A peek at what we make
The other day I brought my 5 year old daughter with me to pick up my 2 year old son from pre-school.
“Look Daddy”, she said. “He made a house out of construction paper. But he did it wrong.”
I explained, “No he didn’t, sweety. That’s his artwork and he made it the way he wanted. Art can never be wrong.”
It took her a little while to understand that. To her, a window was in the wrong place and that meant it was wrong. But once she (finally) started to understand he made it how he wanted it to look, she was more accepting of his art.
I’m a big believer in art. I think everybody has at least some degree of artistic ability, even if it is only to imagine how you want something to look. It’s that kind of creativity that has led to discussions that have lasted hundreds of years. Take the Mona Lisa for instance. Was she really giving that hint of a smile? Or did da Vinci only see that in his mind, making it look how he wanted?
For many, as was the case for da Vinci, artistic ability goes beyond just picturing how something should look. It is accompanied by a skill or talent, sometimes learned and other times a natural gift (though often a bit of both). It allows somebody to not only envision something, but to also use a medium to show others what they saw in their thoughts. And sometimes that thought itself is so compelling, or so beautifully portrayed, that it makes others look at it and say, “Wow! That’s fantastic, I’d love to be able to see that every day. How much can I pay you for it?”
And that’s when all of the rules change.
A threshold is being crossed, one that turns the artist, somebody who creates interpretations of their thoughts, into a business person. Because unlike art, business is a world filled with rules. Yes, you Can do it wrong and the consequences can be severe.
What do you think of when you picture a business person? For me, I think of somebody who has a specific idea on what they want to achieve over the next few years with a plan on how to do it. They are calculating. They understand the importance of connecting with people and make sure to consistently put time into expanding their network.
Does that sound at all like an artist? It doesn’t to me. I know I often find myself concerned with the here and now, maybe getting distracted from a current project by the thoughts of something new. So how can the two, art and business, co-exist? Is it even possible?
It is possible. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it will be easy. It will definitely take more work for some than for others but yes, you can be an artist AND have a successful business. So what does it mean to turn your art into a business?
It’s more than just networking and having a plan of where you want to your business to be in the next 5 years. It’s also about more abstract things, like turning your art into its own brand. And it’s about more specific things, like properly filing Sales & Use Tax, paying self employed taxes on the money you pay yourself and keeping solid bookkeeping records. It’s about knowing your bottom line on your artwork and making sure you achieve profitability. For a lot of people that can sound intimidating, but the good news is the Small Business Administration has all sorts of useful information for people who are just getting started and can even help you find a business mentor.
Turning your art into a business will not be an overnight change. There is no switch that you flip that will suddenly make you into a profitable business. But it Can and Does happen. Let me give you an example.
John T. Unger makes firebowls. Not just any firebowls- these have a very specific design element that is used throughout his entire line. Starting his journey 15 years ago as a professional artist, it took him 5 years to be able to use his business to make a full time living. I spoke with John one day on the phone for what I was expecting to be a fairly short call. An hour and a half later I was hanging up the phone, able to see clearly why he is so successful. It’s not just the vision for his art (as great as it is), but also the vision for his art as a brand. As a self sustaining business that employs others.
And I’m not the only one who noticed this about John. Earlier this year, The New York Times ran an article that included John and his work. Was this printed in the Home & Garden section? No- in their Business section. That’s right. The New York Times ran an article about an artist in their Business section.
So if you’re an artist and thinking you might want to try taking that next step, thinking you want to see if anybody will pay you for doing what you love to do, then go for it. Is failure possible? Of course- any business can fail. But don’t let the possibility of failure stop you from the possibility of success.