Rebuilding Your Arts Business in Challenging Times

Strategies for Surviving and Creating New Success

If you’re a working artist who’s in financial stress — whether from the economy, from a natural disaster, or after recovering from an accident or illness ...

Get ready to get busy.

It’s possible to rebuild and regenerate your art-centered livelihood — and this may be the best time to do it. We’ve created this resource to help you set goals, get a handle on your financial situation, develop or diversify your income sources, and turn a challenging situation into a long-term opportunity.

“Knowledge is power. Personal networks build community. And financial independence supports creative freedom.” Those are the key working principles of the Center for Cultural Innovation, an L.A.-based organization that provides business training, funding and project support for working artists in its region.

“The knowledge, the networking, and the financial — they’re connected in a wheel,” said Cora Mirikitani, the Center’s president and CEO. “It’s all about getting and gaining the information that empowers you to be effective, to move forward. To fulfill your dreams.”

We talked with Cora, and with two other experts in helping creative artists build sustainable business practices: Alyson Pou, associate director of Creative Capital in New York City, and Susan Schear at ArtisIn LLC in Newark, N.J.

“One of the things our strategic-planning person says to artists, and it always gets a laugh,” said Alyson Pou, “is that artists are their own worst boss. You underpay yourself, you under-reward yourself.”

“A lot of this is changing mindset,” Susan Schear told us. “It’s removing terms like, ‘I’m just an artist. I’m an artist!’

“Avoid words that are belittling or demeaning,” she urged. “We’re fearful of success, and we get into self-sabotage. Well, what does success mean to you? How do you define it? That’s the first thing.”

So here’s step number one: Define how you want to succeed. Then give yourself permission to do it.

Done that? All right ... then let’s get started.

 

Strategic planning is a powerful tool that organizations use — and artists can do it, too.

“Figure out where you are now, where you want to go, and what you need to do to get there,” recommends Susan Schear at ArtisIn. “What are your strengths? Where do you want to be in five years?

“Think larger,” she urges. “Then go back three years, two years, one year. Now work on your goals for the next three months. That gives you a good chunk of time — but not too much, so you can accomplish some specific things.”

“It’s basic goal-setting,” adds Alyson Pou at Creative Capital. “Take your one-year plan, review it and weed it down. Most people put in too much stuff. Say, ‘I’m going to take one or two things from this list of ten and focus on these. I’m going to break down the baby steps I need to reach those goals.’”

 The strategic-planning process has three basic stages:

1. Set goals. Where you want to be at the end of your planning time-frame?

2. Create objectives — specific targets for key stages along the way. If your planning frame is one year, what do you want to achieve within six months? In three?

3. Write out action steps. These are the things you will do, step by step, to meet these objectives.

Write your plan down. “If you take the time to do that, it somehow gets embedded in your psyche,” says Alyson Pou. Studies have shown that those who write their goals down are more likely to achieve them.

Then, at the end of each target period, write down what you have achieved — and note your next goals, objectives, action steps.

“Think as big as you can!” urges Alyson Pou. “Go beyond what you reasonably think is possible. You can adjust it! But if you don’t think big, you won’t reach big.”

Creative Capital recommends these artist-friendly online resources for strategic planning:

• Mind Tools http://www.mindtools.com/ — click on Time Management — has good resources on goal-setting.

 

a. Create a budget.
When Creative Capital consults with artists, says Alyson Pou, “We talk with them about their work budget — what it costs to do the actual work. Once you know that, you can make a determination: Is that too much? Too little? It’s all about figuring out how you’re going to support your work.

“Then there’s your life budget. That’s everything else — your mortgage or rent, your car, your studio, your books, your vacations ... You need to know what all that costs you, as well. Everything ties back to how you support your work. You need to know the costs of everything in your life.

“Say, ‘What is the number I need?’ Come up with the actual number,” Alyson urges. “I have seen a lot of artists get out of a corner they’re in by crunching the numbers for themselves.”

Budgeting ties in closely with strategic planning. Once you know what you need to achieve — both creatively and financially — then you can begin figuring out how to get there.

b. Reduce expenses and overhead.

Track all your expenses. Make a complete, detailed list! Then scrutinize it.

Every artist’s situation is different. What can you do to streamline operating expenses? Some possibilities:

• Reduce materials inventory

• Talk to other artists or working neighbors. Can you share equipment? Wireless service? Studio space?

• Organize a bulk-order collaborative. If you’re a potter and know others nearby, can you get a better price with a combined clay order?

• Consider relocating, temporary or long-term, to a city or region with lower cost of living
and/or attractive studio rental/ownership opportunities.

c. Use alternatives to credit cards.

• Use a debit card for all purchases, or for every purchase possible. A debit card requires a checking account with funds to cover the transaction — and this imposes fiscal discipline, because if you don’t have the money, you can’t (yet) make that purchase. Make sure you keep track of your balance, so you don’t overcharge your debit card.

• If you don’t or can’t have a checking account just now, consider prepaid cards. These work just like credit or debit cards, but they don’t require a checking account and you can’t overdraw them. If a prepaid card is stolen, only the amount left on it can be spent.

