Art Market

The Surprising Key to Artistic Freedom? Running Your Studio like a Business

Mindy Charski
Sep 6, 2018 4:32PM
Erika Wastrom
Still Life with Sunday Paper and Pink Water, 2016
Gaa Gallery

Can an artist also be a good businessperson? Of course. In fact, running a studio like a small business can go a long way to ensuring that creatives can use their art to support themselves and those they employ.

“Many artists fear the business component,” says James Hart, director of arts entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University. “They think, ‘Oh, I would rather just create my art.’” But Hart offers artists a relatable perspective: Building a business can be a different form of creativity, a kind of “living canvas” that is constantly evolving and requires multiple creative choices every day.

Be smart about financials

At the most basic level, artists need to have a sense of what they’re spending and what they’re making, says Eli Altman, author of Run Studio Run (2018) and the creative director of A Hundred Monkeys, a naming and branding agency. That tracking needs to include everything being spent on behalf of the business, even the smallest expenses.  

Such recordkeeping doesn’t have to be hard, but it can come with a learning curve. When Teri Campbell, who specializes in commercial photography and film production, opened his Cincinnati studio in 1988, he mismanaged his finances to the point that his main film supplier made him pay cash on delivery instead of giving him credit.

Over time, Campbell got his books in good shape and won enough jobs to keep the money coming in. Subsequently, getting credit from suppliers and banks became easier.

Today, Teri Studios doesn’t have debt, which helps Campbell grow his business. “It is easier to take risks, create new work, or take on projects that might not pay as well, but allow more creative freedom,” he says.

Campbell is now also able to withstand slow-paying clients, an achievement in itself. “Cash flow can kill a small business, and waiting to get paid—especially if you have to pay your employees, freelancers, utilities, [and others] before you receive anything—can be really difficult,” he says.  

Asking clients to pay an upfront deposit on commissioned work is one way creatives can improve their cash flow, says Maria Brophy, an art business consultant who also manages the business operations of the studio of her husband, surf artist Drew Brophy. A deposit can help cover materials. “Artists will get started on a project without their client investing in it, and [clients] need to invest in it,” says Brophy.

Work the numbers

Brophy says that artists who want to run a viable business need to evaluate opportunities for the potential to earn money, not just exposure. For instance, one of Brophy’s clients was recently asked to display eight pieces in a prestigious Hawaiian gallery. But the artist would have been responsible for paying the expensive costs of shipping the pieces from Florida, as well as shipping back any work that didn’t sell. Also, the gallery would only pay him 25 percent of sales.

“Some artists would spend a ton of money making the art, shipping it, making very little [in sales], and then they would lose money,” says Brophy, who also wrote the 2018 book Art, Money & Success. “They would do it because they think they’re getting exposure and that it looks good on the list of places they’ve exhibited, and maybe it does, but in the long run, it’s not sustainable to make decisions that make you lose money over and over again.”

Understand the diverse considerations of growth

Growth is generally a good thing for businesses, but there are different forms of expansion. One business challenge that New York-based contemporary artist Daniel Arsham has faced is determining the appropriate scale of the studio he opened in 2004. “The studio could continue to grow and grow, and at a certain point, I feel it would get away from me,” he says, noting he intentionally did not expand beyond what he felt was manageable. Today, he can touch every piece and is aware of what’s happening between the walls—engagement that is important to him for the sake of quality and integrity with the work. “These things are all things I’ve created, and I need to own that,” he says.

But Arsham, who focuses on art, architecture, and performance, does have an eye on growing his work’s reach. For instance, he has designed sneakers as part of a collaboration with Adidas. “The choice to do that was a nuanced one that had to do with the ability they had to reach a different audience than my work might in a museum or gallery,” he says. “This cross-filtering of audiences and blending of those audiences is valuable to me, and I think valuable to the audiences.”

Build a support system

Today, there are many podcasts, conferences, online articles, books, and other resources that can help creatives learn business basics.

Artists don’t need to go at it alone, though. Campbell has benefited greatly from working with mentors and a business coach who have shared advice about finances, offered general business education, and helped him determine the kinds of clients he should pursue.

Campbell currently wears many hats, doing most of the bookkeeping, for instance, and having a hand in marketing efforts. He also relies on freelancers and has an employee who handles tasks like invoicing, client interactions, and prepping for shoots.

Arsham works with a bookkeeper, an accountant, and an attorney. “One of the smartest things I was fortunate to learn early on is to have people around me who understand those parts of the business,” he says. “I still have to pay attention to those things. In the end of the day, it’s my studio, and I control it the way I see fit, but it gives me the peace of mind that I’m not the only one paying attention.”

Today, 8 to 12 people work in Arsham’s studio, a number that varies based on specific projects. He offers health insurance, and works to create a pleasant environment as another benefit. “The studio is not overly competitive,” he says. “Everyone is looking to achieve the same goals, and there’s a spirit of experimentation.” The benefits have helped reduce turnover—most of his staff have been with him a long time, he says.

Ultimately, when creatives can hire the help they need, even for duties like answering phones or handling shipping, they can focus more on what they most love to do. “If you can build this system around you, you really do free up a ton of your time and you can be significantly more effective and prolific,” Altman says. Those are goals any small-business owner would love to achieve.

Mindy Charski