Portrait of the artist as an entrepreneur

Painters, performers seeking perspective on business, marketing

NJBIZ STAFF//May 23, 2011//

Portrait of the artist as an entrepreneur

Painters, performers seeking perspective on business, marketing

NJBIZ STAFF//May 23, 2011//

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Linda Townshend has been working as a professional illustrator and painter for 35 years, but she continues to seek new ways to adjust to the market and find clients.

This became particularly true for Delran-based Townshend and other artists who have sole-proprietor businesses during the recent recession.
“There are ups and downs in the market — and art, music, things of that nature can often be the first that are scratched off somebody’s priority list,” Townshend said. “You can get nervous sometimes about what’s going on in the economy and the different trends, and you try to fine-tune yourself to go along with what people want.”

While New Jersey artists may not operate typical businesses, they must develop many of the same skills as other entrepreneurs to make a successful living as artists. They draw on state-funded professional development seminars and other resources to build these skills, from marketing, to networking, to finding health insurance.

Townshend, who paints portraits of pets and illustrates Arizona Iced Tea containers, recently attended a seminar hosted by the nonprofit South Jersey Cultural Alliance to help artists develop their careers.
“As an artist, you’re very isolated,” she said. “You can get together in groups, particularly to talk about health insurance, because none of us know what we’re talking about.”
Townshend said the networking and business-training opportunities have been invaluable to her.
Illustrator and cartoonist John O’Brien, a Delran artist who is in a relationship with Townshend, pointed out some advantages for artists who are located in New Jersey, including being close to the Manhattan publishing industry. O’Brien, who has an agent, contributes cartoons to The New Yorker.

“Sometimes you kick around something with an editor, and next thing, it turns into a project,” O’Brien said. “Being in New Jersey, you have access to the major cities.”
The challenges faced by creative types can depend on the media in which they work.
Independent film director Ben Hickernell, of Glassboro, recently went through an intense two-year process as he prepared the distribution and marketing of his film, “Lebanon, Pa.,” which opened in New York and Philadelphia, and is expected to screen in 25 to 30 cities.

“When you care about something artistically, you fight for it so hard, because you have that passion,” which serves both artistic and business purposes, Hickernell said.

Unlike solitary painters, filmmakers have to rely on their social skills as they create their art. Hickernell has found that being a film director and being an entrepreneur require similar skills sets, since both jobs necessitate making many choices and negotiating with multiple parties.
“As much as I try in general to be a nice guy, there are definitely times when I’m a hardball negotiator,” he said.

The demands of building client relationships — or even presenting their work in the best light — can be challenging for visual artists, like painters, who frequently work alone, said Karen Chigounis, director of education at the Perkins Center for the Arts, in Moorestown and Collingswood.
“I think the schools that are producing arts are negligent in not providing a course or two, or perhaps a thread throughout all the training” on such matters, Chigounis said.

Chigounis said artists can draw on a variety of resources in the state, including the New Jersey Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, which aids artists’ legal issues, ranging from accounting to copyright law. She also credits the New Jersey Council on the Arts for funding professional development of artists.
Artists share a major challenge with other single-proprietor businesses — finding affordable health insurance. For instance, O’Brien has been paying for an individual Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan since the 1970s, and has seen costs soar in that time.

Jim Brown, director of health services at the New York-based Actor’s Fund, has worked with New Jersey artists to provide insurance. Brown said health costs frequently can be the largest practical challenge for artists.
“These people are on the individual market and costs, particularly in New Jersey and New York, are extremely expensive,” Brown said.
But an even bigger obstacle to success can be the artists themselves, said Debra Russell, owner of the Toms River-based arts business coaching business Artist’s Edge.

“The most creative people I’ve known are incredibly successful in business,” said Russell, who worked in film and television production before starting her company. But artists wrongly think marketing will detract from their art, she said.

“The belief is something like, ‘If I’m successful, then I’m not really an artist,’ and also that sales are really icky and slimy,” she said.
Russell added: “Because they’ve been mostly focused on developing their craft, they haven’t been doing all they could to develop their business skills. And that’s what they are — skills — and they can be developed.”

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