• Use phone cards and other gift or merchant cards. These generally focus on a single merchant or service, like phone calls, and so have obvious limitations — and using them won’t help to build your credit. But they can be useful in helping you keep to a budget, especially if you tend to overspend in a certain area (like phone calling).

• Bill Me Later® https://www.billmelater.com/index.xhtml is an alternative to credit cards for phone and online purchases that doesn’t require pre-shopping approval. You’ll receive a statement listing your use of the card and purchases with it. As with a credit card, you avoid finance and interest charges if you pay your bill in full each month.

• Web-Based Funding Accounts like Paypal https://www.billmelater.com/index.xhtml allow you to buy online without a credit card. They require a credit or checking account, sometimes both — but they don’t charge you for making purchases.

d. Consider declaring bankruptcy only if all other paths to repaying debt and getting on solid financial ground fail.

Declaring bankruptcy should be considered a really truly last resort — but if it is an option, get professional guidance before going further. If you have an accountant, and/or an attorney, start there. Here is some basic information, in no way meant to substitute for a professional’s advice:

Bankruptcy will eliminate certain debts, not including back taxes, alimony, child support, or student loans. However, debts eliminated through bankruptcy will appear in your credit history for the next ten years. So bankruptcy should be used only when all other options — seeking payment plans from your creditors, negotiating interest-rate reductions through a qualified credit counseling services — have been exhausted.

If you have a steady income that can cover some debt payments, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy may be an option; this allows you to keep some property while meeting a multi-year payment plan. If you’re unable to make any debt payments, with only enough income to live, you may file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

For more basic information on bankruptcy, visit the Financial Planning resource at www.theartrepreneur.com.

You may also check with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, which delivers legal services and information to members of the arts community. Call VLA’s Art Law Line, 212•319•ARTS (2787), ext.1, or click here http://www.vlany.org/


a. Leverage your core skills for temporary — or continuing — employment.
To what alternate, marketable uses can you put your valuable skills and experience? If people aren’t buying new work, can you offer repairs? If you’re a painter, can you refinish furniture? If you’re a metalsmith, can you work with wrought iron?

 “ I’m a firm believer that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” says Susan Schear at Artisin. But, she adds, “The more you can stay within your strengths, the more you’re going to move forward.

“You can do contract jobs, based on what you’re interested in. You get to network, and expand your skill set.

“Unfortunately, there’s pounding the pavement, no matter what you do,” Susan concludes. “That’s how you build your network,” and expand your available options.

If your region has been through a disaster, the aftermath may raise needs for tools, equipment, and skills that you possess, so don’t overlook how you might pitch in to the recovery as well as earn money. 

b. Get your work into new places.
Where does your work fit in? Where will it be accepted? If you’re a sculptor of figurative work, why not approach doctors’ offices, MRI services? If you’re a painter or a photographer, hospitals may want to display your work. So may a local cafe ... a bank ... a new office building.

c. Organize a support/brainstorming/critique group of fellow artists.
“Artists are isolated,” says Susan Schear — and it’s too often true. “You really need the support of others, to share, to exchange, to network, to collaborate: to help keep your finger on the pulse. If your business is tough right now, why? What can you change?

“People help people,” she concludes. “You feel great when you’re with others, and you feel great sharing.”

d. Connect with powerful online sources of news and information about the business of art — and the business of your discipline.
An excellent overall free resource is www.artsjournal.com. Published each Sunday evening and updated daily, ArtsJournal covers current issues in the major disciplines, and pulls together a rich array of useful blogs and live links.

NYFA Source http://www.nyfa.org/ is a national directory of awards, services, and publications for artists. Listed are more than 3,400 arts organizations, 2,800 award programs, 3,100 service programs, and 900 publications for individual artists across the country. Search, for example, on Cash Grants/Monetary Awards, Emergency Grants, Student Scholarships, Artist Communities/Artist-in-Residence Programs, Space Awards (Live and/or Work), Equipment Access Awards, Honorary Prizes and Apprenticeship/Professional Development Award Programs.

Another useful general resource is the blog http://studioartdirect.wordpress.com/.

To find discipline-specific resources, go to http://www.webdirectoryforartists.com/.


a. Build that database!
In the Internet age, taking the time to credit a flexible database of current and potential customers, with email as well as phone and regular-mail contact information, can have huge benefits.

“Get all those business cards you have in a pile into your computer — especially email addresses,” advises Studio Art Direct. “Take one day each week to put all new contacts in your database. Treat it like gold and back it up often.”

b. Follow up on contacts and inquiries.
“At a show, if somebody expresses interest in a particular thing, we take their name, their phone number, their email — any contact info that they want to give us — and in a couple of weeks, we send them an email with a photo of the item they liked,” said Maryland metalworker Julie Girardini in cerfnews http://craftemergency.org/publications/cerfnews/. Personal followups like this can often generate new sales.

c. Email your list of customers and contacts regularly. Keep in touch!
“Finding a new art buyer is 100 times harder than selling to your existing or past clients,” notes Studio Art Direct. “So treat anyone who has bought art from you like a cherished aunt.”

