IAM Encounter: Art as business

One of the more interesting seminars I was able to attend at IAM Encounter 2009 dealt with art as a vocation. It was given by Mark Meehan, a professor of business at Nyack and president of the IAM board. As such, it was a very practical and business oriented lecture.

Meehan started out by acknowledging the disgust most artists feel for the idea of business, but countered this by suggested that business is creative. Semantically he’s correct; by no means is creativity limited to the arts. Regardless, business and marketing are generally the last thing sculptors and painters want to be spending their time on. We’d rather be in our studios working with our hands. Marketing and spreadsheets call out in the night, though, to artists desiring to make a career of their craft.

Artists Need to Be Intercultural
Meehan continued by talking about a number of businessmen he knew who 1: Are wealthy 2: Want to patronize the arts but don’t know how to go about it. There is a gap between the artistic and business subcultures; business culture with its suits and ties doesn’t know how to communicate with the dyed hair and piercings of the artistic world. For artists who want to be successful, the responsibility falls on painters and sculptors to move out of their comfort zone by dressing more conservatively and keeping somewhat regular hours.

Thomas Kinkade or Castrated Donkeys
In other words, define your target market. Do you want to be the next Thomas Kinkade, a veritable marketing machine whose paintings are aimed at the lowest artistic denominator, or the next shock artist creating castrated donkeys for a very niche market (in the case of said donkeys, a Turkish community in New Jersey Meehan used as an example).

This is very basic business but is likely to ruffle the feathers of many art school graduates, purists. The fact is, however, if you haven’t given any thought to your target demographic you’re not likely to be very successful selling your work. Meehan pointed to a Christian radio station in Jersey with one of the largest potential markets in the country that failed to define their target market. They expected everyone to be a potential listener. Consequently, Meehan rightly points out, the station was marketing to no one. After he convinced them that only 30-50 year old Christian women actually listen to Christian radio, the station geared their programming to this particular demographic. Listenership went from 80,000 to 300,000 in a year (on a weekly basis, as I recall).

Artists need to realize that things like installations and performances aren’t really marketable like paintings or small sculptures. We need to define the people we expect to purchase or view our creations.

A Process, Not an Event
Another of Meehan’s points was that the business side of art, coming up with, in his words, a Creative Act Plan and putting it into motion, is a process and not an event. Creating art is also a process; even though a painter may have a finished canvas in front of him after five hours, that canvas is only a sliver of a larger body of work spanning a lifetime. Our craft, both imaginative and tactile, is always being refined. As impatient Americans we constantly need to be reminded of the process that is life.

Now What?
This was the kind of seminar I went to the IAM Encounter conference for, one with practical insights as a way to spur on (or actually launch) my own artistic career. So what do I do with the information from Meehan’s seminar?

I sit down and create a business plan, or Creative Act Plan. It won’t be easy, in fact it will probably be more painful than working on an artist statement. But it will focus me artistically, which will in turn help me define a target demographic and bring some realism to the idea of a career as a sculptor.

As a final note, this seminar was actually a trial run for a day-long seminar Meehan has in mind to be held at IAM headquarters later this year, and podcast to the rest of us who won’t be in New York at that time.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

4 Responses to IAM Encounter: Art as business

  1. techne says:

    amen! it’s interesting that we look down upon the business side of things yet for most of art history the business component (patronage, marketing, dealers) was crucial. of course, most of the time art wasn’t about self-expression (or at least not the main point of art)…thinking strategically and critically about your work, its reception and its dissemination is important. increasingly, faculties across north america are recognizing the necessity of addressing these issues, which is a very good thing.

    i’ve lead or been involved with a number of professional development workshops/ programs and, invariably, they are helpful for participants. somehow, most artists seem to think that either everyone will love their work, or else that they will one day get ‘discovered’. sadly, that doesn’t happen. and really, how could it?

  2. pNielsen says:

    An example I failed to mention is that you have a friend or spouse that takes up the business end of art for you as an artist. From what I’m told, this is the relationship Jan Kaneko has with his wife. It’s also the kind of relationship depicted in Pollock IIRC.

    So instead of marrying rich, artists could also marry marketing types!

  3. Historically, art served a very specific purpose- an altarpiece in a church was necessary in celebrating the mass, a portrait of the king’s daughter was necessary to send to her betrothed, paintings as propeganda, sculptures for the cycles in churches, etc. These Renaissance workshops were run like businesses, in a way, but they weren’t marketing a product already made. Just about everything was made on commission, so the artist didn’t have to fork over the cash and then try to market the work. The patron would pay along the way.

    Right now, we don’t know what art is FOR, which is why Thomas Kinkade is making a killing. We think art is for decoration only. The sort of art that I want decorating my home, is very different than the sort of art that is really important. For example, I did a sculpture called “A Voice in Ramah” that is very emotional and evocative. I have it in my livingroom right now, because I don’t know where else to put it. It is a good sculpture and has a lot to say, but it is totally inappropriate in the livingroom! My husband said that it is hard to have small talk around it because it is so serious and grave. Who wants a statue of a woman, who is weeping because her children have been slaughtered, in their livingroom?

    We as a culture need to figure out what art is FOR. I don’t know who to market that statue to.

    BTW my business-minded hubby wants to help with my books. Yay for me.

  4. pNielsen says:

    Very astute observations, particularly with respect to our own culture’s ignorance on what art is for. Attests to the idea of art as a gift which I’ve glanced off of in recent posts.

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