Grace Cho on Ending the Myth of the Starving Artist

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When Grace Cho was growing up, she dreamed of becoming an artist. Her parents, however, had other ideas. “Art was seen as a hobby, not a profession,” Cho remembers. So, for more than 25 years, she lived the life her parents wanted for her, reaching lofty heights in the corporate world and gaining experience in financial services, media, and entertainment, as well as private equity, working for companies such as G.E. Capital, NBC Universal, and Nielsen. However, her passion for art never dimmed. As the Founder and CEO of Artrepreneur powered by Orangenius, Cho is applying the skills she learned in the business world to help artists live their dreams. She beams, “There’s no reason art can’t be a profession as well as a passion. You should be able to pursue the career that you really want.”

In this episode of the Hello Creatives podcast, Art Hive Magazine’s Christina Wood talks to Grace about destroying the starving artist myth once and for all.


Intro [00:02:10] This is hello creatives from Art Hive Magazine. Here are your hosts, Jesse and Angela.
Angela [00:02:21] I want to first ask you about the aspect of being an artist in your article in Art Hive Magazine you speak a little bit about how you always wanted to be an artist and then you kind of went to the corporate world as your career. What kind of arts did you want to do out of curiosity?

Grace Cho [00:02:38] Many forms of art but I think my initial love was actually illustration. And I fell in love with Walt Disney’s character so I used to sort of illustrate quite a bit but then I got really heavily into painting so oils and acrylics did a lot of that as I studied more about the Masters and then quickly moved into also design. So fashion design illustrations were something that I really loved doing. So there are all forms of creativity. There was a little brief stint there around sculpture.

Angela [00:03:11] And with your company Artrepreneur, you know, it might be a little bit scary sometimes for artists to think “I need to also understand business”. How do we take the term “creative entrepreneur” and not scare someone and make them kind of feel a sense of responsibility that that’s the way to succeed? How do you break that?

Grace Cho
Grace Cho, Founder, and CEO of Artrepreneur, an online platform that helps creatives succeed.

Grace Cho [00:03:33] I think that first and foremost you know the words you know “founder, CEO” it matches what an artist does. They’re trying to build a brand. They’re trying to sell their work. So a lot of the things that they do, they don’t recognize that it’s actually related to business, but it’s just the terminology and the communication of it. So our challenge is to make sure that they understand what they’re doing and then supplement that with some additional disciplines to recognize that they need to be doing certain things in order to get their name out there, sell their works, build a network of fans, all the social media aspects. Make sure that they’re doing the right things in terms of invoicing and billing. These are all business-related terms and functions. And it’s something that they probably already are doing. But I think that there are always ways that they could improve on those skills.

[00:04:38] We have this myth of starving artists that people like to coin and throw around. Can you tell me a little bit about your business? Why did you create that and why do artists need to know that that myth needs to be you know trampled on and stopped?

Grace Cho [00:04:57] Yeah, so starving artist is horrible. I don’t like that phrase at all, because there are ways in which you could build a set of goals, and those goals if you do them properly, you would build a business plan so to speak, about the type of success that you’d like to define for yourself. Everybody’s definition of success is quite different, right. Especially with the artist group. One person might be just to do some showings, another one might be to sell, and another one might be to commercialize their work on merchandising. So, you really have to have a self-reflective exercise to define what success is first and then you figure out what are the elements of that success. And you know there are ways and there are plenty of tools out there that could help you walk through those critical steps that you need to take your passion and turn it into something that’s going to actually create income for you. But with every profession the business side, although it’s not fun, it’s necessary. I often correlate that to a dentist visit: you don’t like it but you have to do it. So you just have to figure it out, at least understand what’s going to happen, so that you call on the right experts if you need to.

Angela [00:06:22] I like that methodical way that you put it. I think people tend to want to just have an end result instead of going through the process that every person has to go through and sometimes we kind of just glaze over it but bring attention to that and say “hey let’s pay attention to these things that make us go from point A to point B to get to Z is what you have to do to get through”.

Grace Cho [00:06:48] In business when you’re trying to build a business there are some core functions that you need to consider as you’re building your business plan. If you take away the fear aspect of it and just look at those core elements, there’s the goal-setting process. Then there’s the creation of the work. The protection of the work, marketing the work, the financial aspects of that work. How much you’re going to sell for, what’s the valuation, and what are the costs associated with it? And then the operations of it: the service providers that you’re going to rely on, the framers, the printers, all the associated people who are going to help you. So, if you lay it out by functional aspects that way, then it’s going to create a certain level of confidence, in terms of what you have already and then what you need. If you look at it in those parts it’s it’s less intimidating.

Angela [00:07:44] It sounds like what you’re trying to say also is you’re taking the emotion out of it and then you can really perceive and see things very clearly.

Grace Cho [00:07:50] Yes. Defining what you want and then understanding what you need is quite important and then you go into this with a full scope of the breadth and depth of things that you need to build a business. This is, after all, business. So, you have to understand the players, who are your competition, what are those sort of various forces of this particular sector? Who are the stakeholders, and who are the decision-makers? These are all things that you need to know before you actually start.

