ART BIZ COACH
Fun & Profit
Long It Took
- Start on Shoestring
UP ON AN ABSOLUTE SHOESTRING
(C) Elizabeth Berrien, 1994
At a business workshop for artists, Absolute Beginners asked for clues
on Starting Up. The response was a crisp shopping list of "Absolute
Necessities". "First," the leader intoned, "you need Slides. You can
find professional photographers charging as little as $35 an hour, and
if you're really organized, it shouldn't take more than three or four
hours. Then there's color brochures, for a thousand dollars or two..."
The beginners slumped in a glazed, dull trance as further "essential"
startup expenses were piled on in loving detail until the workshop came
to a merciful close. Saving up that Startup Stake seemed as
unattainable a shuttle ride to the moon.
While I agree with the workshop people that good slides and brochures
are a nifty upgrade for the established professional, there are ways to
get in motion without the sizable outlay they require. Here, then, is
the Impoverished Artist's Absolute Shoestring:
Artists, like other professionals, are expected to have cards if they
mean business. Cards give this subliminal message: "I exist. I have
substance, I've been in business for some time. I will still be in
business years from now, or I wouldn't have these cards." You'll absorb
this message yourself every time you hand someone your card. Your card
should be designed with Minimalist Haiku Theory in mind: as BRIEFLY as
possible, say Who You Are (include a business name; it lends more
Substance than your name alone), What You Do (a description of your art
form, like "blown glass" or "nose flutes". Just plain "Artist" tends to
lie there. If you haven't settled on a specific discipline, try
"Design", which covers a host of evils) and How To Reach You (PO Box
and phone #). Add in a Minimalist Visual Quark to remind people of your
work after they walk away with your card; this will be your LOGO.
(i.e. with typed info but no picture logo) can be run up by a printer
for as little as $35. If you're REALLY strapped for cash, you can do it
yourself even cheaper. I've seen elegant, exceptionally memorable cards
by artists who bought (or made!) a sheet of handÄmade paper,
embellished it with broad sweeps of pigments, chopped it into
regulationÄsize cards (some with a straight torn edge for
extra impact) with a paper cutter, and smacked the colorful card blanks
with a sixÄdollar rubber stamp of their written information.
One artist I know sent handÄwritten inquiries to a supplier
for years, but got no response. When he finally sent a TYPED inquiry on
his own Printed Letterhead, he received an immediate and courteous
reply. This illustrates that handwritten letters are fine for
correspondence with friends but just don't cut it in the business
world. Printed business letterhead (stationery with your name at the
top) may cost upward of $100 for 500 sheets of paper and 500 envelopes.
Once again, there are Absolute Shoestring options: many copy shops and
art centers have computers available so you can design your own
letterhead (cards, too!). Instead of springing for 500 at a time, you
can use a copier to print up 30 or 50 sheets of letterhead on
good-quality paper (flimsy paper gives the wrong message) at a dime
each, CHEAP! Until you can upgrade to printed envelopes, either ask a
friend to show you how a computer can print your name & address
on an envelope, or get a rubber stamp made up.
Like your cards, these single-sheet flyers tell the Who/What/Where of
your art business, only more so. Mine are printed on my Letterhead, so
the How to Reach Me's already there. I've got About the Artist written
an inch high, a self-explanatory label visible from a distance so folks
too shy to ask can see they're available. I follow with two or three
paragraphs describing my art form, how and why I do it, how long I've
been doing it, interesting places I've shown, PLUS a cheerful statement
to the effect that I welcome custom, commissioned projects (see Surv
Tips #1, "Commissioned Works: Surviving the Experience"). When I've got
it written the way I like it, I paste in a black & white image
of my work. Down at the copy shop, I run up a hundred whenever I'm
headed for a show. Leftovers are always useful to tuck in with artworks
as I sell them. I may give MH's to people who ask for cards, especially
out-of-towners; next time they think about buying art, my Mercenary
Handout will remind them why they liked my work.
If you get all buffaloed trying to come up with your business name,
logo, etc, jam with a couple other artists doing the same thing: it's
much easier and more fun to work on SOMEONE ELSE'S image, and you'll be
surprised at what other artists can suggest for your own.
