twenty20 a920e85e 0192 4d76 a60a 9c6f5399ac35 990x556 - Bridging the Gap: From Student to Creative Business Owner
Art Business

Bridging the Gap: From Student to Creative Business Owner

Picture this: You have just graduated from art school and have no idea where to begin. Bridging the gap between student and professional working artist is difficult for anyone, but for young artists starting their own creative business, whether it be as an independent maker or as the owner of your own endeavor, the leap is particularly daunting. No longer is your sole responsibility to hit that deadline and finish the project; now, you are suddenly in charge of an endless and overlapping set of brand new skills and obligations that include budgeting, accounting, marketing, networking, selling, packaging, and the list goes on and on.

For the typical young creative or working artist, the overwhelming confusion of starting a creative business feels all too familiar. Often, navigating the ups and downs and arriving at a fine-tuned set of best practices takes years of trial and error-filled with countless struggles and failures.

Kimberly Winkle is a practicing woodworker and educator. Currently, she is the director of the School of Art, Craft and Design at Tennessee Tech, a fine arts program with a heavy focus on craft arts. As a working artist herself, she saw a hole in the way students were being taught.

“I think that it is incredibly unfair to teach students only how to make something but not also how to make a living with those things that they have made,” she begins. “During grad school, I took a professional practices class that was completely useless to me today. It focused entirely on getting gallery representation, and that is a whole paradigm that has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. I don’t think it is a sustainable model for 99% of artists.”

Winkle decided to design a professional practices course of her own; a sort of intensive boot camp that breaks down everything from writing an email to designing a personal brand and planning out monthly finances. She chatted with Artrepreneur about that course and shared tips for any working artist that’s just getting started in the field.

working artist
Making a good first impression can set you up for success. A firm handshake and eye contact can go a long way.

The Basics: First Impressions and Consistent Professionalism

The old adage is tired but true, it isn’t what you know but who you know. For young creatives and artists, starting to build the framework for a strong professional artist network can feel overwhelming. Getting out to trade shows, gallery openings, and job fairs and making strong first impressions is just the first step of a long process, but essential to one’s success.

And those first impressions are more important than many young creatives may realize. Psychologists refer to the phenomenon as ‘thin-slicing’, with numerous studies theorizing that the average person makes a snap judgment of someone after only observing them for just a few seconds.

“We begin by teaching people how to give off the right first impressions: A proper handshake and the importance of confident interactions, like being able to look somebody in the eye and introduce yourself to them,” begins Winkle. A study performed at the University of Iowa backs up Winkle’s assertion. Non-verbal cues like a firm handshake, eye contact during discussion and smiling play critical roles in the outcome of job interviews.

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After making the initial introductions, the hard task is keeping people engaged within your artist network. And it isn’t just the content of your messaging but the way it is delivered. Much like a good firm handshake, email etiquette is equally important. Winkle strongly encourages her students to adopt professional correspondence habits, asserting that “you never write an email, ‘Hey’ and go straight into the email like you are speaking with a friend. Always address people by their formal name, and begin and conclude with a proper salutation.”

brand identity
Make sure that you have a clear and consistent brand aesthetic across all media channels.

Do the Homework: Building a Brand Identity Straight Out the Gate

But let’s backtrack a little, before throwing yourself out into the world and beginning to build your professional artist network, it is important to understand how your content and brand identity is being received. What are you communicating? How do you communicate across platforms? Does the messaging move fluidly? Is it clear to potential clients and employers what you are capable of producing?

“We start by talking about the basic ways you communicate your business and brand identity. The ability for a typography or color to communicate an aesthetic or business value,” Winkle explains, “I always use the same example: if you are a ceramics artist and you’re making wedding goods and your product is really intricate and ornate ceramic cake stands, would it make sense to use a harsh Gothic typeface and a dark color palette for your business? Those two things are just completely incompatible.”

Winkle notes the importance of having a clear aesthetic for your personal brand identity and making sure that branding moves fluidly across all your communication channels: personal website, business cards, vinyl banners, social media and letterheads so that clients have a clean customer experience.

“Technology is such a pervasive part of everything we do, it is impossible to not talk about,” she says, adding that she encourages students to be conscientious of their social footprint. “It is really important for our students to understand the difference between their personal and professional channels and the value of having them as two separate things.”

creative business
Rather than troubleshooting through trial and error, Winkle helps students foresee future inconveniences in accounting, contracts and customer service.

Project for the Future

Even if you are just starting out as a creative business, it is important to envision what your endeavor will look five, ten or fifteen years down the road. Winkle suggests going even further than separating your personal and professional social media channels, but incorporating that concept into an overall business model. Rather than branding your creative business under your name, consider branding yourself as an agency or studio.

“It’s important to think about decisions you may need to make in the next ten years. The business name, for example; if you use your name as the business name, what happens down the road if you want to sell your creative business?” Winkle explains. “Kate Spade is the example I’ve heard. She sold her business and thus the rights to her own name, which complicates her ability to put her name on future projects.”

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While many artists solve their problems over time through trial and error, Winkle points out resources to help foresee future inconveniences in accounting, contracts and customer service.

“We suggest a great book called Get Your Shit Together, which breaks down all your common issues into distinct and very clear modules. Something like contracts and pricing can be very confusing, whether it’s figuring out all the litigious language in a contract, or creating some sort of equation for your pricing which even for experienced artists feels very arbitrary. I insist to never work without a contract and let students know that it is completely okay to provide your own. I also suggest keeping track of all over your spending. All receipts should go into a folder. Hours should be tracked. This will help when it comes time to file taxes or figure out how much to charge for a particular piece.”

While having a successful career as an independent creative business owner comes with years of reacting to the needs of your business and fine-tuning your practice based on experience, it isn’t impossible to start your career with your best foot forward to make sure that transition is just a little bit easier.

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About the author

Kevin Vaughn

Kevin Vaughn is a writer and photographer focused on food and culture based out of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His freelance work has appeared in Munchies, New Worlder, Remezcla and Savoteur, and he pens a weekly restaurant column for the BA based news and lifestyle site The Bubble. When he is not writing he is giving customized food tours to hungry travelers via his company Devour Buenos Aires or is making tacos for his Mexican inspired traveling pop-up MASA.

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  • HOW TRUE THIS ARTICLE IS. I AM PROOF OF ITS NOT WHAT YOU KNOW BUT WHO YOU KNOW AND HOW YOU CONDUCT AND PRESENT NOT ONLY YOUR COMPANY OR BUSINESS BUT YOURSELF. I AM A 30 YEAR ACCOUNT MANAGER FOR A ELECTRICAL / MECHANICAL REPAIR, SALES AND SERVICE COMPANY. I HAVE DONE 50+ MILLION DOLLARS IN BUSINESS FOR MY COMPANY IN 30 YEARS BY KNOWING AND NETWORKING THE PEOPLE AND FRIENDS I KNOW TO GAIN CUSTOMERS AND MORE BUSINESS. WITH NETWORKING, SOCIAL MEDIA AND TECHNOLOGY TODAY ALL YOU NEED TO DO TO BE SUCCESSFUL IS SELL YOURSELF AND THAT WILL SELL YOUR PRODUCT.
    VERY NICE ARTICLE BY THE WAY………….