The Work of Art Toolkit published by Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, offer artists a free leg up when it comes to gaining business skills.
Gaining business skills can be difficult. Springboard for the Arts, a non-profit arts-services organization, has made it easier with their Work of Art Toolkit, which can be used by individual artists, small groups, collectives, students in professional development courses, and arts organizations.
The Business Skills for Artists Workbook is part of the larger Work of Art Toolkit series that focuses on evaluating different areas of your practice, setting up short- and long-term goals, and creating benchmarks so you can meet your business goals. We spoke with Springboard staff members who worked on the Toolkit, including Noah Keesecker, Springboard’s program director for artist development and author of the Toolkit; Anna Metcalfe, artist development coordinator and studio artist; Adia Morris Swanger, Work of Art instructor; and Carl Atiya Swanson, Springboard’s associate director. —CM Eds.
Ceramics Monthly: What is the most common stumbling block for ceramic artists when setting up a business, and what are the biggest challenges?
Noah Keesecker: One common hurdle that I see across disciplines is the struggle to clearly define the product and business that is to be operated. It sounds simple but there is a distinction to be made between merely falling into business and actively making a choice to set up a business with a clearly defined product, goals, and mechanisms. It’s easy to make a beautiful product and sell it on a small scale but to create something sustainable and profitable requires the ability to make specific choices against one’s desire to leave all the options open. I like to remind people that nothing is written (or fired) in stone. You can choose to alter course later but the requirement is that you have to make a choice.
A second common hurdle across disciplines is grappling with the financials of production and pricing. It’s a bridge that every business in the world has to cross. In an arts business it takes some careful consideration to find the right mix and balance between the joy of creating work and the ability for that work to be profitable in the market.
I tend to feel that the biggest challenges are biggest because they are, in the end, unsolvable without the effort and determination to find your own solution. There are no magic bullets. In many ways some things are significantly easier than they have ever been before. Production and tool access has never been more readily available or cheaper. Co-working spaces, nonprofit arts organizations, community centers, skill shares, distribution channels, have all helped to bring the tools of business closer to the individual artist. However, social media didn’t solve anyone’s marketing problem. In fact, the social-media workshop is separate from the marketing workshop because it is its own creature; it provides immense market access but still comes at a price of time and money. In other words, it’s a new way of doing the old marketing.
CM: What is the success rate of artists who use the Business Skills for Artists Workbook?
Carl Atiya Swanson: We just launched the Work of Art Toolkit in December 2015, so it’s a relatively recent offering and we aren’t proscriptive about how people use it. It’s being used in a lot of different ways, for individual study, as part of group learning, as curriculum in schools, and as part of broader professional development work. Since we’re making the Toolkit free digitally and offering consulting to go along with it, we’re excited by how it’s being used and taking off. It’s had over 2000 downloads in the first year, and there’s a lot more to do.
In the broader sense with the Work of Art series, it’s always been a key principle of Springboard for the Arts that artists get to define success on their own terms. That can mean sales, but more directly for us, it often means feeling like you have a better grasp of the resources at hand, the work you need to do, and a strategic plan to move forward. Taken as a whole, the Work of Art series offers people the tools to address what they need to do and how to evaluate their business plans. We don’t have a check-box marker of success, but are open to how it broadly affects artists’ careers. To measure success purely as return on investment is to ignore all of the middle work that gets you to a return.
We’ve recently begun a research and evaluation process that interviews Work of Art instructors, attendees, and stakeholders to get deeper understanding of how Work of Art has impacted their careers. A key finding from the initial research is around how Work of Art builds agency and empowerment in artists, and gives them more resilience for the ups and downs of their career.
CM: Is it easier for artists to implement Work of Art Toolkit ideas when working in a group rather than alone, and in urban rather than rural areas?
NK: I have heard from one artist that is using the Toolkit as a weekly study guide, or syllabus. She is working alone but has found that the Toolkit gives her a sense of structure and self-accountability that supports her creative practice. The most common implementation of the Toolkit is through organizations or individuals that actively host and convene artists to work together. We encourage this approach because the pooling of experience, skills, backgrounds, and resources is an advantage to everyone. One example of this approach is finding or assigning a person in a group to present a unit or topic so as to leverage the collective knowledge of a community.
When it comes to rural locations, we often say that every town has at least six artists in it. Six is enough. That is to say that rural and isolated communities are not barren of talent, knowledge, culture, or resources, they have their own rich history and assets.
CM: Which of the units are the most challenging for people?
Adia Morris Swanger: People have a really hard time with the Pricing workshop unit because they have a hard time placing a dollar value on their work. It can be a difficult paradigm shift to hear that they can charge what the market will bear (provided they’ve done their market research) because they have a perception that no one will pay “that much” for their work. Once they do make the switch, however, they realize that what they do has multiple kinds of value, including the ability to potentially generate a livable income.