“Who are the people that believe in your work and have supported you?” asks Susan Schear of Artisin. “They want to see you succeed — so stay connected to them.”

Email is a powerful, free way to do that. Let people know what’s new! Ask for feedback. Be in touch, and build relationships.

d. Create an email newsletter.
Here are three tips:

  • Make it visual. Include photos of your new work, of you working.

  • Make it personal. People who love your work want to hear your “voice” and learn more about you. What are you creating? How do you create? What’s inspiring you? Commiting to sharing your inspiration will help you to find new inspiration.

  •  Set a publishing schedule and keep to it. You may choose to create and publish your e-newsletter monthly, twice monthly, or weekly. Customers will start to look for it. Make sure it arrives! Schedule time to create each issue. If you don’t, the time will slip away — and so will the publication deadline.



“The point of this is to be pro-active, not reactive,” notes Susan Schear of ArtisIn. “You’re not the attorney, you’re not the accountant, you’re not the insurance broker.

“You may say, ‘Okay, I probably can’t afford insurance right now, but I still need to interview several brokers — and stay in touch with them.’” They may let you know what you can afford to do, and what you should do first.

“Build support around you,” Susan advises. “You’re professionalizing what you’re doing, and that’s the difference.”

For useful guidance and well-selected resources, see the Safeguarding section


a. Personally distribute creative postcards.
“Use www.overnightprints.com or www.modernpostcard.com and have some postcards made (and don’t forget business cards!),” advises Studio Art Direct. “During your slow time, go down to your city art walk or art events or a busy cultural event and hand them out. Put your message directly into the hands of prospective customers. Make sure you have an attractive offer ... Be creative. Entice people to visit your studio, gallery or website.”

b. Create a “guerrilla gallery” — a temporary, intriguing site for a show.
“I found an alternate venue for a show recently,” reported Colorado metalworker Jimmy Descant in cerfnews. With a group of friends as volunteer helpers, he drew over 1,000 people for a total cost of less than $1,000.

  “I didn’t sell a thing — but I handed out another 500 cards,” he said. “Things like that might not translate into money immediately, but somebody might call and say, ‘I’m ready.’ Or, ‘I want to commission this,’ or ‘I’ve got this idea,’ or ‘I’ll take this.’

“It’s all investment in the future,” he said “Plant the seeds and let ‘em grow.”

c. Look for “affinity groups” and sites that are natural, if unconventional, fits for your work.
This connects with determining your own values — a powerful marketing and branding exercise. What are your creative and personal values — and where might they fit? With whom?

“I’m talking about people,” says Susan Schear of ArtisIn. “Where are your affinity markets?” As suggested in 3.b., these might be a health-food store or farmers’ market ... a hospital ... a commercial real-estate development ... even a community garden.

Determine who the people are who will connect with and value your work, says Susan Schear. “Find those people.” They’re your affinity market.


a. Get your creative self on YouTube!
People are fascinated with creativity — especially today, when it is so much-needed.

Have someone videotape you working and talking about your work. Talk about why you do what you do, how you do it, where you find creative inspiration, how you balance art and business, and what are the key stages in your creative process. Then post the video on www.youtube.com.

As with anything you start online — a blog, a website, a social-networking page — send the link to everyone on your new email database.

b. Create your own website.
Sure, that’d be good, but where to start? And how?

Here’s a useful, clear and noncommercial site devoted to helping people create and operate their own websites: http://www.2createawebsite.com/.

c. Set up a sales-focused blog.
Most blogs are newsy in some way — but a sales-focused blog has a different purpose: to display, and make available your work. That said, blogs are infinitely flexible: Yours can include newsy updates, photos of work in progress, video messages or interviews with you — a creative, multimedia array.

For ideas and a good working model, visit this blog developed by five collaborating California artists http://lostcoastdailypainters.blogspot.com/.

To get you started, there are a number of “how to blog” resources online (Google that phrase and see). Here’s one that appears solid:

http://www.blogbasics.com/blog-tutorial-1-1.php

Here’s a blog, with tips and tools, by the authors of Blogging for Dummies http://www.bloggingfordummiesbook.com/blog/category/about_the_book/.

And here’s a well-recommended, easy-to-use, free blogging host site http://wordpress.com/.

d. Use Internet social-marketing sites to build a following and promote your work.
It’s free to sign on and explore popular sites like www.facebook.com and www.linkedin.com. Here are some tips, with thanks to Laurence Coburn of www.rateitall.com, writing in the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com:

  • Give your art business a Facebook Page. “Facebook pages are like profiles for businesses, and are an excellent way to engage your customers in conversation,” Coburn advises.

  • Create a www.twitter.com account for your business.

  • Invite customers to review your artwork/art products online. “Services like rateitall.com/promote allow you to submit anything for review — whether it’s a local business, a blog, a product, or a brand,” Coburn notes.

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