where they are and get them to tell their friends."


On pricing - Charlotte advocates  looking at all the elements that you will have to cover - "Price confidently and you will eliminate some people but you'll get the people who really want your product.  With selling online I need to factor things in like replacing items that get damaged in the post."  A slightly higher price therefore means that she can offer a greater level of customer service and build reputation.


Charlotte also brought along her wonderful stacking tea set for us to look at.  She is a wonderful illustration of how to develop an authentic voice in the marketplace that people can respond to.






Emerge Session 2 - Planning For Business

The second session for the EMERGE cohort took place a few weeks ago - and here's some of the key points that came up with our speakers.

Having considered the need for a business vision and for a support structure to empower you to achieve that vision, week 2 saw an emphasis on planning.

There were two main areas of focus:  planning your time day to day in order to be effective and balancing those day to day concerns with planning the activity that will bring you closer to your ultimate vision.

ASTONish Emerge group, week 2. Image by Inès Elsa Dalal

ASTONish Emerge group, week 2. Image by Inès Elsa Dalal

Nadia Wood and family

Nadia Wood and family


Both great fans of planning   - they spoke of different approaches to building and starting their business.  Nadia was made redundant from her role while on maternity leave.  "I got the letter and I started my business that afternoon."  Jon wanted to move away from his enjoyable role as a trainer in a large retail company.  He liked his job but ultimately knew he wanted something else.  "I decided that I would be in my new business by the time I was 40 -which was 6 1/2 years away!

Jon Sanderson. Image by Inès Elsa Dalal

Jon Sanderson. Image by Inès Elsa Dalal


The two approaches also meant that the businesses were grown in different ways:  Nadia built her own website and invested the profits from her initial sales in further marketing initiatives.  She had premises and ran workshops.  Jon continued to earn a wage - decreasing his hours from 5 days a week, to 4 and then 3.  But in this time he was able to fund the extensive training  that he needed in upholstery skills, he paid a designer to build his branding and website, he had time to grow his client base before "taking the leap" to full time freelance work.


Then in the afternoon - we looked at approaches to planning:  including the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) and PESTLE.



PESTLE is simply a mnemonic for areas of life that may have a bearing on your business, or the products or services you might offer and stands for the following words:

P = Political (the obvious things like general elections, but also laws, regulations and local government)

E = Economic (obvious things like how the cuts might affect arts organisations (and their supply chains) to what people spend disposable income on and exchange rates) 

S = Social (the trends in behaviour, buying patterns and interests) 
T = Technological (advances in technology – who knew, when we first got mobile phones, that we needed a camera in it, let alone that we now want one with at least 2 million pixels)

L = Legal (changes to the law or regulation that might open up new markets or close other ones)

E = Environmental (not just global warming – though that’s a part of it – but also the trading environment or competitive environment) 

How might that work? For example – take the change in legislation that banned smoking in shops, restaurants in bars… what were the markets that were created by that change? Well, sign makers and writers had a big surge of income as part of the legislation was the mandatory display of “No Smoking” signs in a specific format. The makers of cigarette machines had to think about alternative income generation opportunities as pubs moved them out of their premises. Makers of bus shelters spotted a new opportunity to create “smoking shelters” for a variety of buildings.

When you take each letter and speculate as to how the area it represents may create an opportunity for your business, or provide a threat or challenge that you need to anticipate, you have a powerful framework for planning.

How I Did It - Piali Das Gupta

'I enjoyed how the session felt like a conversation instead of a talk'

Piali take 2

Last Wednesday evening, the first 'How I Did It' session took place, at Birmingham Hippodrome, with Piali Das Gupta talking to the ASTONish cohorts about her own leadership journey. The 'How I Did It' sessions are open and honest discussions with experts in their fields and it can't be emphasised enough how valuable these sessions are to giving the cohorts real insight into so many aspects of leadership and the contexts leaders across different sectors work in . The nature of the sessions allows the experts to really share the things that are helpful to others.

Piali Das Gupta is the Assistant Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council and we really appreciate her finding the time to come and talk to us. 

We spoke to some of the cohorts after the session to find out how it had been helpful and here are some of the responses;

'There has been lots of information. I'm looking at how to connect the information given to how it is relevant to me and how I can apply it'

'It's an eye opener. There's so much politics involved. Learning this helps me understand how I can navigate around and through it. If I understand it then I can really know how to think outside the box.'

'It reminded me to be active as a citizen, how important it is to vote. Also the importance of being creative with partnerships and funding. I enjoyed how the session felt like a conversation instead of a talk. It was interesting to find out the facts and have some myths busted.'


Assessing ASTONish

Photo Credit: Joshua Swetnam

Photo Credit: Joshua Swetnam

Last year Dr Annette Naudin from BCU led the assessment for our pilot initiative RE:Present which sought to transform the diversity of Birmingham's cultural leadership. This year she is joining us again to evaluate ASTONish. This will help us to see how the project is being effective in our aim of developing a diverse group of cultural and creative leaders and entrepreneurs who will be able to create high quality art within their community creating both high quality cultural experiences for audiences but equally to create a cultural ecology within Aston and Newtown 

We are delighted that BCU are working with us again to assess the project! 

Annette has recently written about this experience and her hopes for the new project here -

Welcome to ASTONish

Helga Henry welcomes the cohorts to ASTONish

Helga Henry welcomes the cohorts to ASTONish

ASTONish has officially begun! Last Wednesday the team and the cohorts met at Birmingham Hippodrome for an orientation evening. This was an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other and for all the elements of the programme to be explained in more detail.

The evening began with introductions from Helga Henry, Lara Ratnaraja, Rebbecca Hemmings and Shekayla Maragh, the core ASTONish team.

This was followed by an icebreaker activity. Everyone was asked to introduce themselves and tell us which fictional or historical character they would be, and what brought them to the ASTONish programme. It was fascinating to hear who everybody would be, Cleopatra, David Bowie, Dora The Explorer to name a few, but on talking about why people had chosen to be part of the programme, it became very clear how passionate the cohorts are and how exciting this programme is going to be.  Many spoke about a desire to create a hub and community in Aston that goes out and collaborates with the rest of Birmingham, and also about creating social change in the community.

Helga Henry, Lara Ratnaraja and Fiona Allan

Helga Henry, Lara Ratnaraja and Fiona Allan

Fiona Allan, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Birmingham Hippodrome, spoke to the room about her own leadership journey, her vision for the theatre and her commitment to building diversity and creating change in the cultural landscape of the city. It was wonderful to hear her talk about making Birmingham Hippodrome a place where the brand value ‘Everyone’s Welcome’ really means that. She mentioned that ASTONish is one of the most exciting programmes at Birmingham Hippodrome right now!

Dr.  Annette Naudin and Millicent Chapanda spoke about how they will be evaluating the ASTONish programme, how they will be gaining insights along the way at different stages.

The room was buzzing by the end of the evening, this is the beginning of a journey and we can’t wait to see what ripples it creates.