The Link Between Art and Business: An Interview with Mark Featherstone-Witty, Founding Principle of The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts


When I was a University art student the idea of art and business being combined was non-existent. To my surprise, years later, when I started my own production studio, I came to find out that I loved business as much, if not more than art. I decided to extend a conversation with people in the arts about their ideas of combining business and art.

I met Mark Featherstone-Witty while on a film crew recording a documentary involving one of his students at The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA).

I was captivated by his easy-going and passionate personality. He stopped students in the hallway, knowing everyone by name, and engaged with his students  in a way that was a breath of fresh air.

Mark, is the Founding Principal and Chief Executive of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) that he created in the mid-1990s, after creating the British Record Industry Trust BRIT School in Croydon. Alongside former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney and producer Sir George Martin, Mark combined his passion for the arts and entrepreneurship to create an educational legacy.

I caught up with Mark to ask him how he felt about the links between art and business. Here is our conversation:

Mark, I am going to start with talking about a short video I viewed featuring your book, Optimistic, Even Then: The Creation of Two Performing Arts Institutes, and you reflected on being eighteen and the main thing you wanted to do was be an actor because you found the performing arts to be intense and concentrated, but then you realized years later that you could have the same experience starting a business. Can you talk to me a little bit about those two experiences and how they united?

I have been thinking about this Cara and actually, putting on a show is actually creating a mini business. I sometimes surprise people by saying, “What British show has earned more money than Avatar, more money than Star Wars, more money than Titanic even, and its Phantom of The Opera. Effectively that is a new business.

And of course if you are a musician, like Paul McCartney, you are creating a new business as well. There is so much similarity to that and the creation of art because you are creating something that did not exist before.

The other interesting thing is you are asking a person to believe in something that doesn’t exist. For example, when people see a show they know it isn’t real, but it starts to feel real after a while, if it’s any good. If you are starting a business you are asking a person to invest in something that doesn’t yet exist.

The thing I find particularly most exciting about the business bit, is that it goes on existing.

So I think in summary, I need to think about this a bit more and I would like to write something about this someday, and I’m glad you pick up on it, but there are a lot of links between them both: art and business.

I used to say that if you ever told me that I would love business as much as I love art I would have laughed in your face. When I was in art school I just didnt see as a business person because the stereotypes were often projected onto us that artists couldnt be business people because we were too disorganized and dysfunctional.

Well, I think that that is a convenient excuse. When is started LIPA I read this book, which I thought was about drugs but found it out was not, called “Expensive Habits.” You can see why I was misled.  It was basically about musicians that had no idea they were entering show business and made a serious fatal and nearly disastrous mistakes, and then simply blamed other people. It was very silly really.

I often walk students through the idea the one thought, if acted upon, can change the world.

An example of this I see in your work is when you talk about watching the movie Fame from the 80s. You are sitting back, taking this movie in, and you get this amazing idea to create the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Do you think one thought if acted upon can change the world?

I think the thought needs to land on fertile ground. In other words, there are lots of thoughts which are happening all the time, but why does one thought get picked up and the other one doesn’t? The moment had to be right for that moment to flourish. So I think that it’s not just about the thought coming along, there has to be a receptor for it. I don’t think that one thought can change the world; it is something that finds a resonance.

Can you take me back to the moment when you watched the movie Fame for the first time and how it inspired the creation of The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts.

The movie was about a secondary specialized high school in New York City. I had started up a variety of small schools and after viewing the movie it dawned on me that I should start a school about something I am truly passionate about, the performing arts.

I had to do a lot of research and one of the people I originally met on the journey was Allan Parker, the director of the film. He told me if I really wanted to know how these schools work I really needed to spend more time in America, so I spend a lot of time research these schools in the States.

What I didn’t appreciate, Cara, is that the business I had started up until then had been quite small scale.  The amount of start-up money required to start these schools was much smaller and I got it primarily from friends and myself.

Of course my ever supportive mother told me that I would have the opportunity to come back and lose all my friends in one go (laughter).

I didn’t realize what an undertaking it would become because it required millions of pounds to get off the ground.  What you were talking about earlier, about how one thought can change the world, if you become focused on something you tend to filter everything you read, everything you hear, and everything you see. Before, it might have seemed like a tsunami of information coming towards you, but if there is something in particular you want to achieve, that tsunami filters out quite quickly and becomes a wave that you can spot.

That is putting it metaphorically, but basically that is what happened.  I managed to gather various people, who, through networking, introduced me to more people and what came of that was the first secondary school called The Brit School.

The government at the time put together two initiatives, both mutually incompatible, which made my vision for the school not what I hoped it would be.  Then literally quite by chance Paul McCartney came up to Liverpool because he was writing a classical piece of music about a young boy growing up in Liverpool, going to school, with friends, first girlfriends, getting married, etc.  He decided he wanted to wander around his old school in the dead of the night with a film crew to reminisce about the time he spent there. He saw that the building was derelict and he decided something must be done.

You can’t just renovate an old building unless it is renovated for something and fortunately I got on board, then I called George Martin, who produced the Beatles, to help as well.

