Part One: Choosing An Arts Business Way of Life

At right: These Hands by James Neeley; “Susie waits
a moment before demonstrating Navajo weaving”

The arts is not a business to be rushed into. The life of an artist is often a hard one with few able to attain fame and fortune. For every Tony Abeyta whose work may be found in museums, are thousands of struggling painters. For every jewelry maker or rugmaker whose work may be found in shops and galleries are thousands of artisans and arts vendors still searching for opportunity.

The Native American artist’s life is often one that is bonded to family and community, but is also lived in a financially unstable reality. Even so, the artist holds an honored position because art has a very special place in Native American life. Art has been the form of expression in Native American life for thousands of years. Using materials drawn from creation, from rocks, feathers, cloth, clay, and fabric, and from the rich inner life of an individual and community that the artist shares through the work itself, arts and crafts serve functional uses and express the soul of the people. Symbols of mother earth, animals and people are invariably part of a pattern of unfolding beauty in things intended for everyday use. In Native American life, functional use is entwined with story, ceremony and individual imagination. Intricate patterns and lovely simplicity express reverence for all life.

The art of the Navajo people often express spirituality. For example, color may be used to express the four worlds through which the people have passed. Bold color show the quadrants of daylight which may express the inner life, family, and struggle. Morning white expresses the space of beginning thought. Blue twilight afternoon and yellow twilight evening are the spaces of the turquoise fire tended by First Woman. Black midnight expresses the unknown, therefore, change. The artist and artisan may choose to be interpreters and tellers of spiritual and historical culture on his and her own terms.

TonyAbeyta2Contemporary Navajo painter and arts business mentor Tony Abeyta has talked about his process, which takes place in his mind. “There exists a rhythm in the land where I was born. I spend a lot of time deciphering the light, the cascades of mesas into canyons, the marriage between earth and sky and the light as it constantly changes at whim, the intensity of rock formations, and the sage and chamisa that accent this poetic experience, unlike any where else I have seen. I am beckoned to remember it and then to paint it.”

SallyBlackdragonfly1Of a more traditional method is Sally Black, the master Monument Valley basket weaver, whose process is expressed more physically and communally in methods passed down from generation to generation. With the help of muscle and loan of pick-up trucks of community members, she travels a hundred miles to collect reeds, then splits the reeds herself using only her teeth and fingers, dyes them with earth and plant pigments, dries them, and only then begins to weave, a process that may take up to six months.

Above, Top: High desert landscape by Tony Abeyta
Above, Bottom: “Dragonfly” basket by Sally Black, sold for $1,100 at Hoel’s Indian Shop in Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona.

In spite of the uncertainty of life in the arts, Native American arts are thriving and young people continue to look to the arts as their future way of life. Because you are reading this, you might also be looking into starting your own arts & crafts business. Before you do so, you need to ask yourself some important questions.

Cultural Responsibility

The artist working in the area of traditional heritage arts and crafts has cultural and legal responsibilities. He or she is a steward of tribal heritage and must properly represent what is made for the dignity of the people. Issues of authenticity also affect the overall value of all such goods in the marketplace. Authenticity is also required by federal laws.

Commitment, Tenacity & Endurance

Like any business, it is not easy to make a living in the arts and crafts. Running a “business” means worrying about gathering materials for production, gathering tools, finding space to work and to store the work, then to present the work where they can best be seen by a public that is able to purchase them, and finally, handling financial records. It is likely that a far smaller percentage of your time than you expect will be spent making your art, while the rest of the time you will be worrying about selling, being chosen by juried shows, paying for venues such as booth fees and festival fees plus travel costs, securing your art while on the road, attracting buyers, managing employees, advertising and marketing your work, and so on. On top of all that, you have to worry about making enough money to make staying in business worthwhile. You must be willing to eat, live and breathe your business 24/7.

2014-11-17 13.55.15Left: Reeds in Sally Black’s kitchen near Monument Valley gathered from 100 miles away, waiting to be split and dyed in the traditional way.

Starting any kind business requires tenacity, endurance and dedication. The arts and crafts are no different. Key to continuing a business past startup will be your own entrepreneurial skills and your commitment to running a business. In order to be successful, you may need to think of yourself as a business person as well as an artist at the same time. You may need to manage people, finances and processes. You may have a great deal of responsibility and business decisions that will routinely face you. To be a success, your business should always be at the forefront of your mind.

For some people this is an energizing situation to be in. For others, it can be too challenging.

