Bolanle Austen-Peters founded Terrakulture in 2003 after developing an interest in the creative sector. A lawyer by training, she once served as a company secretary with the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Switzerland, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Development Programme. The executive producer of Nigeria’s biggest hit musical, Saro, shares her success nuggets in this interview with Rita Ohai .
In the year 2000, after Bolanle and her husband decided to relocate home, the quintessential business-woman soon realised that she had a burning desire to create jobs and engage in activities that were passion-driven. After a little soul-searching, Terrakulture was born.
Committed to making a go at it, she gave it her best shot and today, her gallery is one of the best auction houses in the entire region.
This decision to venture into the arts in this part of the world where its acceptance is not as huge as it is in other cities was a huge risk and as such she was faced with the difficult task of getting angel investors to put money into a venture that had not been classified as productive in the past.
After over six months of incessantly pitching her ideas to a wide range of people, heaven opened its doors and a man whom she had never met before but was advised to make contact with finally paid attention and gave financial support.
In her words, “We started out doing something nobody had really done before on the scale that we wanted to do it and based on that I was advised to speak to a gentleman called Tayo Aderinoku, (former Chief Executive Officer, GTBank) who is now unfortunately late.
“He was somebody who really loved the Arts and he put his money where his mouth was, so to speak. So when I met with him he said ‘this is something I am interested in doing’ and through the SME funds, GT Bank invested and that’s how come we started this institution,” she said.
A decade later, her businesses acumen which has positioned the company as a leading source for sophisticated artistry has drawn her widespread acclaim, not just in sub-Saharan Africa but across the world and as far as Bolanle is concerned, “the revolution has just begun.”
In an industry where the dynamics surrounding the sale of collections and its heavy profit-margins are more discreet than public, there is often a sense of mystery associated with the way financial returns are accrued. Providing insight, Bolanle explains the intricacies of how she keeps the bank account in the blue;
“How we make our money is from commission on works that we sell here and also we work with a lot of institutions who want to kit out their offices with artworks. But I think what the auction houses have done is that we have created a platform where we can have a scale of reference for artworks and I think that is the beginning of bigger things to come.”
In a bid to promote indigenous culture, Terrakulture has begun exporting the art to climes far from the shores of Nigeria partly because of the high affinity for the afro-centric but also due to the soaring availability of disposable income abroad.
Giving evidence, the visionary who is married to Dr. Adegboyega Oluwarotimi Austen-Peters posited, “I know some collectors that take this so seriously you wouldn’t even believe it! I can tell you stories of Nigerian works that used to cost about N100,00 just 4 or 5 years ago but are now worth well over N2 million or N3 million. Some of the pieces we have taken abroad in some of the auctions there as well, I mean Nigerian art pieces, have gone for over £500,000. That is an exception but on the average you find pieces going for £20,000 which you bought here for maybe less than £7,000 to £8000.”
While she’s striving to leave a lasting legacy by instilling international best practises in all her ventures, living with the stereotypes associated with hardworking and successful female executives is a reality she is learning to live with and overcome.
According to her, “The truth is there are prejudices everywhere in the world. When you are outside of Nigeria people would look at you different because of your colour. When you are in Nigeria men would look at you different in a particular setting and women do the same as well, so it depends on the context within which you are operating.
“People come here expecting to see a man running this; they expect to see most times an expatriate. They do not believe for some reason that a Nigerian woman can run this for 10 years successfully and maintain the standards.
“So there are stereotypes, there is nothing you can do about stereotyping. Are you going to live your life based on a stereotype? I just move on. They make their remarks, ‘oh my goodness I thought you would be older’ or ‘oh my goodness, I thought you would be younger’. There is always something but I just ignore all of that and get to the point, why are we here? What are you here for? And let’s get the job done…that’s my attitude.”
It takes a woman with a high value system to commands the degree of respect that the lawyer turned art-connoisseur does. Revealing the principles that guide the operandis of her life, she said, “There are maybe two or three principles that I live by. The first being – and I think I got that from my father- Hardwork, I work very hard. The second one being Integrity; my mom is very principled and the third one is Compassion: I am very compassionate, I would like to believe,” she gave a huge smile at the last one.
As with most businesses, there are a few tips and tricks to the trade. Sharing from her wealth of experience, Bolane says for any successful enterprise to thrive, the first thing to possess is passion. In her opinion, “If it is about adding value, if it is about growing things, if your focus is on the creative mind you will be so fulfilled that the monetary aspect would probably not matter to you.
Continuing she said, “You must be passionate about looking at an artwork and asking yourself, ‘what was going through this person’s mind to use so many colours to create such an image?’, ‘what was going through this author’s mind to write such a creative piece?’, ‘what challenged the producer to put together such a massive play?’ These are the things that need to be going on your mind but if it is about the bottom line then it’s not going to work. Unfortunately, in reality that is what most people are driven by.”
If there are further changes she yearns to make with respect to growing her brand, it would be this: “We would like to continue doing more productions of better quality which is why we are investing a lot of infrastructure in terms of equipment especially with the support of Access Bank.
“It would also be nice to have a theatre space that is designed and purpose built for theatre and it would be great to continue doing what we are doing with greater impact and I think the only two things that can help us do that is to keep churning out good quality work!” she concluded.