Yang: Artist-Entrepreneur Nexus

Artist-Entrepreneur Nexus

By ELENA YANG
Los Alamos

The knowing-doing gap infects the majority of us, at least occasionally if not frequently. Sometimes, it’s a matter of exercising our will to push ourselves into action, but more often than not, the stumbling block transcends willpower.

Recently, I came across a short article in a small town, advising artists to treat their artwork as a business enterprise. Self-promotion, learning different 21st century tools to market the art, attending to tax issues, hiring an accountant or bookkeeper, and so on. How can you refute such good-intentioned common sense suggestions? But, do artists really not know about business models? Is it as simple as a knowing-doing gap for artists?

The stereotype of the disorganized, haplessly head-in-the-cloud, constantly creating out-of-box artist is just that, a stereotype. But often there is a fundamental trait carried by artists who are truly creative, as they generally have different brain structure from others. The distinction between left-dominated and right-dominated brain function is not a myth, and artists are by and large right-brain dominated. While I don’t know what percentage of people are comfortable moving from left brain to right and back to left constantly, without “thinking” about it, I do know most people have one side dominating over the other side most of the time. Natural inclination does not preclude learning, understanding, and functioning well in areas that do not come to us easily. The difference (and the resulting tension) is that when we work in our naturally gifted areas, it’s almost effortless and joyful, and when we work in areas where we have learned to overcome the “shortcomings” of our natural inclinations, we spend much more psychological energy. The art-vs-business tension is a perennial issue, and artists are only too painfully aware of this tension. 

I believe that the majority of artists have thought about how to organize their “enterprise” for sales and profits. I know plenty of artists who try hard, very hard, to market themselves and their work. Of all the professions, artists might be one of those who face rejection most frequently, daily, weekly, monthly, annually. They know what they need to do, but I ask, Is willpower their only stumbling block to becoming better businesspeople?  For every successful published author, high-demand visual artist (of any media), talented musician, often-cited poet, there are probably 1,000 (most likely more) struggling artists. How many market niches are there for all these artists? How much time can they afford to spend on the business aspects without feeling starved, spiritually, artistically, or physically?

One of my artist friends is a quintessential right-brain-dominated artist through and through; she cannot help but create all the time. She also has an MBA, is very savvy about marketing, and is not shy about self-promotion. Yet, she struggles financially. Listening to her stories about dealing with the business aspects of producing her work and occasionally following her on her transaction runs, I am blown away by the “stuff” she has to deal with. Gossip, back stabbing, jealous barbs, tempers, rumors, dramas – all present, but less intense, within other organizations – litter her path. Are there manuals on dealing with these “soft” but emotionally charged issues? How does she find, in her limited budget, funds to hire an accountant, bookkeeper, web designer, etc.?

I know another artist who is also multi-talented and “mind-blowing” creative. She is impeccably organized, in her workspace and in her mind. She understands the needs of, and tolerates the effort required for, marketing or self-promotion, but manages to do them very well. Because her genres are not designed for mass market, she has to work overtime to promote her work. While she’s highly regarded for her art and pulls in decent income, her safety margin could be ulcer-inducing narrow. In fact, when I reflect upon all the artists I have met and known in my life, they are all multi-talented and organized, but few could live comfortably on income from their artwork alone. 

My point is that artists know what they have to do to sell their art and to treat their artwork as an enterprise. While all know, very few succeed in making a comfortable living being an artist; most of them have a patron in their lives, e.g. their significant other with whom they share the financial bounty or woe. It’s amazing to me that artists, even single artists without a patron, still dream and pursue their ideals, without drowning in cynicism from dealing with the business aspect of their operations. 

The traditional entrepreneurs’ business ventures are often considered a form of creativity; however, the starting point in their operations is product development, so it is in their interest to find and hire people who can organize the process. More importantly, societal and economic structures readily facilitate entrepreneurs. In comparison, for those artists whose work requires some production of, let us say, sculptures, vases, etc., the operation is so significantly smaller that hiring assistants just may not be feasible. Don’t even get me started on introverted artists! Economies of scale are rarely, if ever, in artists’ favor. How many Dale Chihulys are there?!

I don’t have ready advice to offer. If I could, I would find ways to organize a business community that would provide the necessary operational support for artists at a small fee. That’d be real assistance most artists would welcome. Otherwise, 21st century technology notwithstanding, artists’ struggles to sell their work remain an ageless problem. 

So, when you consider buying artwork, a good novel or a collection of poems, or some heavenly music, don’t try to bargain, just buy the work for you and for the artist. 

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com.

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.

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