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Artists Draw Conclusions About Creativity and Financial Savvy

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MICHAEL TONN
  • Michael Tonn

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.

EVENT

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.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Art of Success"

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