Brown is the principal of Maren Brown Associates in Florence (Northampton), Massachusetts. Drawing on 25 years of experience, she presents workshops not only to individual artists but to arts organizations, administrators and agencies. She has authored several books, worked with numerous national organizations and cofounded an arts-management degree program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Brown agreed to share some of her arts-business savvy with Seven Days.
SEVEN DAYS: Why is it so difficult for artists to market themselves and sell their work? Is it that business skills simply aren't a part of arts education, or is there some kind of incompatibility between creative types and finance?
MAREN BROWN: You've certainly hit upon the "big three" in this question: marketing, selling and financial management for artists. For the past five years, the Vermont Arts Council has brought me and my colleague, Dee Boyle-Clapp of the UMass Arts Extension Service, to teach our "Breaking Into Business" program for Vermont artists. In our program, we spend a lot of time with artists helping to demystify these three topics and make them less frightening.
I recently read Daniel Pink's book, To Sell Is Human[: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others], which offers an engaging exploration of the topic of selling. Essentially, Pink argues that selling is about persuading others to your point of view, which he asserts is a routine activity in both our personal and professional lives. But we have images of salespeople that are less than savory and, because of this, we have to overcome internal stereotypes in order to even consider selling. Combine these negative images with the highly personal nature of art making and it is easy to see why artists struggle with selling their work. We focus on helping artists to find their authentic voice in sales, and teach them how to unearth what is unique about their work and concentrate on these qualities in both their sales and marketing literature.
As to marketing, well, it is overwhelming, isn't it? I've been teaching arts marketing for over 10 years, and in that time the landscape has been so transformed that it is almost laughable to read my teaching notes from five years ago. Think of it: Most of the social media sites we now take for granted (which reach audiences the size of entire nations) were born just a handful of years ago. Artists, like many small-business owners, struggle to keep current.
One great advantage artists have is that they are nimble and creative. I am constantly impressed by the number of established artists who take our "Breaking Into Business" programs: Even with over 10 years of experience, they are open to learning new ways of doing business. Marketing is always a popular topic because of its ever-changing nature. I teach artists to focus on a few marketing strategies that feel comfortable to them, and then build slowly from there. It is important to learn where their customers get information and use that as the most important criteria for selecting their marketing strategies.
Finally, the third part of your trio — money — is, in my experience, the most challenging. Most people struggle with money. I try to ease artists into the discussion of money by starting with small tasks. For example, at our recent Advanced Artist Business program in Montpelier, I asked artists to research their last three years of sales. Most had not done this analysis and found it illuminating. We used the information to help unearth trends that could help them to grow their business, and the results were very positive.
SD: Plenty of artists don't seem to know the first thing about channeling their talent into making a living — and may have wildly unrealistic expectations. In your workshops, where do you even start?
MB: We always start with the art. This is the core of any artist business. By better understanding the art they are making, artists need to build a business that reflects the unique qualities of their work. Next, we ask artists to honestly assess their readiness to build a business. Do they really want to be making art most of the time? After artists unpack their internal motivation for starting an artist business, the rest is easy. It is just a matter of acquiring skills, such as financial management, sales strategies and marketing techniques. All of that is very teachable.
SD: How can an artist learn to price his or her work?
MB: "How do I price my art?" is one of the most common questions I am asked in my artist business training programs. For this reason, I created an interactive exercise that teaches artists how to apply seven common pricing strategies to their art.
For instance, most artists use "cost"-based pricing to price their work, where they calculate the cost of making, for instance, a pot, and then add some percentage factor for their time to each pot (which may or may not represent the real time it takes to create their piece). While this is a good start, it doesn't take into consideration the competitive marketplace. What are pots like yours being sold for in similar marketplaces? And what about your reputation as an artist? Or the special qualities of your work that differentiate it from others? Once we run through these seven strategies, artists are better equipped to establish prices that are appropriate for their market.
SD: At the risk of asking for your workshop in a nutshell, maybe you'd suggest the most important things an artist should do to start a career — or boost a languishing one.
MB: One of the biggest success factors is to build a network of artists to help support you in building your artist business. What I so respect about Sonia Rae and Michele Bailey at the Vermont Arts Council is that they have offered multiple "post-workshop" networking events for the artists who take our workshops. Other success factors include a willingness to define what makes you unique as an artist, and to have the internal discipline to learn the skills to build a business.
Finally, I always remind artists that, while the focus is on learning business skills in our workshops, my goal is always to find ways to shrink down the business side of things so they can focus on making their art, which is, after all, why they got started in business!
The expression "starving artist" may be hyperbole, but it has some basis in truth. Creative types are not the only ones who have a problem making and managing money, of course. But the two sides of the brain — for current purposes, let's call them the arty and the financial — don't always have an easy time meeting up.
Or maybe there just aren't enough customers buying art. Either way, few artists would argue that learning to run a business — marketing and selling their work — was not part of their art school curriculum.
Yet everyone who chooses to make a living through art is inherently an entrepreneur. Those who can't embrace that aspect of their vocation may find themselves "starving" — or taking a day job (or three) and indulging in creativity on the side.
Of course, they also have the option of art-related jobs, most commonly teaching, points out Burlington City Arts education director Melissa Steady. "We employ more than 70 teaching artists per year," she says. "There are other ways to make a living besides selling art; you can get involved in arts integration in the schools. That's also a part of the conversation."