Angela [00:08:23] Let’s say I, day one, I walk into you and I say “Help me! I’m an artist!” What are some of the steps you start telling me to start considering and taking action to that then I can follow through with your a program like yours?

Grace Cho [00:08:41] I would go back to goal setting. You have to first understand what it is that you want to do and it’s a hard question. But if you look at your life generally, artists and everybody else, I personally look at my life in five-year chunks. So, what would you like to achieve by the end of five years? And be clear about that –. it’s not an easy exercise. What’s the kind of life you want to lead with the profession that you’re going after? Once you understand that goal, then the rest of it falls into place. So, the first order of business is figuring out your resumé, figuring out who are you? What experiences can you curate and show on your resume that is relative to that goal? And the types of works that you’ve produced. Right, so this is where the targeting starts to happen.

Grace Cho [00:09:35] So it’s the resumé, it’s the inventory of the work that you’ve done. What are the associated details around those works? You start recording all of those and then you have to build a targeted set of portfolios because you can’t just throw everything you’ve ever done into it, but you’ve got to figure out who is your audience and what is in them that ties to your original goal? So, that sort of assessment of who you are, what you’ve done, and what you’ve created is important.

Angela [00:10:02] Do you find sometimes people come in and say, “I want to be a millionaire. That’s how going to be an artist”. Do you find that often that people are touching the financial aspect, though it’s obviously important, as the only sum of success when they think of being an artist? And then how do you break that down and say, “well that can be part of it, but the financial gain is not maybe always the end game”. Like when you were speaking about the beginning that success is defined by each person.

Grace Cho [00:10:33] I was very surprised in the last few years to find so many different artists who believe success is not only money. It’s not only fame or fortune, but it’s a very personal thing. So, for some artists it’s really just exhibitions, just being able to show the world what they’re doing because their art has a message and it’s important for them to promote that message. Others it’s fame, others its fortune. So fame drives social media behavior — they want to be on Instagram and they want everybody to know. Fortune: Of course, everybody wants to be a millionaire or not everybody, but many do. But as you go through this exercise you’ve got to dissect that dream down into these manageable tactics and figure out what can you achieve in five years. Take an assessment with yourself about your skills, and where you are in life, and figure it out against that goal. What skills and experts need to be around you in order to reach a specific sort of percentage of that goal.

Angela [00:11:40] How important do you think it is for there to be a community for artists to really attach themselves to? You know, sometimes being an artist can feel singular and you’re a little bit alone, and then you realize you’re really not. How much does that play into what you speak to other artists about when growing their business?

Grace Cho [00:12:00] So artists are naturally, and I don’t want to make a generalization of everyone, but the craft is very solitary. You’re always lonely. I know that when I was drawing I was. You’re always living in your head. But there are times when you need to go out there. So, that act of networking and building a base of supporters, fans, fellow colleagues is so important. Even hundreds of years ago they had salons where artists would get together and discuss. It’s an interesting phenomenon. We think they don’t want it, yet when we organize these events, I expect 50, 60 people, and like 200 people show up and then they start to have fun exchanging business cards and actually talking to each other. So I think that if I could, I’d sort of tell the artists to get out there and make time for it. They want to control their time, but make sure that it is part of their career. Actually, schedule time on their calendar to go out and join organizations and really connect with others.

Angela [00:13:12] Do you have any successes or maybe stories that you’re particularly proud of, of someone that went through the Artrepreneur program and utilized your resources that you could speak about?

Grace Cho [00:13:22] Oh gosh there are many, but you know many artists who joined us a few years ago when we were first starting out were emerging themselves. They used the platform, learned how to present themselves, used a lot of the work that we presented in terms of insights, information, and knowledge, and start to build a business around that. In fact, Vincent Raozzi, who was featured in our PBS program is a perfect example of that. He hustled. He got on the platform early, really understood the value of creating targeted portfolios, used those portfolios, read our material, and got out there, and he’s now extraordinarily successful. He’s getting some big jobs traveling around the world and, talk about networking, he did a great job of networking both online and offline.

Angela [00:14:19] When you speak about online it makes us think about all the artists and all the creatives out there that do showcase their work a lot. Do you think that people can overshare as a creative or do you find that to be a problem?

Grace Cho [00:14:40] Sharing is defined today through social media. So when you look at Facebook and Instagram or whatever medium that you choose, random sharing versus strategically planned showings, in our experience has been very different. So artists who actually take time to understand who is the audience that they’re going for, tailor their work and copy and visuals around that audience, do much better than just blanketing the world with something in a random fashion. So again, it points to that business plan, that strategy. So, those who do it strategically do quite well.

