For many artists I know, the designation “Creative Entrepreneur” feels pretentious, redundant or fluffy. But the distinction might be useful.
The term entrepreneur encompasses the laundromat owner, wedding cake maker, gum-ball-machine business owner and app designer. It somehow also includes musicians, writers, painters, or sculptors: they all have in common the idea of developing a profitable enterprise on their own, “by their own rules”. But it is the kind of risk involved in these fields that separate different entrepreneurial models—some structures have more knowns than unknowns.
Any entrepreneurial venture is one in which resources are used in a nimble, systematic way to produce reliable profits year over year. A laundromat owner, for example, would need a set of known aspects for their business to succeed: location, good rent, steady clientele, reliable staff and good vendors. For someone who owns a gum-ball machines enterprise, it's finding the right kinds of stores that need machines, developing those relationships, and keeping track of which locations are most profitable. The common thread in these cases is a proven set of criteria and practices for what works and what doesn’t. There is a track record, and a predictable model that reliably increases the probability of success.
So how does this apply to musicians, painters, artists or sculptors when they are ready to “hit the market”? The short answer is that not much of this applies because unlike the usual business model, the qualities that make art desirable create more risk. So art-making as a business practice operates with (mostly) a different rule book.
For most artists, originality is a key factor in their work. The unique outlook that every artist possesses is precisely what art audiences follow, galleries look for, and collectors collect. On the business side however, the originality might translate to potential liability unless it is managed. Often an artist will spend on studio rent and supplies, on time and other resources, producing paintings or sculptures that don’t have the benefit of being “market-tested” or assessed for how “sellable” they are to specific audiences. In fact, it can be said with some authority that the very notion of market-testing art directly contradicts the production of interesting art.
Musicians and writers might think that they are exempt from the issues that physical art creates, because music and writing is ephemeral, or performance-based, produced as digital material, or with collaborators who have a bankable reputation. So the challenges are different, but not absent. The popularity of the musician’s genre, where the band is situated, what kind of publicity they can attract, affiliations, and the overall image of how they “fit” into a genre or scene—these are all important factors. A death metal band out of Dubai (yes, they exist) can’t expect the same kind of attention as one coming from Norway because there’s an established market and scene for Norwegian metal music, with its own standards and “micro-economy” of support. Each have to adapt to the realities of their circumstances and play to their strengths.
This is why one of the most dangerous things that an artist can do in setting up a business is blindly follow the business practices of any other artist. A sculptor, for instance, deals with entirely different variables than a painter, even though both might be “contemporary figurative artists who use social media.” Even between two sculptors, the size, location, materials, subject matter and clientele all pose different questions about what constitutes good business practice for making, promoting and selling their work. The answers to those questions will eventually determine how much money the artist needs to have on hand, where they will practice, how they will ship, and what their collector group will yield on a yearly basis, and how often.
This makes it imperative for artists to spend the time to carefully calculate the business equation as they embark on a career. Being able to manage the time, costs and other overheads of networking, self-promotion, shipping, and other outside-the-studio variables could be the difference between building a growing body of work that gets attention and sustains itself, or a lifetime of frustration and struggle. Being flexible and attentive to the market in which you engage also means a higher chance of surviving bad spells and circumstances.
In the course of hundreds of conversations with artists who have had commercial success, many have taken a business practices course or two to prepare for a successful career. On the other hand, artists also point out the importance of independently developing methods conscientiously, sourcing ideas and ways often outside the art world to do things in a way that best suit the intricacies of that particular art-making business. Every artist with internet access today has a wealth of resources at their fingertips: access to podcasts and videos, as much as direct access to other artists about working methods and best practices, and that's a great place to start.
The Creative Entrepreneur category is more than just a title for artists. It’s for a kind of individual that is able to switch gears and engage their business side creatively, to make and sell their work, sustain their practice and scale. A great indicator of a mature artistic practice is the process that engages the business aspects of the profession without compromise to the integrity of the work, or better—in services of the work. In a best case scenario it allows an artist to be able to go into their studio, shut the world outside and confidently get down to doing whatever it is they do best in the service of art.
PHOTO: Mural, East Village. New York City, 2017.