BLP's Art Of Business Teaches Artists To Be Business People Too.
Creative entrepreneurs teach WSU the “Art of Business”
The government does not fund hobbyists.
That’s what Gilda Snowden, an award-winning artist whose works grace the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, learned ten years ago when undergoing an IRS audit. In an attempt to prepare her, Snowden’s accountant asked her why she made art. Art was her “passion,” she of course replied, her “reason for living.”
Her accountant stopped her cold.
“No,” he said firmly. “You make art to make money. If you saying anything else to the IRS guy, you will be termed a hobbyist, and you can’t deduct anything.”
Snowden shared this story with WSU students at “Art of Business,” a workshop sponsored in March by Wayne State’s business laboratory Blackstone LaunchPad. Funded out of New York City by The Blackstone Group’s Blackstone Charitable Foundation, the LaunchPad brought several successful artists to Bernath Auditorium to share tips on running a profitable business – a notoriously difficult feat for right-brained people.
Snowden made it through the audit, she said, but has been a meticulous record keeper ever since. Her three degrees, studio space, and place on the Center for Creative Studies faculty do much to establish her as a business person, she noted, but she also documents everything she buys, wears or eats in her studio, runs credit cards through her iPad, maintains a mailing list, sends monthly invoices to clients, updates her portfolio and resume on a routine basis, and keeps her business bank account separate from her personal one. Because she has declared art her business, all Snowden’s studio expenses – right down to her magazines subscriptions – are tax deductible.
“It felt kind of strange to say I make art for money, because I make art for myself,” Snowden said. “I make choices about my paintings based on not whether it will sell, but how it makes me feel and what I want to say and how happy I am.”
Nevertheless, she told the audience, artists must attend to business to stay in business.
A time to DIY, a time to delegate
“Art of Business” was the brainchild of Blackstone LaunchPad student intern Kelly Guillory, who as a budding artist learned the hard way how difficult it is to manage a career without business training.
“I lost $400 due to a bad investment in a venue a few years ago,” she said, “but since enrolling in Blackstone Launchpad’s program, I've learned a lot about risk assessment and budgeting for projects.”
Using strategies learned at Blackstone LaunchPad, Guillory raised enough money to fund a graphic novel she is producing. Most importantly, she’s secured preorders for the novel – a pulp fiction romp with a sprinkle of the supernatural set in Detroit – ensuring there will be no risk up front for production while maximizing resources for marketing and advertisement.
“This workshop was my way of trying to get others to come together and talk about the speed bumps that stop us from succeeding in the art field,” Guillory said. “The kind of knowledge we share concern the things everyone needs to know.”
Ashlie Lauren, a WSU senior who approached Blackstone LaunchPad for help establishing her business as a photographer and makeup artist, told attendees that smart business practices can help artists grow their business, not simply maintain it.
“I knew how to do makeup, but I didn’t know how to run a business. Since working with Blackstone LaunchPad I’ve been able to take my business so much farther,” said Lauren, who recently got her work into Vogue Italia’s PhotoVogue program. “I had to do create a business plan, and I learned that I can do what I love and earn a living.”
Lauren shared with audience members a few hard-earned lessons. First, don’t book gigs without a contract and deposit. Inking a date in your planner means you’ll probably turn down other work for that day, she said, and if your client cancels without paying a deposit you’ve forfeited your chance to make money.
Another common mistake? Undercharging your clients.
“Don’t start out as a bargain artist,” Lauren stressed. “You might think your work isn’t worth as much as it is.”
Artists who see the light after undercharging clients can always up their rates, she said, but they will have to rebrand – which can be expensive – and almost always need to find new clientele.
Megan Pouncy, a Detroit-area graphic designer who started her own business after serving in executive positions with Target, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Michael’s Arts and Crafts, agreed, saying artists must be attuned to the importance of “a proper quote, a contract, and a high level of professionalism.”
“Don’t undervalue your services,” said Pouncy, whose expertise includes the design of restaurant and retail spaces, such as Midtown’s Curl Up & Dye salon. “Have courage in your own abilities.”
A common theme among the workshop panelists was the danger of paying too much for advertising. In this day of social media, they said, artists can get extensive publicity through Facebook, Twitter, and aggressive networking.
“Do everything you can for free,” said Pouncy. “If it’s over $100, don’t do it. Because when you are a small company and you try to look like a big company, sometimes you bite off more than you can chew and you don’t get the return that you expect.”
And don’t forget there’s always the work itself to get the word out, said Snowden.
“The more shows you have, the more your work works for you,” she said. “Any time I sell a work, that work is in a client’s house working for me, because people will inquire where they got it.”
Still, said Snowden, whose prints appear in Neiman Marcus stores nationwide, a key aspect of running a successful business is knowing when to delegate tasks. Galleries charge a 50% commission to sell her art, she said, and it’s worth every penny.
“I’ll gladly pay somebody to sell my work for me and give them 50% because that gives me more time in my studio to do my work,” Snowden said. “Selling yourself and selling your art is a major job. And when I’m selling, I’m not making art.”
Snowden offered two other pieces of advice for working artists. First, make sure potential clients know that art is an investment.
“Art always appreciates,” she said. “I can show clients pieces of my work I sold 20 years ago for $2,000 that are now selling for $17,000.”
Second, offer to sell work on an installment basis. People are used to buying cars and property that way, she said, and a payment plan can make a purchase more affordable.
Finally, said Pouncy, creative jobs are often never advertised, so it’s important for artists to attend tradeshows and keeping connected with people personally as well as professionally.
“It’s different building something from the ground up then it is walking into something that’s already been developed and nurtured and cultivated,” she said. “Keep a list of clients, but also stay close to friends. You’ll see how valuable networks and relationships that you’ve built up in the past are when you start a business.”