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What Kind of Business Support Do Artists Need?

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ARTS SHRINK is a bi-weekly column designed to answer questions from artists and arts groups related to their arts business and practice. The Arts Shrink brings two decades of experience as an arts consultant, teacher, and mentor to the table as she responds your questions.

Dear Arts Shrink:

I've read your posts and know that you think it's important for artists to plan, make budgets and databases, keep track of people they've met, and on and on. I work as an artist but also have another job. I don't have the time to do all these things. Plus I'm not good at them! Does that mean I won't be successful as an artist?

-San Bernardino Theater Director

Dear SB TD,

Don't give up hope, dear SB TD! I know it all seems so overwhelming. Just breathe and let's think this through together.

First, face the facts. I'm assuming you want people to see your theatre productions, right? You probably expect to sell some tickets (or art), right? If any part of you expects to get monetary remuneration for your artwork then -- like it or not -- you have an arts business. To have a successful arts business you have do certain things like marketing, sales, public relations, fund raising, and so on.

The good news is that although it's very helpful if you happen to be an artist who has a business sensibility and the time to spend on it, you are not doomed to failure if the business of art just isn't your thing.

Here's what you can do:

STEP ONE: Make a list of what you need.

I'll start you out on this one. It's been my experience that most arts businesses need one or more of the following: a database; budget/financial management; marketing; and perhaps fundraising; public relations; and legal advice. Have I covered everything or can you identify other business-y things you need? If you have others, add them to the list.

STEP TWO: What can you do yourself?

Are there any of these things that you know how to do and like doing yourself? Me, I like making budgets. It helps me understand a project better and see the big picture clearly. Because I like doing it, I don't mind making time for it. But that's just me. What about you? Are there any business-y things you wouldn't mind doing (or learning how to do)?

Subtract anything you like (or would like to learn) to do from your list of business needs.

STEP THREE: Borrow (and improve) a strategy

Arts organizations have Boards of Directors. You may already know about Boards. Personally, I think that Boards are hard to organize and manage and I would never suggest that an individual artist, collective or small arts group develop an institutional-type Board, but there's a kernel of idea here that we can all benefit from. The idea of having a Board is that it provides the nonprofit with two important things: expertise and access. And that's exactly what you're missing, dear SB TD, so let's steal the idea.

STEP FOUR: Trusted Advisors

First, I am NOT suggesting that you create a Board of Directors. I'm suggesting that you identify three to seven people who 1) believe in you and your work, 2) have the skills or abilities you lack, and 3) who are willing to help you for a limited period of time (say six months).

I call those individuals Trusted Advisors. You may find Trusted Advisors among your family, friends, patrons/audience, or they may be friends of friends. Let's call these people "prospects." Before asking a prospect to be a Trusted Advisor, decide exactly what you want them to do for you and for how long you want them to do it. For instance, you'd like Lawyer X to write a boiler plate 'work for hire' contract for you and be available to review contracts over the next six months. Or you'd like Y to create (or work with you to) create a database. You may use your Trusted Advisors in whatever way you want and to whatever extent they agree. Don't worry if someone says no, they'll be impressed that you're taking a serious approach to the development of your art business.

You can also use them to help keep you on track by making promises to them and asking them to hold you to them. For instance, "I will spend four hours next month communicating with my supporters." Ask a Trusted Advisor to email or call you at the end of the month and ask if you've kept your promise.

When I suggest this strategy artists often ask me "Why would someone do that for me?" Well, here's a news flash: A. Artists are cool. And business people like to hang out with them; makes them cool by association. B. People are inherently generous. It makes them feel good.

The idea is to give yourself some support (a little infrastructure) for short periods of time. Keeping the group small, the commitment clear and time limited will decrease the amount of management you have to provide and make the idea more palatable to your prospects.

STEP FIVE: Acknowledgement

Say thank you, please. See my "Biggest Mistake" post for all the reasons why.

Acknowledge your Trusted Advisors in print and in person. Use your website, program materials and events to publically acknowledge their contribution to your success. And make the acknowledgement clear to your Trusted Advisor. For instance, in exchange for the contract work Lawyer X will do for you, you will give Lawyer X (or the law firm they work for) acknowledgement on your website and in your programs for one year. Who knows, if they are satisfied with their acknowledgement they may re-up for another 6 months.

Do you have a question you'd like answered? Send an email here.

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