ARCHIVED  December 30, 2010

Quit your day job to be an artist?

Fort Collins artist Amelia Caruso stands in front of a dozen of her peers at ArtLab on a Sunday afternoon in November. She’s conducting a workshop that will help artists more successfully market and sell their work.

“It’s your responsibility to become educated and prepared,” she tells the group. “Business is business is business, and art is your business. Right brain, left brain. Don’t pay attention to that. Pay attention to the math.”

Caruso starts with the basics, beginning with an explanation of business terms: profit and loss, expenses, fixed costs, the difference between wholesale and retail sales. She then goes on to define branding, advertising and marketing.

“Branding is how you present yourself to increase the perceived value of your art and yourself. That needs to be consistent,” she said. “Galleries should have no questions about who you are and what your art is about.”

Caruso encourages artists to look at different ways to sell their art. That might mean creating passive income through licensing. With that exposure, though, comes risk. Digital images are constantly popping up on the Internet without the artist’s permission.

“If you don’t copyright your work,” she tells the workshop participants, “it’s much harder to address the problem and get the other party to stop using your images. With it, you have some leverage for recourse.”

Caruso teaches the workshop from her own experience. After graduating from the Art Academy of Cincinnati with a fine arts degree, she felt unprepared to make a living.

“Art schools just don’t teach marketing, business principals or accounting,” she said. “They send students out without an understanding of how to be successful with what they’ve just spent four years learning. Society doesn’t expect artists to be business people and that’s a failure of society as a whole. Do you know where I got my MBA? Domino’s Pizza. I was a manager there, and that’s where I learned how to run a business.”

Like Caruso, many artists have “day jobs.” Although she invests 40 to 50 hours each week in her art, Caruso also works in the resale department at Waste Not Recycling, and not just for the paycheck. “I enjoy the social aspects of going to work,” she said. “I’ve also had cancer twice. The insurance benefits are very important to me.”

Here are two local artists who have quit their day jobs to make a living at art.

Dean Russell Thompson

Three years ago, Dean Russell Thompson started his second career after working as a software engineer for more than 25 years.

“Engineering just wasn’t fun anymore and I wanted to go to something, not away from something,” he said. “So I went back to school for my BFA and opened the studio.”

He and his wife planned for the change that meant going from a six-figure income to virtually nothing.

The studio is Copper Plate Press in Loveland. Thompson admits it’s been challenging with such an unstable economy. Still, the emerging artist has been featured in nearly a dozen shows across the country and is represented by a gallery in Nashville.

“I am everything,” Thompson said. “First, I am the artist. After that I am the marketing director, the sales rep, the janitor, shop manager and bookkeeper. It’s a balancing act.”

A strong business background with exposure to market development and financials help Thompson approach his art as a serious business.

“I don’t think the business side plays well to many artists’ strengths,” he admitted. “They need to be analytical and develop strategies and plans. I’m not sure how comfortable they are with that. It’s common to find an artist whose spouse is their business manager.”

For Thompson, the business of art is no different than any other business. There can be issues with cash flow. Marketing and advertising efforts have limited budgets. The artist needs to build and manage a brand that is recognizable but that allows for growth and evolution. Persistence is the key to growing exposure and developing brand recognition.

“And then there’s sales. I am constantly nurturing relationships,” Thompson said.

He uses his blog to educate potential clients and stimulate online conversations. “There isn’t a lot of knowledge out there about printmaking. The more I can talk to people about the process and what I do, the more they understand the medium, and the perceived value of my art rises.”

He finds that even galleries sometimes don’t understand printmaking, making it difficult to break into that world. Selling art is much more personal than selling software, and is often a larger percentage of the client’s disposable income when compared to what a corporate operating budget spends on IT products.

Thompson noted that his first sale was to his wife, when he wanted to take the leap to becoming a full-time artist. “Starting out, I had a long dry period with nothing, absolutely nothing happening,” he said. “She was the one putting food on the table. That let me concentrate on printmaking and building my business.”

Paula Montgomery

Paula Montgomery creates jewelry from found, or repurposed items, and sells them through her company, On (Re)Purpose.

“I’ve been self-employed for over 20 years and have had two very successful businesses,” she said. “The difference is that the other products were mass-produced, and now I’m creating one-of-a-kind art jewelry. I can’t sell the way I used to. Stores just can’t call me and order 20 of something. This way is much more gratifying.

It’s also a lot more personal. “I hear the good, the bad and the ugly and sometimes that’s a bit scary,” she added.

Montgomery’s jewelry is available at a high-end salon in Fort Collins and on Etsy, a global website that connects artists and artisans with buyers. But she’s not seeing the results she hoped for yet.

“I wear my designs wherever I go and hand out lots of business cards,” she said. “I find that people respond really well when they see the actual pieces on me or at the salon. I haven’t figured out (Etsy’s) formula yet. Photographs don’t do justice to the uniqueness and coolness factor of my jewelry.”

While she perfects the formula, Montgomery is working with a Web designer to build a dedicated site and is developing a marketing strategy that hinges primarily on social networking and public relations. She believes that social media, done right, offers cost effective, broad-reaching exposure that will ultimately translate into sales.

Getting her work in front of the right fashion magazine editors and stylists is a high priority on her to-do list. “I have to do all this work myself,” she said. “The budget isn’t there to hire someone to handle all these functions. My goal is to have a celebrity wear one of my necklaces. The big question is how do you get it to them?”

Montgomery knows how to manage businesses. She earned a degree in studio art from UCLA, and credentials that allowed her to teach both art and math in California. She and her late husband started an art rubber stamp company that they ran for 17 years. After they sold that business and moved to Fort Collins four years ago, she started a spinoff business selling rubber stamp kits, and now concentrates on her handmade jewelry.

“I learned how to use Quicken a long time ago,” she said. “It’s easy for me. And, I do have a degree in math, so numbers aren’t intimidating. I’ve never written a business plan and I’ve never had to borrow money for any of my businesses.

With handmade pieces, Montgomery is finding pricing a little difficult. “I’m learning about how to cost the materials and how to get to the price of the final product,” she said. “Some come together easily and sometimes they take longer to gel. The prices need to be fair and cover my time – I need to pay myself – and the components.”

However, she is realistic about the challenges she faces. “These are fluff items,” she said. “It’s hard to start a business in a troubled economy. But I’ve done this before and it worked out just fine.”

Fort Collins artist Amelia Caruso stands in front of a dozen of her peers at ArtLab on a Sunday afternoon in November. She’s conducting a workshop that will help artists more successfully market and sell their work.

“It’s your responsibility to become educated and prepared,” she tells the group. “Business is business is business, and art is your business. Right brain, left brain. Don’t pay attention to that. Pay attention to the math.”

Caruso starts with the basics, beginning with an explanation of business terms: profit and loss, expenses, fixed costs, the difference between wholesale and retail sales.…

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