Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Does Being in Business Make You a Better Artist?

I am teaching a class at the Synergy conference in Baltimore next month, called "Should I, or Shouldn't I?" The class is about how to decide whether or not you should try and make money with your craft. In preparation for that class, I sent out some surveys to various artists to get a sense of how being in or out of the business side of art has affected them. What did they learn? What did they wish they knew? How do they make money with their art/craft?

I received an e-mail back from Elise Winters that was full of insight. One of the things she said that has had me thinking all week is that is that sometimes artist believe that they must be in business to be taken seriously as artists. It is Elise's belief that sometimes, the business can become a diversion to developing as an artist.

The subtitle of my blog, "the collision of business and art" implies that there is not always a comfortable alliance between these two worlds of commerce and creation. Many firmly believe that you cannot be true to your art, and be successful in business. I guess I would like to believe that there are no hard and fast rules in this regard. In fact, while being in business did not make me a more authentic artist, it did help me develop as an artist in other ways.

For one thing, it got me in the studio on a regular (daily) basis. And I absolutely believe that you must spend time in the studio to develop you skills, and to develop your voice. Neither of those happen without time in the studio. You can hone other skills, like your powers of observation, without being in the studio. But ultimately your hands need to connect with your medium. You need to be able to know intuitively the limits of your medium. You don't learn this by reading about it, or by spending a few hours a week creating. You learn it by getting your hands dirty.

It also forced me to pay attention to details. Details that are often referred to as finish. Present your work to a gallery owner, or at a craft show, and the first thing someone does is pick it up and start turn it this way and that. Inspecting the finish. How does the back look? How does it feel? How does it fasten? What types of materials are you using? It is easy to ignore these details when you are starting out. Stopping work on a project before attending to these details. Hoping no one will notice that glob of glue on the back that you used to attach the pin back. Under the scruntiny of another person's eyes, you will look more critically at your own work.

But business can become a trap. You can find financial success with work, and get stuck in that style for too long. Long past the time that the public interest has peaked, and your own inspiration has faded. You may find yourself looking too much to external sources of inspiration....fashion, someone else's success....rather than internally to your own creative well spring.

Time spent building a business can be time out of the studio. If you want to create "art" for "art's sake", selling your work can be a distration. But financing that pursuit might be a bit more challenging.

In my own case, I had been looking around for what I was going to be doing in my life. I was half-heartedly trying to enter the world of children's book publishing. So when polymer clay fell into my lap, and I fell in love with the possibilities of this medium, I was soon thinking that I wanted to figure out how I could do this as a business. I had already run a business. I had a business background. I didn't know what form the business might take. But I knew that eventually that was my goal. Perhaps as someone who has a degree in business, and not in art, it was more comfortable terrain.

But first, I had to learn as much as I could about what I could do with this material. At one point my husband referred to this time, and money, spent on experimenting and learning as my art school tuition. I guess you could say I was "home schooled in art". A business professor might have looked at this time as one of research and product development. I probably dove into the world of commerce prematurely. But, as many have said before me, I would rather regret the action taken, than the opportunity passed. And once I dove in, I learned far more than I would have continuing to work away on my own. Even if what I learned was that I was not ready for prime time yet!

It is a delicate balancing act, juggling commerce and creation. And each person has their own tipping point where things go too far one way or another. We must know what our own motivations and goals are before we know if we are in balance.

If your in my class in Baltimore, I have much more wisdom from Elise and others to share. I hope I see you there!


Libby said...

Judy, I always appreciate your insight. It's a delicate balance trying to be a committed artist and achieve a degree of legitimacy without making art a business.

TammyVitale said...

I think that while being in business might take away from art time, I'd also ask - how much art time do you get to spend if you're not in business? Unless of course you are supported or independently wealthy, money has to come from somewhere, why not what you're passionate about? I don't think I've every thought of anything else but business with reference to my art for the last 6 years (which is a good thing, since it is my business). But then, I'm an Aries. I love the stretch and pull of trying to do it all, including live a life in balance - and after 6 years by George I think I've got it. Plan looks great on paper....we'll see how it plays out in the real world. Great question!