Necessary Skills, Team, Contacts and Funding

No business will be successful on the basis of your commitment alone. Like Sally Black, you may need the help of others. Certainly, you need to find other people who believe in you to provide help or support in some needed way. Doing a self-assessment of your skills and abilities will tell you what gaps you will need to fill in order to make your business work.

You may assume that having some basic knowledge from school or a workshop in painting or jewelry making, you are ready to go. However, the business of art is not taught in any school, where you don’t have to worry about things other than the art itself. Running a business means developing and following an organized creative process. For example, see how other people organize themselves and take lessons from them as a start. If you don’t have that sense of organization or the necessary skills, you may want to spend some time learning from someone else first.

Mentors — The N.A.T.I.V.E. Project will provide a network of mentors who will help show you these essential lessons, and will even schedule projects in which emerging arts entrepreneurs may team up with established artists in single project experiences to see how an arts project is begun and completed for specific clients who must be cultivated for return business.

Partners — Something that may be wise to do is to find a business partner you can trust, who brings different skills and connections to the table. Often it is a spouse (who may bring in income from some stable employment or who may keep the financial books), family member or friend (who may run the business, assist with vehicle or work/storage space, etc.). In this way, not only do you have someone to lean on in times of difficulty, you also have a division of roles, which allows you to focus on more on the creative aspects of the business.

Arts Community — The arts community consists of suppliers, artists, their team, festival and show organizers, funders and buyers. You will also need to find people in the arts community who will support you and work with you. The N.A.T.I.V.E. Project is funded to develop certain aspects of the arts community to provide market support, at a cost of almost nothing to you. We need you to communicate with us about your needs.

Business Knowledge and Support — You may need financial and legal professionals at different times as your business progresses. For example, as you grow, you might want to convert a sole proprietorship to a partnership, or even a limited liability company, a cooperative association, or corporation. For website or electronic commerce, you may need a videographer, photographer, graphics designer, and actual website – hopefully all at discounted prices. You need to ask yourself if you already have a set of contacts which you can leverage. If not, you need to get out there and meet people. You need the right team behind you so that you can start your business on the right foot. The N.A.T.I.V.E. Project is able to provide some of this business support through our Showcase Website opportunity, where a photographer, videographer and web technologist is on hand to assist. We are able to organize, with our partners, financial management classes. We are also able to provide business and legal advice in planning the legal entity of your business. The rest you have to focus on squarely and see if there are pieces you can put together and make it happen for yourself.

Funding — Finally, most arts entrepreneurs don’t start out with inherited money, so starting a business is very fundamentally a question of finding money. There are many sources of funding, but each source will take time and effort. Family and friends who believe in you are obviously one place to start. Bank managers who disburse loans is another. Investors is a third option. A fourth option is having a network of people who may be able to introduce you to potential sources of funding. This fourth option may just be an imperative to setting up your business. You can have a brilliant business plan, a great team and all the energy in the world, but without funding in place from the start, it will be difficult to get up and running. The N.A.T.I.V.E. Project can help research grants, and project staff will look into sponsorship and awards that many organizations make available to nurture new arts talent, but choosing the right fit for you is your call.

Venues — The N.A.T.I.V.E. Project’s regional calendar of fairs and festivals is updated regularly and is a great place to start when planning your venues. The project also pays booth or entry fees up to $400 a year. Again, the rest is up to you.

Know Your Target Market

The one crucial thing that is frequently recommended before anyone starts a business is to carefully craft your business concept. Why will people choose to buy your product over someone else’s? Is it the craftsmanship, the concept, the design, the price, the value or the dream that they are buying into?

Think carefully about your market. You might answer that you just make superb art. However, this is not enough to run a business. You need to offer something that the market doesn’t yet have or that the market does not have enough supply of. This may mean getting into the mind of your buyer and understand what motivates them. Who is your customer for your specific goods, when do they buy, where do they buy, and what makes them buy? Understand their psychology, emotional needs and relationship with your art. Sometimes, this also means visualizing all the aspects of their lives in order to assess how your business can make their lives even better.

There are all levels of art, from cedar protection beads to high art that is shown in galleries. Remember, your business concept needs to offer a clear proposition of value to your customer, and that value could be at any end of the spectrum that you feel is a good fit to start.

After all the above, if you are still intent on starting your business, the next step is writing a business plan. The plan is valuable. It will help you to raise funding, to clarify your vision, and to make sure you and your team are on the same page.

The N.A.T.I.V.E. Project will provide assistance with creating a business plan. We are able to help you in drafting it, and in checking to see if you are specific enough, if your vision is sound and your objectives attainable.

Other articles in the series:

Writing a Business Plan

Making the Artist Statement