Art & Business

A Noble Exchange
by Maegan C.M. Gilliland

Cutting the distance between artistic excellence and business success…

“You don’t have to sell your soul to sell your art.” That was the message keynote speaker Marc Willson brought to Peoria for The Business of Art, a day of workshops organized by ArtsPartners of Central Illinois and Bradley University’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship. It was a message embraced by an audience of nearly 150 attendees, who left with a host of ideas for strengthening the business side of their creative endeavors.

One of the keys to building a healthy local economy is fostering a dynamic, sustainable arts community. For that to happen, artists must understand the fundamentals of owning and operating a business, which can prove challenging to those without a business or marketing background. And that was the point of the day: to help Peoria-area artists take the steps to earn a living from what they do best.

Connecting Community Resources
The Business of Art was developed in part as a result of IGNITE Peoria, ArtsPartners’ annual celebration of local creativity, which invites area artists and other creatives to showcase their work to the region. Last year, as organizers began to receive feedback from artists and vendors, the need for business education in the arts community became clear. The questions ranged from simple to more complex: How do you apply for a tax ID number? What’s the difference between a corporation and a limited liability company? And did they even need to know?

With that in mind, Jennifer Gordon, ArtsPartners executive director, conceived of a business conference tailored to the needs of artists. Teaming up with Ross Miller of Bradley University’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship, they put together an impressive slate of activities: a keynote address from national consultant Marc Willson, five workshops by local experts on business and the arts; and a series of roundtable discussions led by local artists and community leaders. It was right in line with ArtsPartners’ mission: to equip artists for success.

“The key points are connecting people with resources in the community and giving them some basic tools,” Gordon explained. “If you’re an artist who just has no idea about taxes… you can take a seminar and come out feeling a little less intimidated about the topic—and maybe have some follow-up steps you can take to learn more about it.”

Willson, a consultant for the Virginia Small Business Development Center, offered an introduction to arts and business that reached well beyond simple tax issues. “Art as Business” is just one of a dozen seminars he offers nationwide, but it’s by far his most popular. He says he has witnessed the transformation of communities across the country as they begin to embrace their local arts and culture. “Many small towns are becoming arts and entertainment districts,” he noted. “It’s something small towns can hang their hats on—and you can have it in Peoria.”

For Miller, who specializes in helping small businesses thrive, hosting an event like this in Peoria just made sense. “There’s a big arts community here, and we really need that creative class to thrive,” he said. “The more education we can get out there, the more we can help them build up their passion to be a business, the better off the whole community will be.”

The Value of Your Creation
A glance around the room revealed a diversity of artists at virtually every point of their professional journey, from student musicians to business owners with multiple employees. Throughout the day, they filed into a variety of seminars, from Rob Smith’s “Stop Making Tax Time So Terrible” to Jenna Scifres’ “Online Marketing Basics.” An artist herself, Scifres focused on the use of analytics in business marketing, urging the crowd to make full use of technology, even if it means getting out of their comfort zone. “Done is better than perfect,” she declared. “Have the guts and the faith to push yourself out there.”

For his part, Chad Stamper, Director of Technology Commercialization at the Illinois Small Business Development Center at Bradley University, outlined a set of “blueprints” for designing a business strategy, seeking to dispel the notion of many artists: that the rules of business somehow do not apply to them. “It’s the same for artists as for someone who wants to start a retail store or restaurant: you fail if you don’t have customers. It’s no different.”

Likewise, having delivered his “Art as Business” speech more than a hundred times around the country, Marc Willson noted a commonality among many artists: distaste for the commercial side of their business. If there was any truth to this stereotype, he rid them of that immediately. “I’ve heard that artists in Peoria have a self-esteem problem—that you don’t charge what you should,” he kidded. With the strength and conviction of a traveling evangelist, Willson practically shouted: “It is noble to exchange your artwork for money!”

Leisurely walking the audience through his presentation, Willson asked seemingly absurd questions (“Do you charge for the amount of time that you think about creating something?”) as food for thought. When he was done, everyone knew a little bit more about concepts like price points, customer differentiation and omni-channel marketing. “There are four buckets of product,” he noted. “Essentials… justifiable indulgences… ‘postponables’… and non-essentials. Where do you think art is?”

“Justifiable indulgences,” someone called out.

“Don’t feel bad about it,” he answered. “You charge them for what it is worth.” Selling art isn’t selling out; it shows the value of your creation. And indulgence or not, it’s not only justifiable—it’s well-earned.



Lessons & Takeaways
By the end of the day, everyone was buzzing with ideas for boosting their web presence, creating artist collectives and marketing to specific audiences. Like many attendees, Jacob Grant of Wheel Art Pottery Studios left with a desire to see more workshops like this in the future. “I was kind of skeptical about how much a businessperson who wasn’t an artist could know about the business of art, but this was very impressive.”

“For those whose craft is their hobby and want to turn it into a business, I hope they will get out there and create a business,” Miller said. “For the ones who are already doing it… I hope it gives them a real drive to improve their business and grow it… to come up with those little nuggets they can add to their business, to help them develop it, make more money and be able to produce more things.” Everyone seemed to walk away having learned something valuable, and that is precisely what organizers hoped would happen: an adrenaline boost for the arts community. a&s

The Business of Art took place on February 8, 2016 at the Peoria Civic Center.

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