LOS ANGELES — I hear it again and again in the art world. So many brilliant artists with great creative work, and yet so many of them tell me that they don’t have the first idea on how to start promoting their work and making sales.
There’s a big difference between art and the business of doing art. Indeed, while MFA graduates leave school with a mountain of debt, few are equipped to turn their talents into a self-sustaining business. Some programs, like the Bronx Museum’s Artists in the Marketplace and the learning programs put together by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), help New York artists develop the other skills they’ll need to succeed financially. Others, like Art Biz Coach and pFan take a more online approach, with courses and conference calls.
A new book put together by Artspire and NYFA aims to bridge this knowledge gap in a clear, easy to reference handbook. The Profitable Artist starts with a simple “Roadmap” with questions like, “Do you have a mission statement?” or “Do you understand the terms of each contract to which you are a party?” These initial questions then branch off into full-blown chapters.
“I’m a musician, but I used to be an attorney,” explained Peter Cobb, one of the book’s editors along with Susan Ball and Felicity Hogan. I spoke with Cobb at the recent College Art Conference. We talked about some of the challenges artists face in the professional world, and one of the biggest is the lack of training in basic business practices.
He noted that the book discusses basic accounting principles that artists may not know and never are trained to do. As a saxophone player, for instance, one of his most substantial costs is the saxophone reed. Rather than buy reeds for a certain amount around his neighborhood, he looks for more cost effective options online. The money he saves then goes into an interest-bearing account. “Or you can take it and invest it in your practice in another way,” he noted. It’s a simple concept, but the book points at other tools and strategies for developing a business.
The title can be slightly misleading. While “profitable” might suggest Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst levels of revenue, the book has a more basic goal:
Rather, the purpose of this book is to demystify the business of being an artist and to provide a structured framework of information that will help you move toward profitability, stability, and/or sustainability. We recognize that most artists, despite the fact that they are running their own businesses … have not had formal business training and are unfamiliar with many of the terms and concepts in the business world.
Indeed, the book looks at basic business practices like setting up a mission statement and vision statement, creating goals and creating a balance sheet. It also covers frequent legal issues that artists might encounter, whether that be contracts, intellectual property or the question of whether to self-organize as a business (and what type of business). While a few pages are not enough to cover the ins and outs of artists’ business and legal needs, the book empowers them to understand the necessary lingo and points them to other, more detailed resources.
“Networking is another topic,” Cobb noted. “For a lot of people it’s not intuitive. They think it’s a bad word or they’re just nervous about it.” The book focuses instead on building community and working directly with your audience, while avoiding the usual hustle of trading business cards with dozens of people in one night. These networks, of course, include leveraging social media and online contacts, followed by the crucial steps toward making a sale.
Indeed, networking segues nicely into the final chapter, which focuses on fundraising skills for artists. And it starts with a simple skill that artists can often overlook, namely, “build your budget first. By knowing all of the costs associated with your project or practice, you will then be able to match specific needs with specific funding opportunities.” It’s from this budget that artists can then develop a simple chart to strategize on how to cover their expenses, whether that be through grants, scholarships or crowdfunding efforts like Kickstarter.
The Profitable Artist serves as an excellent starter guide and reference for any artist seeking to turn their art practice into a self-sustaining business. It won’t replace a business school class or legal counsel, but it offers the critical building blocks for a career in the arts. And that’s a great start.
“There’s some negative stereotypes about artists,” Cobb explained, noting that practicing good business help counter these stereotypes. “You don’t have to be compromising your art in any way to be nice and polite and follow up with people and take an interest in what they’re doing.”