Ursula Hargens, Flowerbrick.
So, you’ve done all the hard work building your skills and developing an impressive body of work, but knowing how to turn your beautiful creations into a sustainable business, is not a skill set that every artist is born with. No matter how good your work is, running a successful pottery business requires business skills as well as ceramics skills.
If you’ve been searching for business advice for artists, the Work of Art Toolkit, published by Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, can help you get a leg up on your career. In this post, an excerpt from the February 2017 issue of Ceramics Monthly, the Springboard for the Arts staffers behind this great resource discuss some of the stumbling blocks artist’s face and how the Toolkit can help them. –Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
A Great Reference to Use When Starting a Ceramics Business
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: 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?
Noah Keesecker: 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.