For many artists, ‘business’ is a four-letter word. While they’re wired to problem-solve and innovate, artists still struggle when it comes to applying these skills to their own entrepreneurial endeavors, fearing becoming too commercial or “selling out”. Becoming an ‘art entrepreneur,’ however, is being authentic and making a living, exploring product lines and partnerships while still maintaining your creative vision. As the global trend moves towards a gig economy framework, artists, who have always been self-employed, are well positioned to embrace having more control and autonomy of their work, especially with so many ways to connect directly with customers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that 33% of the U.S. economy is currently made up of ‘gig’ workers, defined as solopreneurs working remotely or on a freelance basis. That number is expected to increase to 50%within the next five years. The gig economy especially resonates with the creative community, who often appreciate working with limited supervision on a variety of different projects. That’s especially true for artists, whose educational background and expertise often skews toward working with galleries, directly with collectors, or on a freelance basis with agencies or industry brands.
According to the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) survey about 86% of art school graduates have been self-employed at some point in their career. But even greater number of art school alumni felt they weren’t prepared to tackle the challenges and demands of entrepreneurship: 91% report that their college or university didn’t prepare them for a solo career as an art entrepreneur. Often times, a lack of confidence in business results in artists seeking alternative career paths that aren’t necessarily associated with their career path.
Educators across the country understand that artists need to develop skill sets that will allow them to thrive as art entrepreneurs in the creative economy, and are aiming to come up with new modules to address these persistent gaps in art school education. Last week, over 27 colleges and universities were represented at the Society for Arts Entrepreneurship Education (SAEE)‘s annual conference, held at the San Diego State University. There, educators discussed a wide variety of methods for educating and engaging the future art entrepreneur, including methods for strategic thinking, branding for artists, and empowering artists through technology – a panel I led on behalf of Orangenius.
Finding New Ways to Engage the Art Entrepreneur
Bernie Schroeder arrived to academia after a long career as an entrepreneur. After founding CKS Partners, an integrated brand and marketing agency that grew to 25 offices across the country, Schroeder relocated to San Diego and worked with a variety of companies before settling into his new role as the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center at San Diego State University. Curiously, Shroeder is focusing more and more on bringing art students to participate in the center’s entrepreneurial programs and activities.
“Creativity is problem-solving,” says Schroeder, “and we need to focus on changing the perspectives of creative students so they can find innovative ways to do something with their creative talent.”
In fact, Schroeder notes that creativity is the wave of the future – not just for the gig economy, but for some of the world’s largest corporations. A recent CEO survey conducted by IBM notes that creativity is now the number one skill set sought by CEOs, compared to integrity and global thinking. “New hires need to be adaptable and solve problems, especially in this technological world,” Schroeder notes.
At the Lavin Center, Schroeder focuses on inviting students from various disciplines across the university to participate in club activities and new sessions, and he’s wise to cross-pollinate art students with those studying more traditional business principles – in fact, exposing business students to their creative counterparts often causes students to learn to think outside the box. Consider that the typical art student or art entrepreneur is skilled at making their dollar stretch; they often employ their imagination while at work; and they’re constantly having to re-pivot or re-frame when an intended material or concept is developing as it should.
While the benefits are clear for traditional business students, teaching creative students to apply an entrepreneurial mindset is a bit more challenging. The focus, Schroeder says, should be on creating a “growth” mindset – the belief that their creative talents can be developed through hard work and dedication, rather than rely solely on their talent to succeed as an art entrepreneur in the creative economy. “I try to make students aware of the trends going on in their industry, and I require them to pitch me an idea that responds to those trends every class,” he notes.
As educators across the country consider innovative ways through which they might birth the next class of art entrepreneur, Schroeder notes encouraging ‘tribalism’ among students is a great first start. Art students should seek out like-minded peers or focus on finding partners within their inner circles that can help them navigate the challenges of being an artist entrepreneur.
The Business Model Canvas for the Art Entrepreneur
The business model canvas was a frequent point of discussion throughout the SAEE conference. Many educators are hailing the model as the ‘new’ business plan for the art entrepreneur – rather than creating an exhaustive business plan which may seem foreign to many artists and art students, the business model canvas asks students to consider several propositions in an effort to map out their entrepreneurial path. Take a look at the business model canvas below:
While this business model canvas is certainly useful for business owners, it may be a little hard for artists to consider how to make sense of its propositions. We’ll try and break it down here.
Understanding who your customers are is a crucial component of managing a business as an art entrepreneur. Generally speaking, you’ll have a variety of customers – from gallery owners to collectors, to digital sales and local clients. In this exercise, you should list the various types of customers you anticipate being able to attract.
This section will focus on what makes the artist unique and worthy of investment. You should consider how you price your work against the market, and whether your experience makes you particularly accomplished. Have you shown in exhibitions? Worked with well-known clients? Have several years of experience in your field? These are all important value propositions that should be put forth in your analysis. Determining these value propositions will be a useful tool when you’re ready to develop your artist statement, CV, and overall marketing strategy. If you’re having trouble determining your value proposition, consider making it a goal to find new opportunities to enhance your value propositions.
Once you’ve determined what your value proposition is, how will you make sure that message is delivered to your customers? Are you marketing yourself online? Employing a storefront, such as having clients visit your studio? Understand what your channels are and reassess regularly whether they’re working well for you.
How are you interacting with customers and getting them to buy your work? For an art entrepreneur, you should ask yourself whether you’re regularly reaching out to customers – letting them know about new work or new shows, or keeping up with them on social media, for example – and making sure you’re creating a personal relationship that entices them to invest in your work.
Here, your value propositions come back into play. Your revenue streams are how your business earns money. For example, if you’re an artist whose value proposition is a slew of impressive exhibitions and robust collector base, then your revenue stream is focused on sales. If you’re an artist with graphic design experience along with a studio practice, then your revenue streams are graphic design work and sales.
What are some of the unique aspects of your business that allow you to achieve your value propositions and generate revenue? For the art entrepreneur, its likely making and creating work, developing and maintaining a marketing strategy, and getting your work in front of new audiences. There are a host of different activities artists should be accomplishing to make sure they’re on track – you can read more by looking around Artrepreneur.
Your key resources should list all the different elements at your disposal to make your business work. You might consider your school’s career center a resource, for example; or perhaps, your resources include your email marketing software, studio assistant, or special discounts at your local art supply store.
It’s not uncommon for an art entrepreneur to seek a partner – whether it’s a gallery or an individual that fills in the gaps. Many artists tend to pair up with partners who are savvy in business and marketing in an effort to alleviate some of the work so the artist can focus on creating. Even if you choose to do so, however, it’s still worth engaging in this exercise.
If you’re going to make it as an art entrepreneur, you will need to have a good sense of your costs and form a budget. How much money does it cost you to buy materials? Maintain a studio? Carry out your marketing efforts? All of these costs should be factored so you can determine your budget and effectively price your work and services.
Educators can help art and design students prepare to succeed in their creative endeavors, and they don’t necessarily have to be trained in an art-related field. Educators who teach design thinking, social entrepreneurship, business, marketing and other subjects can provide insight and impart skills that teach artists how to plan and strategize. An art entrepreneur that’s carefully considering their goals and the steps needed to achieve them will fare far better than the artist that relies on talent alone.
Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.