How did you learn the business side of art and do you have any tips?
Most of the Allies learned the business side of art through a lot of trial and error. And then a few artists came into art from other careers (like graphic design) and were able to apply some of the business skills they learned in those fields towards their own art practices.
Here are their stories and what they did to figure out how to be an artist and run a business.
Artist who learned (mostly) through trial + error
The business side I’m still learning. Back [when I started in the early 2000s] nobody could give you any advice for that because everybody had full-time jobs.
I come from a military family background so the idea of working for yourself was just non-existent. The only business advice my parents would give me was, Go get a full-time job. I was given the advice of, Oh, you want to travel and see the world? Join the Air Force. I was like, That’s not exactly what I’m talking about. [Laughter]
So it’s just been a lot of learning mistakes. If you don’t pay your taxes for a couple of years, they’re going to come back and get you. I had some tax issues because I was living paycheck to paycheck for ages and I didn’t have money to pay taxes.
But now that there’s such a big community of freelancers and the internet is prevalent, you can find information everywhere and get the right advice from friends. Our accountant now was a recommendation from a friend who does freelance contract work too and he was like, This guy deals with self-employed people all the time so he knows exactly what to do.
Nate: Mostly on the fly, which is interesting because I have a finance degree. But I felt like when I finished school – even though I did really well – I thought, What do I do with what I learned? There was no applicable, real-world application.
Essentially my business strategy was to just do a bunch of stuff. So there were a lot of questionable inputs I used to build my business. A lot of trial and error, honestly. And just getting out and meeting people.
I was really lucky, there was a gallery in Fort Collins called Gallery Underground. It was 2008 and I quit my job for the first time just to do art. I had no sales record, no real body of work to speak of, but it was like, I want to be an artist, you know? I was still 27, so my whole life was ahead of me. And Gallery Underground would just rent space and if you make a sale, you just take all the money. It was a great way to start looking at things like, How do I talk to customers? What kind of things do I want to carry that will sell? What’s my target market?
I always tell artists when they get started to just show your work, and when you show your work, show up to the show and talk to people. That’s the only way you’re going to get real, honest reactions. And you can watch people walk up to a piece and love it, but not buy it. There’s a whole smorgasbord of sales tactics and ways to sell art.
Trial and error. I have no formal training in business or in art, so it’s grown really organically, which is nice. I haven’t felt like I’ve pushed something beyond what I’m capable of and I learn as I go. I’ve had the chances to make mistakes and then apply it to how I can do better.
Something that I’m constantly working on and trying to improve is managing inventory because I do have online sales coming in, I am working with a lot of galleries, I have a lot of different pieces that I’m selling and showing. I try to make it so that I have items on hand and don’t have to run out and get the prints made. I don’t like doing things one at a time. When I do prints, I want to package, like, 200 prints at a time instead of doing five prints at a time. Assembly-line style. Invite some friends over, maybe give them a glass of wine and trick them into packaging things for me. [Laughter]
I have a room downstairs [in her home for inventory]. It’s just keeping everything filed, looking at it and knowing how many events I have coming up. If I buy 10 prints of the Alaska Yeti, I might only sell two of those at one event but then I have another event where I can sell the next five, and three of them can go to a gallery. Gallery orders can put a little bit of a hitch in that just because it’s harder to anticipate if it’s going to be a big or small order.
If you just make art but you don’t have a knack for business, then you’re never going to share your art with people and vice-versa. If you have a knack for business but you don’t really make any art, then you’re not going to be producing items to sell or for people to enjoy.
Trial by fire. I’d say slowly but surely figuring things out. I think from the business standpoint, I’ve always been very conservative and never set lofty goals and expectations so that’s allowed us to grow things very slowly and organically over time. I’ve never made financial commitments that I wasn’t very comfortable we could meet, I never missed payments to anybody or needed to ask for more time. It’s all due to us just moving very slowly.
The only loan that I ever took out was our SBA loan to build this building [Level 1’s office space in Denver’s Santa Fe District]. And I borrowed three grand from my dad to buy my first real video camera halfway through shooting the first movie, which I paid him back in, like, six months.
But yeah, I think just a very conservative approach has allowed me to figure things out as time goes on and create a situation where any mistakes I make are not catastrophic.
I’m still learning it but basically just being around other artists. Robin [Munro, artist + founder of the Crush Walls mural festival in Denver] especially, he’s been in it for 10 years. And that’s why we all hang out because we don’t want to have different prices and fight for walls. It should just be what the client wants and who the right artist is for that.
I think it’s just constantly being up-to-date online and constantly reading magazines like High Fructose, Juxtapoz, and looking on their websites.
It’s also keeping up with the galleries and with what artists are doing as best as I can. And just meeting and talking with people, asking questions. When I was younger there were a couple of artists that I used to go to all their shows and ask questions and learn from.
I think my brain is wired in a marketing and business sense. I’m fortunate that that’s how my brain already works. At the same time, I’ve been pursuing a ski career since I was 15 and got my first ski sponsor a week before my 16th birthday.
I also have a degree in marketing from the University of Utah, and I have work experience in a lot of different facets of the media and outdoor industries, ranging from an editorial internship focused on writing at POWDER Magazine, to PR and content marketing work in tourism, to web marketing for a ski company. And then most recently I had an internship with Sweetgrass Productions to learn the filmmaking side of things.
Artists who learned business skills through other work:
Mostly for communicating with people. Realizing nothing is personal. I don’t want to read into every email.
Also, time — because with graphic design I bill by time and in some ways that helps translate into the reality of art projects. But art’s not on a time increment so I learned not to waste time.
Working as a designer has actually helped me exponentially in fine art because I’m used to handling clients and proposing ideas to clients that they may not necessarily come up with on their own.
The business skills I learned as a graphic designer have definitely translated into the art world. And I think in a lot of ways have given me a leg up over other artists who don’t have the business experience.
I’ve had other businesses. I started my first company when I was 15 years old, a software company. And I’ve done other stuff — I had a car shop, a ticketing company. So I’ve been around business people and had that business mindset. I’m interested in optimization, marketing, all these different facets of a successful business. By no means am I some sort of business whiz, I’m learning as I go, but that’s always kind of been there.