Anna Metcalfe: Some of the more technical units tend to be most challenging for artists (legal, recordkeeping, pricing). I think those are the areas least familiar to artists and possibly the ones that are least interesting or fun. There is the very rare artist/accountant combo, but most artists shudder at the thought of tax season or feel inadequate when negotiating complex contracts. We have developed resources to help buffer some of these complex problems like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, consultations, and accountant recommendations, and tools like spreadsheets to help with pricing and record keeping.
CM: What common pitfalls should artists to be aware of?
NK: Underestimating cash needs and skipping the market research are two of the main pitfalls I see most often. It’s not that artists do either one incorrectly, it’s that they gloss over them so these two crucial elements become errors by omission, an unknown that doesn’t get investigated but invariably causes unforeseen problems. Also, people often confuse what they can’t do with what they don’t want to do (e.g. networking). If you literally cannot do something then it is you and your business’ job to find someone who can do it for you. Plain and simple. If you can do it but really don’t like the task then it is you and your business’ job to find systems and incentives to change your attitude about the task or find someone who enjoys it and delegate the responsibility.
CM: How do you find community partners to host workshops? What is the best way for artists to reach out to organizations to see if they would host an event?
CAS: The Toolkit itself is a great way to open up the hosting and partnership conversation. You can bring the workbook, as well as the User Guide and support of Springboard’s consultations to an organization. You want to look for organizations that have a reciprocal interest in presenting the workshops, whose mission benefits. This means organizations in the art world, but also cross-sector organizations, small business associations, community development organizations, community centers, educational institutions, and so on.
Access the free Work of Art Toolkit here: http://springboardforthearts.org/woa. Read about the project’s success here: http://springboardexchange.org/special-sauce-agency-evaluating-work-of-art.
Implementing Ideas from the Toolkit
by Anna Metcalfe
CM: How has your approach to your career changed since you adopted ideas from Work of Art Business Skills Toolkit?
AM: Like many artists, I find myself working on several different projects at the same time. Right now, that combination is making socially engaged work that forefronts environmental activism, and making and marketing a line of functional work that I sell online. In the past, I’ve struggled with how to define myself as an artist and talk about what I make. As I’ve implemented the exercises and approaches from the Work of Art Toolkit, I’ve found that it has helped me gain clarity as I navigate craft, social engagement, activism, retail, and marketing. For both bodies of work, I’ve been able to gain a sense of purpose as I’m developing ideas and taking action steps toward my goals. For me, simply calling my art-making a business meant that people in my life began to take my work seriously—and that helped me take my art practice seriously. In other words, it kick started a feedback loop of confidence in myself as a maker. Tangibly, I’ve developed skills that were previously really challenging: time management and project planning; budgeting and thinking through income and expenses; and understanding copyright, legal contracts, and how to best structure my businesses and creative ventures, etc. The Work of Art toolkit doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers, but it provided me with a platform that helped me find the answers that are unique to my creative path.
CM: Has this had an impact on the creative side of your career?
AM: Definitely! The continuous process of organizing, planning, and reflecting on the business side of my career has made the creative side more intentional and clear. My creative path is as circuitous as anyone’s, but Work of Art has given me a framework and a system by which I feel like I can make better decisions. I use the exercises all the time to help me clarify and prioritize ideas and then shape and articulate the nebulous cloud that the creative act can sometimes resemble. I have found that through the process of articulating who I am as a business owner and an artist, I emerge from those professional exercises with renewed intent as I enter my studio. What used to be a drag—writing a grant proposal or re-tooling my artist statement—has become a great way to find self awareness in my studio practice. I have also found that with self awareness, I can allow myself more unfettered time in my studio to “play”—something that is fundamental to any creative process.
CM: What are the most challenging aspects of your business?
AM: I think that one of the hardest things about the business of making art is also the most liberating: the fact that there is no pre-determined structure for how to do it right. There is no singular path to success since every artist’s version of success is different. This lack of structure can be paralyzing when I reach a point when I’m not even sure what questions to start asking, or when it’s unclear that an investment of time will result in a tangible and positive outcome. There are so many ways to approach building a career in the arts and it often feels overwhelming.
Balancing financial stability with creative spontaneity is probably the hardest thing for me to manage. It’s hard to make decisions that consider money in a pragmatic way and also give me the freedom to take a creative leap that may have no monetary gain. I’m reminded of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Jones steps onto the invisible bridge that materializes only when he walks forward. It’s true that we don’t know the outcome of our decisions at any point in our lives—we step blindly all the time. But working in the arts can feel particularly precarious when we’re pulled by the sometimes competing forces of the market and the creative self. Taking steps onto an invisible bridge is only possible when I can predict success with some accuracy. The Work of Art curriculum has given me tools to identify and evaluate past successes so that I can better predict outcomes of future endeavors.