When you see the difference in your sales when you use cards,
letterheads and Mercenary Handouts, a light bulb goes on and you think,
"This is fun! This makes me feel real! What other Trappings of
Professionalism can I try?" Well, as you make more sales, plow your
money right back into the business. Order that big batch of letterhead
from the printers (one benefit of the mini Basic Batch is that you may
discover changes you want before you've committed to the Big Batch).
While you're at it, ask about gummed shipping labels, invoices, and
informative tags to attach to your work.
If I had a dollar for every slide or 9 x 12 glossy I ever sent out and
never saw again... while I do, reluctantly, send slides &
glossies for situations that absolutely call for them, I've been
happier since I cooked up the Pocket Portfolio, a folder with two side
pockets and a little inset for my business card. I load a pocket with a
stapled set of photocopies from my REAL portfolio; the other pocket
holds my resume, news clippings, & other written materials. To
a person receiving my Pocket Portfolio, this is much more attractive,
orderly and effective than the previous hodgepodge spilling from a
manila envelope; I've even seen my Pocket Portfolio tastefully
displayed on clients' coffee tables. The whole works only costs a
couple dollars, so I invite special clients or prospective galleries to
keep it on file as a future resource.
Find an attractive blank book to use as your Day Book. Every time the
phone rings, open the Day Book and write directly into it. When I talk
to a client about a commission, I open my Day Book and draw up what I'm
making, how much deposit is taken, when it's due, and the client's
address & phone number. My Day Book is full of notes on
appointments, supply orders, crazy inspirations and mindless doodles.
When I travel, I jot down cheap but pleasant motels &
restaurants for future reference. I look through past day books to see
what I was thinking and doing a year or more back; I transfer addresses
in it to my Mailing List, so I can send Secondary Mercenary Handouts
(announcements of upcoming shows & sales) to anyone who showed
enough interest to get in my Day Book in the first place.
[Author's note: Now that we're within the Age of Internet, let's add a
good website to your startup shoestring. Ask a friend to show you how
to design one...]
If you haven't got one already, get a State Seller's Permit. While it's
a minor hassle keeping track of the money you make, the immediate
Reward Factor is that now you can buy art materials without paying
sales tax on them; that expense is handed on to the person who buys
your finished Art. In many cases, once you've got your Seller's Permit
and Business Letterhead, suppliers will let you buy goods at
considerably reduced Wholesale prices. Sometimes they require a
daunting Minimum Order; that 's when you link up with other artists to
place a Combined Bulk Order.
There's no measuring the help you can get from linking up with artists
who've already faced many of the challenges of going professional. Join
and support one or more of your local artist's groups; when you've got
the blues because nothing seems to move, nothing helps half as much as
mingling with your peers and discovering anew that YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
Artists share information about galleries in and out of town, new
supply sources, hot gossip about possible leads, and more. Some folks
call this kind of interchange "Networking", which to me is an '80's
concept of Mutual Exploitation. I much prefer Symbiosis, with the
underlying philosophy that you give back more help than you borrow. If
you're just starting out, don't feel obliged to have some sort of
Information Trading Stock; there are other ways to give back into the
Cosmic Balance of Things, like calling up your Arts Organization and
asking what kind of volunteers they need this week. I guarantee, when
you head home from a Volunteer Session, you'll know more about What's
Going On than when you showed up, and you'll have new friends grateful
for your donated time.
Social: I think I can make up a decent logo for my new business cards,
but don't you think I'm being a bit presumptuous making up a business
name too? I mean, it's not as if I was a REAL professional.
My Child: Professionalism is a Self-Fulfilling State of Mind. It is
defined within two separate spheres: the nature and quality of your
Work, which is your INTERNAL quest, and the manner in which you present
it to the world, which is your EXTERNAL quest. In a nutshell, the
reason you want a Business Name is to bolster you up when you are asked
by certain individuals or institutions, "Occupation, Please?" Alas, the
proud answer "I am a Self-Employed Artist" is often perceived as "I am
an Unemployed Deadbeat". Try "I operate a Design Business,
'Aardvark-o-Saurus'". See the difference?
was first published in the news letter of the Ink People Center for the
Arts in the 1990's.