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Where art meets business, and the two get along

Anne Wallace Allen 2015When his two children both decided to major in the arts in college, Marc Chopin did what any father who is an economist would do: He nudged them toward a minor in business, reasoning that this would help them face the harsh realities of making a living as an artist.

“Finding a way to turn their passion into a livelihood” is how Chopin, the dean of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Idaho, describes the business side of their education.

The arts often have an uneasy relationship with the business of making money. While many artists have seen commercial success, a great many more haven’t. History is full of sad tales of artists like the painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, or the writers John Kennedy Toole and Herman Melville, whose works didn’t receive acclaim until after their deaths.

In the interest of helping artists achieve commercial success within their lifetimes, the Garden City nonprofit Surel’s Place is holding a workshop November 12 with the Idaho Commission on the Arts aimed at teaching artists to represent themselves and their work. Jodi Eichelberger –  a writer, storyteller, composer, director, actor and puppeteer and the program coordinator for Surel’s Place –  said the focus will be helping Boise-area artists market their work to people in and out of the area.

“They haven’t effectively taken that skill that they have in creating their work and applied it to messaging about their work in order to get people to see it or buy it,” Eichelberger said. “It’s just such a shame to have talented people not reaching their market.”

At the four-hour workshop, artists will learn about identifying their professional goals and aspirations, creating action steps to reach those goals, taking personal and professional inventory, and identifying what “success” means to the individual. They’ll learn how to present their work to best reach their intended audience, and how to use marketing and social media to raise their visibility to the world outside Boise. The teacher is McLean Emenegger, who is affiliated with the National Arts Marketing Project.

It’s not that artists are particularly bad at marketing. Many professionals are, both Chopin and Eichelberger pointed out. Chopin sees this as a failing in the education system.

“I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as we might at explaining to artists, and some of the other professions and disciplines, why business may be important in their future careers,” he said. “If we don’t explain to others how business will likely play a role in their lives, they might not be inclined to explore it, even in terms of a formal education, nor continuing education after school.”

Chopin used to mentor artists at a business incubator when he lived in Flagstaff, Ariz. There, artists learned how to price their work, how to network with other artists and with the larger community, and how to track their expenses and revenues. Chopin said the artists he worked with tended to undervalue their work.

“We would talk to them about what the artistic process entailed, and that not everybody is able to do that, which means it’s not a free good, it’s a scarce resource, and scarce resources demand a premium,” he said. “We’d talk with them about the creative process, not only how much time they put into it, but also how much a patron or customer or buyer may value the piece. As an economist, I will say things are worth what people will pay for them, and trying to find out what that might be is part of the pricing process.”

Boise has many artists who have succeeded in finding their audience, such as the illustrator Ward Hooper, who has a gallery on Idaho Street, musician Curtis Stigers, who performs internationally, and Anthony Doerr, whose novel All the Light we Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. Another is Kelly Knopp, an illustrator who co-founded the Swell Art Collective and who is speaking on a panel after the workshop at Surel’s Place.

Knopp has worked in marketing jobs, experience that helps him sell his branding and illustration services to clients in and outside of Boise.

“I have to market myself, or these people don’t even know I exist,” he said. “It takes work. You can’t just sit still and wait for the next gig; you have to kind of pursue it.”

That pursuit is important work, Eichelberger said, because art should be enjoyed.

“If art is being made to be shared and not just for your own personal enjoyment, it hasn’t come alive until it has that place out in the world,” he said. “I certainly don’t see a life for art stored in a basement or closet or flat file.”

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.