Picture this: You’ve just graduated with an art or design degree and have no idea where to begin. Bridging the gap between students and professional working artists is difficult for anyone. But, for artists starting their own art, design, or creative business, the leap is particularly daunting, especially if you received no professional practice coursework during your studies. Professional practices refer to providing students with “practice” (through training, education, and skills) to create and sustain a livelihood and professional creative careers.
When you’re out of school, it’s no longer responsible to make deadlines and finish projects for grades. Now, you’re suddenly in charge of starting your own creative practice as a self-employed business. Brand new skills and obligations that include budgeting, accounting, marketing, networking, selling, packaging, and the list goes on and on.
Kimberly Winkle is a practicing woodworker and educator. Currently, she is the director of the School of Art, Craft, and Design at Tennessee Tech, a fine arts program with a heavy focus on craft arts. As a working artist herself, she saw a hole in the way students were being taught.
“I think that it is incredibly unfair to teach students only how to make something but not also how to make a living with those things that they have made,” she begins. “During grad school, I took a professional practices class that was completely useless to me today. It focused entirely on getting gallery representation, and that is a whole paradigm that has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. I don’t think it is a sustainable model for 99% of artists.”
Winkle decided to design a professional practices course of her own; a sort of intensive boot camp that breaks down everything from writing an email to designing a personal brand and planning out monthly finances. She chatted with Artrepreneur about that course and shared tips for any working artist that’s just getting started in the field.
Be Professional and Make a Good First Impression
The old adage is tired but true, it isn’t what you know but who you know. For young creatives and artists, starting to build the framework for a strong professional artist network can feel overwhelming. Getting out to trade shows, gallery openings, and job fairs and making strong first impressions is just the first step of a long process, but essential to one’s success.
And those first impressions are more important than many young creatives may realize. Psychologists refer to the phenomenon as ‘thin-slicing’, with numerous studies theorizing that the average person makes a snap judgment of someone after only observing them for just a few seconds.
“We begin by teaching people how to give off the right first impressions: A proper handshake and the importance of confident interactions, like being able to look somebody in the eye and introduce yourself to them,” begins Winkle. A study performed at the University of Iowa backs up Winkle’s assertion. Non-verbal cues like a firm handshake, eye contact during discussion, and smiling play critical roles in the outcome of job interviews.
After making the initial introductions, the hard task is keeping people engaged within your artist network. And it isn’t just the content of your messaging but the way it is delivered. Much like a good firm handshake, email etiquette is equally important. Winkle strongly encourages her students to adopt professional correspondence habits, asserting that “you never write an email, ‘Hey’ and go straight into the email like you are speaking with a friend. Always address people by their formal name, and begin and conclude with a proper salutation.”
Build Your Brand Identity Straight Out the Gate
Before throwing yourself out into the world and beginning to build your professional artist network, it is important to understand how your content and brand identity is being received. What are you communicating? How do you communicate across platforms? Does the messaging move fluidly? Is it clear to potential clients and employers what you are capable of producing?
“We start by talking about the basic ways you communicate your business and brand identity. The ability for typography or color to communicate an aesthetic or business value,” Winkle explains, “I always use the same example: if you are a ceramics artist and you’re making wedding goods and your product is really intricate and ornate ceramic cake stands, would it make sense to use a harsh Gothic typeface and a dark color palette for your business? Those two things are just completely incompatible.”
Winkle notes the importance of having a clear aesthetic for your personal brand identity and making sure that branding moves fluidly across all your communication channels: personal website, business cards, vinyl banners, social media, and letterheads so that clients have a clean customer experience.
“Technology is such a pervasive part of everything we do, it is impossible to not talk about,” she says, adding that she encourages students to be conscientious of their social footprint. “It is really important for our students to understand the difference between their personal and professional channels and the value of having them as two separate things.”
Set Goals and Plan for the Future
Even if you are just starting out as a creative business, it is important to envision what your endeavor will look like five, ten, or fifteen years down the road. Winkle suggests going even further than separating your personal and professional social media channels but incorporating that concept into an overall business model. Rather than branding your creative business under your name, consider branding yourself as an agency or studio.
“It’s important to think about decisions you may need to make in the next ten years. The business name, for example; if you use your name as the business name, what happens down the road if you want to sell your creative business?” Winkle explains. “Kate Spade is the example I’ve heard. She sold her business and thus the rights to her own name, which complicates her ability to put her name on future projects.”
While many artists solve their problems over time through trial and error, Winkle points out resources to help foresee future inconveniences in accounting, contracts, and customer service.
“We suggest a great book called Get Your Shit Together, which breaks down all your common issues into distinct and very clear modules. Something like contracts and pricing can be very confusing, whether it’s figuring out all the litigious language in a contract, or creating some sort of equation for your pricing which even for experienced artists feels very arbitrary. I insist on never working without a contract and let students know that it is completely okay to provide your own. I also suggest keeping track of all your spending. All receipts should go into a folder. Hours should be tracked. This will help when it comes time to file taxes or figure out how much to charge for a particular piece.”
While having a successful career as an independent creative business owner comes with years of reacting to the needs of your business and fine-tuning your practice based on experience, it isn’t impossible to start your career with your best foot forward to make sure that transition is just a little bit easier.
Did you receive professional practices coursework or training while in art or design undergraduate graduate student? Should colleges and universities be responsible to preparing students for creative careers, or focus on teaching them how to be good artists and designers?
Kevin Vaughn is a writer and photographer focused on food and culture in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His work has appeared Munchies, New Worlder, Remezcla and Savoteur.