George Martin was really the godfather of both the schools in the sense that he was the one that had the address book and the knowledge, and he was one of the only people I knew in the music business who thought training in popular music was worthwhile.

So I was very lucky Cara, very lucky indeed. It was absolutely pure luck that I aligned myself with them at just the right time.

It was a very interesting experience because neither Paul nor I had ever started a University. Nobody actually had done it, it’s quite impossible to do it in this country.

Its interesting to me when you tell me the way that Paul and George entered your world. I often tell my students that attracting things into your life is often like learning a new word. When you learn a new word you begin to hear it everywhere you go. When you have a common vision the right people seem to show up at the right time.

That segways into my next question addressing your book, Optimistic, Even Then: [The Creation of Two Performing Art Institutes]. I love that title and how you commented on the fact that adversity is inevitable and it can either crush you or make you stronger. What are some of the key principles you live by in order to face adversity head on?

Oh my, that is a very difficult question (laughter). Alison, who I am married to, says I have a particular kind of blindness. If something doesn’t fit in I pretend it hasn’t happened.  So I just sail past it.

The way the title for the book came about was actually a simple story, but perhaps a nice one. I had been reading my childhood version of Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales and Stories and one of the stories was about a fur tree which was growing up in a forest feeling rather discontented.  It really wanted to move around and see things. The birds that came to visit this tree spoke of the lands they had visited and the sights they had seen, and he became even more discontented. It was told by the birds that after a while it will have a moment of glory where it will be dug up and put in people’s space and he was so excited. So this came to be and the tree was cut down and put in a house as a Christmas tree. It was decorated and celebrated, and the tree was in all its glory. Then, like all trees experience, Christmas passes and the tree gets taken down and thrown in the attic. The tree thinks it will start all over again but instead the family has no use for it and eventually it is going to be burned.  In the sort of sad and horrible way Hans Christian Anderson says these things, every crackle the tree made in the fire was the sound of the trees tears.

Well I was so upset by this as a child that I crossed out the whole ending of the story, and changed the ending to where the tree was decorated and wrote across the book, “The tree lived happily ever after!” Reviewing this with my friend as adults they quickly responded you were, “Optimistic Even Then!”

I read that LIPA recently purchased John Lennons old art school building which is the former Liverpool Institute for Art. How do you feel about this expansion and what kind of a opportunities will this space provide for LIPA.

There is a bit of a romantic side to this story where we now have three buildings where the original Beatles were educated.  George and Paul went to school in this building and John went to school in the building next door.  The main reason we are excited about owning all the buildings on our site is that the performing arts are greedy and we are running out of space (laughter). We also need space so that we can expand and offer new courses, so this provides room for that growth.

The last question I would like to talk to you about is on the lighter side. I read that you absolutely love your Doc Marten boots.

(Laughter) Yes Cara, this is very true.

In one of the articles I read about you commented on how you would be seen wearing your signature boots at every occasion including royal events. I have read that shoes can often speak volumes about a persons personality. What do your Doc Martens say about you?

Well, I think that if the fashion industry relied on me they would never go anywhere (laugher). There was a remake of the film called, The Fly, starring American actor Jeff Goldbloom and he takes his girlfriend to his flat and he threw open his closet and there were ten sets of jackets, ten sets of shoes, ten sets of shirts, ten sets of socks, etc., all the same. You were meant to look at the moment in judgment and think, “What a dweeb or weirdo,” but for me, it was an epiphany. This is wonderful! You decided what you like wearing and go on wearing it!

It doesn’t just end with my Doc Martens, all the jackets I own are the same, and the Doc Martens are just the tip of the iceberg! As far as Doc Martins are concerned, well, they are just so darn comfortable!  In the end you just decide what is important.

Are there any last comments you would like to make for my readers out there in regards to life, art, and success?

Well I think what you have said Cara is very good, about persistence and perseverance. I think it was Edison that said, “One percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration.” Nobody ever wants to talk about the perspiration! Everyone wants to talk about talent but nobody wants to talk about the hard work. Even people who are well known, the public will say, “Oh they were gifted in some way or they are so talented.” Yes, talent is important but it is only part of the equation.

One of the last times Paul was here I tried to get him to talk to the students about some of the work he used to do with John; the things he dreamed up himself or the things they dreamt up between them.  Creating the work was hard but creating the work together would make it progressively harder. For example they would come up with a tune in the afternoon but they would not write it down. They would leave for the evening, come back the next day and if they could recall the tune, that was when they would write it down and move forward.  The point for them was that if they couldn’t remember it how could they expect the public to.

This was hard work, not a lot of fun, a lot of practice and it takes a long time.

So people have to know it does take a long time. I often tell students, when you leave here you will be “okay.” You won’t be “good” and you certainly won’t be “Excellent” because you just haven’t done it long enough. If you are interested in doing anything that is worthwhile you just have to stick with it, and, progressively make it harder on yourself. (Laughter)

One thought on “The Link Between Art and Business: An Interview with Mark Featherstone-Witty, Founding Principle of The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts

  1. Cara, I love this blog–everytime you write another piece, it is better than the last–your creative spirit embraces the world, shouts out to the universe and prevails in the hearts of the artisitc soul.

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