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Transforming art into a lucrative career

Excellent article in the New York Times:

Shifting Careers
Transforming Art Into a More Lucrative Career Choice
By Marci Alboher

Some artists have begun to figure out ways to make money and make
art aiming to end the notion that “starving” and “artist” are
necessarily linked.

Rather than seeing art as something to pursue in the hours when they
are not earning a living, these artists are developing businesses
around their talents. These artists are part of a growing movement
that has caught the attention of business experts and is being
nudged along by both art and business schools.

Living in the Internet era has certainly helped.

Claudine Hellmuth, for example, said that when she graduated from
the Corcoran College of Art in Washington in 1997, career options
for artists were limited. “You could teach, or do outdoor festivals,
maybe get into a gallery,” she said.

At the encouragement of her mother, she took an intensive summer
course in Web programming and design at George Washington University
and then returned home to Florida, where she found work as an online
designer. All along, she continued to paint on the side, thinking
that her day jobs would support her. A layoff in 2001 proved to be a
turning point.

“I now had the skills to use the Internet to my advantage,” she
said. “I am so thankful that I left the art world for a little
while.” With a little Web savvy, she says, it is relatively easy for
artists to reach a global marketplace for their work.

In a blog post on the American Express Open Forum, Steve King, a
small business expert with Emergent Research, cited Ms. Hellmuth as
an example of trends that are creating new opportunities for artist

Mr. King said he discovered Ms. Hellmuth after her name kept coming
up in interviews with artists for research his firm was conducting
on artist entrepreneurs. Ms. Hellmuth’s success stems in part from
the way she has created multiple revenue streams. She has an online
store on, a Web portal where artists sell their work. She
does custom illustrations for customers using photographs they
provide. She licenses her artwork for greeting cards, calendars and
other products. She has written two books about her techniques and
has a third one coming out. She tours the country teaching both
business and art workshops. And last summer she partnered with
Ranger Industries to manufacture a line of products including
paintbrushes, paints and canvases.

“When I am making the custom artwork for people, there are only so
many pieces I can make in a week, so it really limits the amount of
income I can make,” she said. By expanding into books and licensing
deals for products, “then you have the potential to make a living.”

Through her business, Ms. Hellmuth said, she contributes an equal
share of the household income as her husband, who works on the
technology side of newspaper publishing.

Art schools, too, are starting to step in. At the Ringling College
of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., students can now major or minor
in a program called “The Business of Art and Design.” Larry
Thompson, the school’s president, said he was inspired to create the
program when he read about Dan Pink’s book, "A Whole New Mind,"
which popularized the notion that artists, especially those who can
marry left and right brain skills, the analytical and the creative,
will be in high demand in the coming years.

“I am committed to destroying the myth of the starving artist,” Mr.
Thompson said.

Alexander Niles, 14, a high school freshman in Miami with dreams of
making it big as a musician, is young to be focused on making a
living. But he has already become an entrepreneur.

It all began by accident, he said. He was late in handing in his
choices for elective classes and landed in a course on business. For
an assignment to write a business plan, he turned to his passion,
guitars, and decided to create a business building custom guitars
for other people, something he had already done for himself.

After refining his idea in class, Mr. Niles entered his business
plan into a local competition sponsored by the National Foundation
for Teaching Entrepreneurship and captured the grand prize for South
Florida, which allowed him to compete in a national competition in
New York this fall.

The price for his guitars starts at about $2,000, and he expects to
make a profit of around $700 a guitar. So far, he has made four,
including one for a former instructor, Alex Fox, a flamenco
guitarist who has endorsed Mr. Niles’s company. Mr. Niles has set up
a Web site, but he does not plan to start filling orders until he
has lined up other endorsements, finished his YouTube video and
started establishing his brand through an advertising campaign.

Though Mr. Niles has years of school ahead of him, he said he
planned to tend to both his music and his business along the way.

“If I make it as a musician, then my guitars will go for way higher
than I planned,” he said, citing the example of Brian May of the
band Queen who built his own guitar out of firewood with his father.

Mr. Niles and Ms. Hellmuth have learned on their own what Elliot
McGucken teaches in his course, Artist Entrepreneurs, which he
developed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a
grant from the Kauffman Foundation. Mr. McGucken’s course, now
taught at Pepperdine University, rests on the principle that those
who create art should have the skills to own it, profit from it and
protect it.

“It’s about how to make your passion your profession, your avocation
your vocation, and to make this long-term sustainable,” he said.

Tristan Hummel, 22, a senior at the Art Institute of Chicago, said
he wanted to help create a world where artists could do art as their
primary practice and still make a living. Three years ago, after
reading that Chicago’s El trains were available for rent, he got the
idea to bring artists together to create an art show on wheels. This
fall, his idea came to fruition with “Art on Track,” an eight-train
car on the orange line that traveled Chicago’s loop while displaying
the work of more than 200 emerging artists.

Mr. Hummel now has several other proposals in process, including one
to turn a 16-story garage into a sod-covered hanging garden art
fair. “Hundreds of artists I know are working hard to cope with the
fact that art is traded and sold in a medieval way where artists
don’t get to determine the price and what kind of work they create.”

So are these artists selling out by turning to business for the

Absolutely not, Mr. Niles said. “Yes, playing music is mostly about
the art. But it’s important to think about what you’re going to do
with it. You can play it in a bar, or you can be striving to take it
to the top.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 2, 2008

The Shifting Careers column on Thursday, about artists who develop
related careers that allow them to earn a living from their art,
misstated the position of Larry Thompson, who created an art
business program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in
Sarasota, Fla. He is the college’s president, not its dean.