Renewable Energy

Creative class goes 'back to the drawing board' at Artist INC seminar on sustainability


(Editor’s note: In May, The Reader published Part One of an article on Artist Sustainability. It focused mainly on seminars, workshops and courses in professional and business practices that Metro arts venues and colleges offer pre-emerging and emerging artists. Metro Community College and The Union for Contemporary Arts, and several students, artists and staffs were featured in that edition. Part Two below concentrates mostly on similar opportunities offered to post-emerging and mid-career artists seeking refresher or developmental help in sustaining and furthering their chosen profession.  It focuses mainly on Artist INC, sponsored and organized by the Omaha Creative Institute, as well as the program facilitators, staff and past artists who benefitted from this seminar.)

Even the most experienced or established professional can hit a wall…or ceiling…in one’s career. Whether a lawyer, caregiver, over-the-road driver, academic or auto mechanic, new techniques, technology and practices, as well as a changing marketplace are a given in anyone’s chosen field.

But what may be obstacles for some, can be turned into opportunities with refresher and developmental courses that keep professionals viable and ahead of the curve. Success and sustainability require more than just skill and talent. It doesn’t pay to stand still.

While professional help abounds for the careers above, often over-looked are fine artists. These are the painters, sculptors and new media practioners who one may assume will do well in their medium because they are good at what they do. They’re not like everyone else. They play by different rules.

Maybe. But, like anyone, they want to make a living doing what they do. That old saw, “I don’t care if I sell, I paint for myself!” that sounded so cool in college, soon becomes by degrees, delusional, defensive and downright desperate as one ages.

There are many fine artists in the Metro who are sustainable, that is, make their way by making art, because in large part, they are supported by a full-service gallery, a spouse, partner or patron or work in arts-related jobs that keep them networked as well. But the National Endowment of the Arts estimates that less than a third of all fine artists are this fortunate to be “self-employed.”

The remaining two-thirds flirt with the myth of the “starving artist,” but what separates the mid-career artist from the emerging one is what they crave. An emerging artist may want opportunity, a start, even independence in the marketplace. For the post-emerging and mid-career variety it’s more a matter of sustainability, learning how to maintain and even adapt.

As mentioned in Part One of this article, how to survive and sustain in the market may have been missing in one’s BFA or MFA program. If knowledge is power–first attributed to Francis Bacon and echoed by Thomas Jefferson and many others—then artists can turn to many area venues for professional and business opportunities, including MCC, UCA, the Bemis Center, Kaneko and the Joslyn Art Museum.

Yet, arguably, the single largest and most hands-on, effective program is the Artist INC seminar, created by the Mid-America Arts Alliance, and sponsored and operated by the Omaha Creative Institute. OCI’s former director Susan Thomas says a large part of its mission is to build the audience for the arts in the Metro community and to provide resources, emphasizing financial sustainability to artists, all artists, from all disciplines. 

“Artist INC Omaha 2014 included musicians, ceramicists, curators, visual artists, sculptors, poets, photographers, actors,” Thomas said. “All are exposed to the business tools of marketing, financial management, technology, writing about art, legal issues, or grant writing.”

Participants in the Artist INC workshop meet for three-hour sessions, once a week for eight weeks. This year’s Artist INC will be held on Tuesdays from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sept. 8 to Oct. 27, at the Omaha Creative Institute, 1516 Cuming Street, Omaha, NE. All participating artists are chosen by a review board after receiving their applications which are due June 30 by 5 p.m. Details can be found at artistinc.submittable.com.

Each session features a presenter in the above areas of expertise as well as mentors who conduct follow-up group participation. This year’s artist/mentors include Darryl White, Susan Knight, Sarah McKinstry-Brown Mason, Watie White, and Mary Zicafoose who finds the myth or label of a starving artist, “pretty intolerable.”

“The question lies in whether you choose to subscribe to that myth as your reality. One has to consciously deflect a tremendous amount of opportunities to not make a living in the arts,” said Zicafoose, a successful tapestry weaver and printmaker. “Artists are creators, manifestors, out of the box thinkers, dreamers and doers.  Among their jobs over the ages has been to hold the bar high for humanity, setting the tone and creating the template for civilizations to flourish.”

Though fiercely independent and disciplined, Zicafoose is practical enough to know that all artists go through stages when networking and outside help are especially necessary.

“Sustainability is based on, among many things, the ability to re-invent oneself,” she said. “Emerging artists are engrossed in their first incarnation, finding their personal voices as storytellers, garnering and mastering technical skill sets, and building networks, be it in dance, music, literature, the visual arts, whatever the medium.  

