At first glance, the terms artist and entrepreneur might seem contradictory, or at least incompatible. But as any successful artist will attest, business savvy is just as important as creative talent.
Artists must make business decisions for which they seldom have any education or training. They must perform business tasks for which they seldom have any inclination or enthusiasm. The real world intrudes on their romantic ideals with a stunning lack of subtlety. Yet they persevere, pursuing their artistic muse through the thickets of commercial nuts and bolts.
We spoke to four artists about their experiences with the world of business.
The first business decision Wendy Whitson had to make was to answer the question, “Can I still paint?”
Graduating from college with a fine arts degree as a painting major, “I had no idea how to continue that in the workplace. How do you just start a business? I had no idea.” So she put away her painting ambitions and went to work as a newspaper photographer and a graphic designer for more than 20 years until she and her husband, John, moved to Asheville in 2002.
That’s when she began to wonder if she could still do it. Conversations with John led them to that first business decision: a year-long studio lease in the River Arts District. “The bottom line was that Wendy has to try this or she will never know if she can still paint. We’ve got a year; let’s see what happens.”
It took that entire year before she produced a painting that she liked enough to put on display. That led to another business decision: How much to charge? “Pricing things is very difficult. Where do you start?”
Those early sales were 10 years ago, and sitting in her studio now she says pricing is still a thorny question. “It’s a very scary thing for an artist to keep going up on prices because you cannot go back down. And to keep going up, it’s scary. Kind of a rule of thumb that I’ve learned along the way is when I don’t have any originals to sell, it’s time to go up in prices.”
The pricing quandary becomes even stickier when an artist is represented by a gallery, where they take a percentage of the artist’s sales. “I made that jump pretty quickly,” Wendy says. “Because it’s just business. The gallery spends a lot of money advertising my work. They get it in front of people who would never see it. And it’s worth it. It’s absolutely worth it.”
Wendy is represented by the Greene Gallery on Kiawah Island just outside Charleston, South Carolina. “I wanted to expand my presence beyond Western North Carolina, but it had to be someplace within a comfortable driving distance. I looked around and settled on Charleston, because John and I love to go there.”
Despite what the gallery does to promote her work, she must tend to facets of her business that have very little to do with painting. “I enjoy updating the website. I like it all. I like the marketing and dealing with the galleries. I like people, so it gives me a chance to interact that just standing in here painting does not.”
One chore she’s not so fond of is transporting her paintings. “Schlepping is hard,” she says. “I don’t ever paint anything that won’t fit in my car.” It even dictates the kind of car she can buy. “We take a tape measure when we’re buying a car. We measure the height of the rear opening, we measure it diagonally, the length of the storage space with the back seat folded down. That’s important.”
Another important—even vital—consideration is publicity. Wendy opens a recent Ballard Designs catalog to a page that shows one of her paintings in a room setting. “Look, they mention my name in the caption,” she says. “People have seen this, Googled my name, found my website, and come in here, excited to meet the artist mentioned in the catalog. And they’ve bought paintings.” Her grin reveals both the proud artist and the savvy businesswoman as she waves the catalog. “This is like gold.”
(article continues on page 2 and more photographs are at the end)