Angela [00:15:31] When you speak about picking a target audience, I think that’s so important for creativity because I think sometimes you get so stuck on, let’s just use an example: “I want my art to be in a gallery,” but maybe your art isn’t best suited for a gallery! Maybe it’s best suited to be illustrations on some other platform. How do you really divert somebody from their mindset and go, “It’s okay to be an artist in this other way? You’re still an artist, but you’re just kind of closing one door and opening another that could be so much more vast for you”?

Grace Cho [00:16:02] I mean this goes back to stuff really studying the market understanding, as I said earlier, the key players in your market, in your particular disciplinary area or sector. Understand all the different kinds of artists and their stories, the organizations and nonprofits in your space, the companies who actually work with these organizations, as well as educational institutions and what are they doing, and what kinds of innovations are they coming up with. So, really looking at that 360 view of your market and you need to study those and adjacent markets as well, because you may learn from them. And then once the knowledge is collected you can make an assessment as to what you would like to do. So without knowledge, you’re blind right. So the more you know and the more you study about your markets the better you’re going to be.

Angela [00:16:56] You’ve given out a lot of good advice so far, but is there any kind of particular piece of advice you like to always leave somebody with when they’re really thinking about becoming a well-rounded Artrepreneur? What’s that kind of go-to piece of advice you’d like to maybe fall on?

Grace Cho [00:17:14] The go-to piece of advice: Put together a proper online profile, and that includes a well-thought-out resumé. Make sure that you keep an inventory of your work. You don’t want to do that after you go and leave it up to others. It’s a living exercise. It’s all those details of every piece of work that you’ve done. Make sure you retain those because a few years down the road you’re not going to be able to remember. It’s so important to understand who contributed to those works, and who you’ve worked with. From a business perspective, all the licensing and the registration information all that needs to be kept properly. And then finally understanding that audience, and then making sure that you have the right portfolio that targets that audience instead of just a generic one that’s never gonna get you to work.

Angela [00:18:17] What was the catalyst to forming your company? What really made you think: I need to make this Artrepreneur and I get need to get it out to the world?

Grace Cho [00:18:26] There are so many different answers to this. There were multiple forces at work, but the simplest answer is, I sold a painting a few years ago and I thought, “This is it. This is a sign from heaven that I need to go and drop everything and start doing it”. And then realized it was very difficult, even after 25 years of professional experience, very very hard. Now with a business career if I found it hard and I found the lack of resources, what is everybody else doing out there? So that was a big aha moment for me.

Grace Cho [00:18:58] The second was I have a lot of creative friends around me. And when I unleashed the questions they gave me an earful about all the different difficulties that they’re experiencing in their careers. Photographers, fashion designers, and all sorts of people. So you know I had a lifetime of experience in building businesses and helping build infrastructure for the health care industry, the credit card industry, or whatever. This industry, in particular, the creative industry lacked one. So, it was a challenge for me to go out and build one so that you don’t just blindly go to Google and search for things. So that was an opportunity for me.

Grace Cho [00:19:43] And then finally just from a personal standpoint, my mother was a great force. She passed away a few years ago and one of the last conversations we had was don’t wake up 80 and regret that you didn’t go out go after what you would really want to. And finally, perhaps the most important is I wanted to use art as a way of giving back. And so I’ve been so lucky and fortunate to have collected a team of folks around me who all believe that art is the center of everything, and we believe that visual arts connected with all these other causes and messages can really change the world. And that’s our motto and we really believe it! It sounds a little corny but we really believe that.

Angela [00:20:28] We hope you enjoyed this episode with Grace Cho and took away some valuable information on pursuing your own creative endeavors. If you want to learn more about Grace and what she has to offer, you can visit her website at Artrepreneur.com and you’ll learn tricks on how to break the starving artist myth once and for all. Make sure to follow us online at Art Hive Magazine and follow us at @JesseXAngela.

What ideas do you have about what it takes to abandon the myth of the starving artist? Have any questions for Grace Cho? Leave them in the comments below!

About the author

Grace Cho

Grace Cho is the Founder and CEO of Artrepreneur by Orangenius. She has an artist heart and business mind. With over 25 years of experience in the financial services, media, entertainment, and private equity industries, she has transformed global business units at GE Capital, NBCU, and Nielsen.


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  • I am a starving artist way past struggling, I have 60 years of gallery shows, magazine work, museum pieces and art pieces of all subject manner. I work in a realistic style. I am known for mechanical pieces, cars, planes, cutaway art work. I had 1 year of schooling at ringling school of art in sarasota, fl. a wrong place to go to for me. I wonder if it is too late to try again? You convinced me to try though. I can be reached by phone if it is easier 941 685 1055. I hope to hear from someone if there is a reason to do so. thanks.

    • Dear James, Thank you for your comment and question. Never too late to try! If this is what you want to do, go for it. You can draw from your life experiences (no pun intended!) and your art will be even more profound. Start with small steps, and if you enjoy it, keep doing more. You never know where you art will take you but isn’t that the most exciting part? Art gives back in so many ways. It is the true fountain of youth. Best, Grace Cho, Founder & CEO Artrepreneur

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