In 1991, when I entered Art College, students used hand-held devices called books and wrote research papers on electric typewriters. Artists didn’t have personal websites; our imagined lives after school were murky, undefined careers that involved belonging to a stable of artists with a reputable gallery. In this age of innocence there was no sense from professors or peers that when we emerged from the developmental cocoon of our BFA programs as artists we would also be in business.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago expects an average of 3,000 new students each Fall at $34,000 a head. That’s tuition only – living expenses and materials not included. Despite the accrual of a student loan debt to rival that of any MBA graduate the advanced study of fine art does not increase the earning potential of its disciples. Up until 2008 SAIC provided no business training for fine art students (although the school does host an Arts Administration program). Fortunately, art colleges and organizations seem to recognize a gap in the education of young artists and are beginning to provide access to the real-world tools needed to attend to the “business of art”. The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs hosts an annual one day Creative Chicago Expo where arts service organizations and nonprofits display their wares, talk about services and provide seminars. Workshops are held on both creative and business aspects of the artists’ life, from time-management to grant-writing to building a website, and there are even one-on-one 20 minute sessions with experts in the field which you can register for online (a minimal fee of about $10 per session). Thousands of artists and creatives attend this event indicating that this is a much-needed resource for professionals and emerging artists alike.
In recent artist stories on the CAR website, and in other publications for artists, marketing tools have grabbed the spotlight. This re-casting of the artist as “artrepreneur” is really a culmination of trends over the past 20 or 30 years in how we make, look at, and buy art. Our global, media-centric world is moving at a dizzying pace marked by status updates, tweets, pings and pokes. The term “artrepreneur,” coined to acknowledge that artists are in business, makes it acceptable and even de rigueur for the garret-ed artist to join in the commercial and technological fray. A burgeoning sense of possibility and self-determination is distilled in the artrepreneur: a Super Artist who is not only a prodigious Creator but is also able to market and sell their art all in a day’s work.
As the numbers of graduating artists swell and merge with those returning to the field of art, after raising a family and/or following another career path, artists as sole-proprietors are providing a new and expanding market for a range of business services and products, consultants, coaches, and competitions that suggest fame and fortune are a few clicks away.
Formula for Success
The business of art has always been intricately linked to commerce and speculation. From religious commissions (it took a lot of dough to build those cathedrals), to Dutch paintings celebrating the haul of the merchant class, to the sky’s-the-limit value of art during the 1980’s – art has consistently shown a complete lack of any price equilibrium. The limitless “potential” return on our art investment, the misunderstood genius status associated with being an artist, and the cultural emphasis on “self-expression” as a tool to get you to buy increasingly customized gadgets, have created a mythic vacuum in which all art (self-expression = individuality) can be priceless. Branding, marketing, and selling ourselves (an artist is a brand), easily encroaches upon the time formerly reserved for art making and is changing the way that we think about, create and present our art.
In a culture that revolves around advertising, success is not synonymous with merit. Gold stars and MBA’s for everyone! The current generation of artist is applauded for their marketing savvy and style first, with artistic excellence coming in second. (America will occasionally gaze at her reflection and regret that she doesn’t really “make” anything anymore. This is an insincere criticism because the American Dream was never about making things that the majority of people need and will improve the quality of life – its about the individual rising to the top of the heap and having more money, represented by the accumulation of things that they don’t need, than everyone else.) Stewed in popular culture the artist and the viewers sense of history is limited to decades and frequently art seems to devolve into self-expression without any transcendent intent or meaning. Meanwhile, advertising silently permeates everything and even ironic references to main-stream culture (prevalent just a few years ago) have been eroded to a tolerant acceptance and self-referential revelry in current brand superstars. Art becomes advertising and distinctions between hi-art and popular culture are passé.
The tools or edge that the artrepreneur may gain through embracing market demands and methods can also threaten the critical self-awareness necessary to be an artist. Artists are like entrepreneurs in that we are engaged at every level: from conception, to creation, then marketing and finally selling. However, the business model of supply and demand does not translate well to the creation of art because, despite one’s best efforts, producing a painting (or any artwork, individually produced for a personal experience) is not the same as producing a car or an iPod (or any object that can be manufactured, for a universal audience and a general, public experience). The intangible investment of our education includes ongoing labor and experimentation with new techniques, materials and ideas. This, in addition to the important failures necessary to achieve a vision over our lifetime, is the inherent cost of art production. Unlike manufactured goods, attempting to align consumer demand and the set price of an artwork can not be determining factors in what, or how, an artist produces. The role of the artist is to respond to the spiritual needs of society, not just to provide amusement or escape. Art is something more meaningful and important than the sum of its parts. The artist’s career path cannot be easily predicted because it is dependent on variable inputs of space, time, money and life experience. Despite the cumulative investment the artist will make in their art practice over the course of their lifetime, there is no model to predict success for an artist.
The visual artist ought to be an expert in visual communication. We know about color, light, shape and have absorbed an extensive vocabulary of cultural symbols. By creating lesser works with the sole intent of generating a profit (or from disregard or ignorance of or what makes a work of art, “art”), artists undermine their important role in society as questioners, observers, absurdists and representatives of human ingenuity. As marketing tools, vanity publications, reality TV shows and established cultural “taste-makers” encourage the public expectation to be entertained, an impenetrable mediocrity is reached. Galleries, artists, museums and curators must follow the crowd to broaden their market share and provide shows that sell in order to stay in business. All of this means less risks taken by artists and institutions, including institutions that might provide grants to artists, with the “art” becoming less important than the spectacle that surrounds it.
Survival of the Most Empowered
Artists, and their art, must adapt to the competitive (and saturated) marketplace by becoming advertisers, designers and speakers. However, simply telling and “workshopping” artists into business people and entrepreneurs is not that easy. The incorporation of business methodology into the art-making process does not acknowledge the contrary demands of these two mind-sets.
The major flaw in the new programs to educate artists in the ways of the world is an assumption that a mere refresher course in business do’s and dont’s are all that artists need. Artists are being taught to make money from their art before they have any kind of understanding about what their art is or why they are making it. The creation of art becomes a means to produce income when in actuality most successful artists have very diverse income streams including real estate, a partners income and/or another job. If we are lucky, the money that is earned from the sale of art covers our materials and studio rent. This is not a profitable business venture. Like most start-ups, artists “have a great idea” but lack a clear and long-term vision for their creative practice/business.
The other weakness that artists must face is their tendency to be isolated and/or dependent on the kindness of strangers. Business leaders network with lawyers, accountants, developers and politicians – they share their resources and knowledge. Artists hang out with other artists and spend most of their time thinking about their own, individual problems. We often struggle with doing it all, balancing two careers, family, our art business and other obligations. Little time or energy remains to invest in our natural strengths: collaboration, creative genesis, observation and criticism. Artists should stand together and help each other reach a broader audience, become art activists (national healthcare anyone?), and educate the public about the importance of sustaining a diverse, creative community. Too often, we see ourselves in competition with each other and unwilling to share our “secret” connections and ideas. This is where we fail. If success as an artist is unpredicatable, it is an absolute certainty that no one can make it alone.
Thanks to technology and the Internet, there are many tools available to artists that make developing a sustainable career possible; from creating an online portfolio, to staying in contact with peers and collectors, to researching opportunities and broadening the audience for our work. Above all, our most important resource is each other. Artists have a shared interest to develop the public appreciation and understanding for the experiential value of art. The pursuit of this goal will in turn establish personal and professional standards that truly allow us to pursue our lifetime commitment to art.