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What Uni Doesn’t Teach Artists

I was talking to a very frustrated aunt at market on the weekend about her treasured artistic niece.

This lady was very proud of the creative talent of her niece but was flummoxed by the lack of business skills training she had received as part of her tertiary arts education. And I must confess, I agree with everything she said about the what’s lacking in this side of training.

Many universities and colleges are graduating talented creative creatures without any business skills training, subjecting the young adults to a life where earning their income will be really hard.

If your only formal qualification is to make impressive art then you’re stuffed. The number of work opportunities open for you will be so very limited that they’ll be amazingly competitive and that sucks.

While I did Journalism at uni and came out into a competitive work environment I had been required to get work experience in a range of publications and my skills were very transferrable – just think of all the fields that require formally trained writers from not just journalism but also technology to PR to annual reports to submission writing and the list goes on. Unfortunately being a talented watercolourist doesn’t have as much scope.

Real artist freedom

For many artists the real freedom in life is being able to earn your living from what you create. Yes, being employed in the creative industries can be highly rewarding and for many that can be the end goal of doing a creative degree but the dream of being able to make your money independently often lives on.

I think in some creative circles the topic of money is often treated as something dirty, as if it would pollute the art itself. But without money you can’t pay the rent, you can’t buy your supplies and you can’t feel secure enough to freely let creativity flow. Personally I find the argument that you have to suffer for you art to be a load of bullocks. Yes, you might be better at buckling down and actually doing what’s required with a looming deadline but feeling insecure and scared about money does not encourage the creative muses to visit you.

This lady at market was upset that every beautiful picture her niece gave her cost a bundle to frame and she was concerned about such a fact scaring off customers. And she’s right, framing costs do deter valuable customers from buying from you. Again, it’s very simple.

Thankfully the solution is equally as simple, provide prints in a format that is easily framed. Many of the artists at The Rocks Markets have their work in a format that fits an Ikea frame. This takes away one of the biggest “no’s” a customer can have. It’s really important to think about where your customer is at and what is important to them. Take away as many no’s as possible and you’ll get more yeses. See, very simple.

Artists and artisans need to learn about how to make money from their own work and this often means being able to sell their own work and have a healthy cash flow.

I was talking with a talented sculptor from Perth about his challenges with galleries. He feels that they take a huge percentage as a commission and it makes it really hard for him to make a living, even though he’s considered a very successful sculptor with public commissions across his state. To compensate for this loss of income he teaches part time but would much rather be able to put the hours into his work. He was fascinated and a little envious that I could make my living from what I chose to make and sell at market and that no one was taking a 50% commission from me.

I must confess, the idea of someone thinking they could take 50% of my sales boggled me. Sure, if they want to buy my work and charge what they want for it but to put the risk all on me and only pay me half of my ticket price doesn’t make sense to me. But that is such a reflection of the different mediums we work in and the way we’ve approached our businesses.

While I understand that most artist course and colleges are run by artists, at least their teaching staff are, I still think it is imperative that students are taught key skills like selling, understanding the customers, business operations like cash flow and administration so they can do what they love.

I would much rather make my bread and butter pieces that work in a bank for extra living money. I will confess, for me to work at something other than my own business there needs to be stronger and compelling reasons than not wanting to make pieces that sell easily.

Creatively Belle at the Rocks Pop Up Project

Being part of a pop up creative hub has many benefits

It is hard making your living from what you create and it isn’t for everyone, whether they have a creative degree or not. For many working within the arts is immensely satisfying and it should be. But for those who want something else then their universities and colleges should be preparing them for that.

5 Ways for Artists to Develop Business Skills

Given that so few are it is up to the individual to make it happen for herself so to get the ideas flowing, here are 5 ways to develop the necessary skills to sell your own work:

  1. do an internship with an artist or artisan who has a successful business selling their own work. An internship has an element of mentoring to it – particularly if it is unpaid. Having an opportunity to be mentored by someone already making a living from what they make is invaluable and can sometimes (not always) lead to paid work with them.
  2. get a part time job with an artisan or artist selling their work at markets. You’ll have to develop selling skills anyway and it’s much better being trained by someone who is already good at it and they’ll also teach you other aspects of running a creative business. Look for the best saleswomen at market and give it 110%, even if it isn’t the same sort of product you’re looking at doing and don’t expect to learn everything about selling in just a few months as it is an art itself.
  3. do a Tafe course in small business and retail. Tafe courses tend to be more focused on topics so you may need to look at a couple different certificates and diplomas to get the training you’re after. If you’re unsure about what Tafe has to offer make an appointment with some teachers in different areas and find out what would be the best options for you.
  4. read and make a study of others who have gone before you, read their biographies, study the business skills books they recommend, follow them on social media and see what they are learning, get along to work shops and seminars and develop the skills you need.
  5. be part of a collective space like a studio or creative hub. These can be more permanent studios or more temporary pop up hubs. The key is to be around other creatives who are making work to sell. You’ll learn from each other and support the various efforts. It can be a great way to get exposure with open studio trails and connections for fairs and shows. This can be done while you’re doing an internship, working on weekends at markets, reading heaps and studying at Tafe.

It’s really important to understand your learning doesn’t stop with graduation from university. It’s a constant thing. Just as you’ll constantly learn new skills to make your art you’ll also learn new skills to share your art.

Governments don’t owe artists a living

The attitude that an artist has a right to a government grant hasn’t been a sustainable strategy for anyone for decades, I don’t even know when it was. No one owes an artist a living. Yes, life is better for all of us with a healthy creative culture and artistic scene but it is the responsibility of all artists and artisans to provide for themselves, just as it is for everyone capable of work in our societies.

Markets like The Rocks and Salamanca Markets in Hobart are prime examples that it is completely possible for creative creatures to earn their living from what they make and sell. Many of these artisans are the sole income providers for their households, and that’s even in an expensive city like Sydney. It’s only possible because we’ve learnt what’s involved in running a business and creating new designs to keep it fresh for our customers. So it is completely possible.

If you have an aunty tell you to be more commercial in your work try not to let your ego step in straight away, instead seek to understand her first, ask her some questions about her ideas and be open to what she says. I bet that she will want you to be happy and make money from what you love doing. And in that there just might be some profitable gems for you.

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