“Mid-career artists are well-honed, talented technicians and seasoned storytellers.  Our challenge is to remain interesting and articulate avoiding the temptation of telling the same story in the same way over and over again, just because it brought the house down the first time we told it.”

The Artist INC sessions, she says, provide an inspirational and motivating environment, not only for reinvention, but for readjustment to a changing marketplace.

“Artist INC is a crash course in business school and the power of real life/real time relationship building. It requires showing up for class, doing the weekly readings and homework, thinking about your career, setting goals, taking action, and following through.”

Former participants in Artist INC, Iggy Sumnik, Lori Elliot-Bartle and Travis Apel, say they benefitted from the experience as they too continue to make adjustments in their individual careers. For them, “starving artist” is a relative term, but sustainability is not, it’s for real.

“Because you make nice stuff doesn’t mean that people are interested in buying it,” Sumnik, a mixed media and 3D artist said. “Just because someone buys something doesn’t mean that you got it made in the shade. Consistency in production and sales has been the key in making my art even a part time job. With dedication, tenacity, work ethic and creativity I think that the artist most definitely can make a living from their work.”

Apel, a 3D artist as well, speaks for many when he says the contemporary norm is that of a “struggling artist” rather than a starving one, no matter what stage one’s career is at.  

“Furthermore, the ‘frustrated artist’ is more accurate for me personally,” he said.  I know (only) a handful of artists that are self-employed. Charles Strain, a bronze sculptor, who has completed monumental works collected around the world, warned me that the physical nature of designing and fabricating sculpture is a pain in the ass, but the earnings can be handsome.  To be an independent artist, one needs to become innovative––from earning financial support to expanding income streams that remain compatible with your studio practice.”Apel said the largest obstacle in his becoming a sustainable artist “is the fact that I don’t have the time to gain momentum in my art practice. As a parent of two boys, 7 and 9, I must distribute my time according to the many hats I wear.

“By far, the biggest thing I got out of Artist INC was the emphasis on goal organization. By writing down my short-term and long-term goals, I can track my progress according to the lapsing time.  This tip from Artist INC keeps me on schedule with my plans.  My business paperwork, mileage, and other documents are no longer buried or scattered throughout my workspace.  Now I have a “proper” filing system.”

Like Sumnik and Apel, Elliot-Bartle was drawn to Artist INC because they knew that the “challenge” of being independent precludes isolation. Sooner or later most artists realize though they may be happiest making art, in a marketplace, which is to say the real world, no one lives or creates, let alone succeeds, in a vacuum.

“One of the most powerful elements of the workshop was spending time with other artists, talking openly about challenges and brainstorming together about how to overcome them,” said Elliot-Bartle, a painter and handmade printer. “The community that developed with that inaugural class has become an important network for me professionally and personally, gaining colleagues across art forms and developing new friendships. 

“Networking has never been easy for me — as with many artists, I much prefer spending time alone in the studio making the work to ‘working a room,’ introducing myself and my art to strangers. Through Artist INC, I refined tools and improved my confidence in sharing my vision. Connections between participants arose.”

An added benefit for all three participants was the advice given by the seminar’s official text, Jackie Battenfield’s book, “The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love,”  which is to create multiple revenue streams.

“Most artists don’t make a living only by selling work they make in their studios,” Elliot-Bartle said. “Teaching workshops and licensing reproductions are examples of ways to diversify income.”

Though Artist INC’s experts included help with the latter as well as other marketing strategies, Thomas is especially proud of the program’s ability to help enhance one’s financial independence through a diversity of arts-related work opportunities, especially through OCI.

“Subsequent to last fall’s Artist INC program, more than half of the participating artists have taught paid workshops arranged by Omaha Creative Institute,” the now retired Thomas said. “Those have included team building workshops for LinkedIn and Securities America, after school programs at four Omaha elementary schools, and OCI’s bi-monthly public workshops. A key element of Omaha Creative Institute’s mission is to offer programs that support artists in their efforts to become financially sustainable.” (OCI’s new Executive Director Emily Moody will lead Artist INC 2015).

Artists of all sorts are fond of talking process, that is, how they make their art, to anyone who will listen. They often leave what it means to the viewer. At some point in their career they also learn that making a living is a process also, luck has very little to do with it.

“Success or sustainability in the arts is a personal decision one makes, and re-enlivens, recommits to, every day,” Zicafoose said. “There is nothing casual or frivolous about it. It requires showing up day in and day out, surrounding yourself with inspiring and motivating people, continuing your education in your field of the arts, staying in touch with what the art world has historically done and is currently doing, seizing opportunities– big and small, and giving back to yourcommunity. This is a lifestyle, quite a rewarding one, actually. But definitely not a 9-5 job.” 


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