Whether or not they choose the path of full-time art making, artists in need of left-brain coaching have plenty of help at hand. Just about every Vermont arts organization offers art-as-business classes, or brings in experts for intense art-biz workshops. BCA has an artist-development series of "eight to 10" two-hour sessions per year for ages 16 and up, Steady says. At these workshops, artists can get critiques of individual work and learn how to sell art on Etsy.com, how to photograph work for professional presentation and more. At $20 or $25 a pop, the sessions are affordable and focused.
Kerri Macon, BCA's director of art sales and administrator of the Vermont Metro Gallery, frequently advises artists "on a broad spectrum" about pricing their work — a challenge for most of them. "The market really is a barometer," says Macon. "The primary factor is what they've sold work for in the marketplace. Any artist needs to use that as their base point."
And if they're just starting out? Start low and increase your prices slowly, advises Katharine Montstream. Fifteen years ago, the Burlington painter started small herself — with hand-painted cards. "It was a lot of work, but the numbers were good," she says. "I could make them for 15 cents, sell them for $1.50, and stores sold them for $3. It was good for everyone."
But creating hundreds of original paintings a week, even small ones, led to burnout. "It was crazy," acknowledges Montstream, who was still waitressing at the time. "So we decided to take the plunge and go into the printed world. And then I thought, Oh, crap, now we have to provide envelopes." And so the learning curve goes.
Montstream and her husband, Alan Dworshak, now print some 200,000 cards a year and run a gallery in downtown Burlington opposite City Hall Park. "But the best part of the business now is original paintings," she notes. "In 1991, a bank asked me to do a painting, and that was the start."
Artists can find pricing their work a hurdle at every level of their careers. And once a price is set, they may face other challenges — from the public. Burlington artist Beth Robinson, who has been making her beautifully creepy Strange Dolls for 11 years, laments that some potential buyers dicker with her on price. "You've established a value based on your time and the work," she says, "and then someone will outright say, 'If I buy two pieces, will you knock off a certain percentage?' Or 'Will you throw in this extra thing?' It's insulting.
"It's like they don't understand — I didn't order this object from China; years of training and experience went into this," Robinson continues. She notes that she tends to run into these hagglers at craft fairs, where, she points out, the artist has paid an entry fee and spent considerable time and effort on getting a spot.
Robinson's account of the beginning of her art career echoes Montstream's. Her work was very popular at first, she says — and priced too low. She got burnt out trying to meet demand. To figure out reasonable pricing and become more businesslike, Robinson turned to SCORE, an online free counseling resource from the U.S. Small Business Administration. "You get paired up with someone who has a related background," Robinson explains. Her mentor, she says, "kicked my butt about keeping track of my time, expenses and materials."
Paraphrasing that coach, Robinson says, "It's all nice and good that you want to make things, but if you really want this to be a part of your life, you have to make it a business."
Robinson says she tries to think of Strange Dolls like a client, and to itemize every expense — including her time.
She also attests to the importance of having an artist mentor to learn from — someone who is "further down the same path." For Robinson, that is Winooski sculptor Leslie Fry. "Leslie has been so incredibly supportive; she meets with me and takes me under her wing," Robinson says. "Every time we talk, I walk away inspired ... It helps me with the doubts about why I've chosen this path."
Robinson has taken heed of another important principle: Artists need a work ethic. "Leslie works so hard," she says. "It's a lot of work to make it as an artist."
In addition to free mentors and inexpensive classes, Vermont artists can take advantage of occasional, and more costly, art-business workshops from visiting experts. They are typically one- or two-day affairs on weekends. The Vermont Arts Council has presented arts-management consultant Maren Brown of Massachusetts-based Maren Brown Associates one or two times a year for the past five; her latest Vermont workshop was in February. (See sidebar Q&A with Brown.)
Later this month in Burlington, the South End Arts and Business Association will bring popular Colorado-based "art biz coach" Alyson B. Stanfield to Champlain College for a workshop titled "Marketing Strategies for Growing Your Art Business." Robinson calls Stanfield "the most straightforward [resource] about business and art." Indeed, Stanfield has a zippy, no-nonsense style and a penchant for enumeration; she instructs artists in "six things you should stop doing right now" and offers a "10 Surprising Facts survey about super-rich collectors," for two examples.
Of course, in addition to all this money-and-marketing education, artists have another option: marry well. "I recently visited [Brandon artist] Warren Kimble, and he said both he and [Vermont printmaker] Sabra Field are really lucky that they had spouses who were willing to be a part of the business," says Montstream. Her own spouse, Dworshak, manages their gallery and greeting-card company and handles framing. Montstream Studio is a family affair.
Space is another important variable for artists. Montstream notes that her customer base has greatly expanded since she moved from Union Station to a much more public spot. Gallery walk-ins now include tourists, younger people and downtown employees who pop in to buy cards.
"Having a studio in a public space is invaluable," concurs Robinson, who maintains a small studio in S.P.A.C.E. Gallery on Pine Street. The location gives her sales and feedback from visitors, she says, helping her figure out who her market is and what her work will sell for locally. And it provides her with another valuable commodity: the support of other artists who are in the same boat.
Alyson B. Stanfield presents the workshop "Marketing Strategies for Growing Your Art Business" on Saturday and Sunday, April 26 and 27, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Champlain College in Burlington. Sponsored by SEABA. $175 preregistration required. Info, 859-9222.