9.13.2010

Marketing Mondays: Your Board of Directors

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A few weeks ago I had a studio visit with Lorrie Fredette, an artist who works in the Hudson Valley north of New York City. While we were sitting at her kitchen table talking, she mentioned her “board of directors.” I like the way she thinks. A sculptor with a background in business, she has gathered people around her—family, mostly—who have the appropriate skills to advise her on various life and career issues.
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OK, so we're sole proprietors, not corporations, but we can all be helped by good advice
(Image from the Internet)

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Of course that prompted me to write a post about whom we might need on our own Board of Directors. Some thoughts:

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Finance

I’m putting this first because as artists we’ve typically been taught not to think about money. If you are self employed, you need to be putting money into a Roth IRA or similar instrument so that when you get to be 70, you won’t find yourself collecting cans to buy paint. If you can own your apartment or home, you’ll have equity that will provide you with options for the long term. And if you own your studio, or have a space within the dwelling you own, you won't be gouged by an unscrupulous landlord.

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But whom do you talk to about this stuff? Your tax preparer (not a franchise that knows only the world of W-2s) can help you understand how you spend your money and suggest a system for tracking income and expenditures, especially deductible expenses, which may be greater than you realize. A financial planner and/or an investment manager can suggest ways to save money, take smart and legal tax deductions, and invest intelligently. You might also talk to artists you know and respect who are older than yourself, who are dealing now with issues like retirement benefits or Social Security. That's something I've started doing. I want to know where I'm headed.

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Career

If you’ve been out of art school for a decade or so, pretty much whatever you learned about career issues is now out of date. Take a seminar in professional development offered by a local non-profit (sometimes they’re free) or continuing ed (reasonable cost) if you’ve researched the instructor and found her/him to be well informed. If you can afford a few hundred dollars, take a consultation with someone who can answer your specific questions and suggest ways for you to get to the next step in your career. Alternatively, get a group of like-minded colleagues together and hire a consultant who would be willing to work with you as a group. Under no circumstances should you pay big bucks to anyone who promises you career advancement; the only person who will advance your career is you. I covered this topic here.

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If you are represented by a gallery, your dealer may be able to offer you advice. As you advance in your career—visiting art fairs or galleries in different cities, meeting curators—you may be able to return the favor to your dealer.

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For your “shelf of directors” there are a number of good current books. Try these titles: The Artist’s Guide by Jackie Battenfield; Art/Work by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber; I’d Rather Be In The Studio by Alyson B. Stanfield; How to Start and Run a Commercial Gallery by Edward Winkleman; The Art Newspaper, and a host of good online blogs and websites. I’ve written about them here.

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Legal

Artists sign legal agreements all the time: damage waivers, contracts for solo exhibitions at a gallery, agreements to allow our work to be included in a book or magazine. Foolishly we don’t have an attorney look them over. Financially we are just not in a position to do so. My rule of thumb is that if it’s not onerous, and it's set up for a limited time or a specific project, I usually sign without counsel. If you think you need an attorney, contact Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA), an organization set up give pro bono assistance to people like us. Google VLA in your area, call and leave your questions, and someone will call you back. If you require serious legal representation, someone from VLA should be able to recommend an attorney who specializes in what you need.

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When you might need a lawyer: to read over a big contract that involves large sums of money, a commitment for an extended period of time, an unreasonable responsibility on your part, exclusivity, unclear language; if you’re being sued; if you’re undertaking a project that might leave you open to litigation. Better you pay a fee upfront than be liable for a much larger expense or responsibility down the road. Ask your attorney if s/he might be interested in a trade. If you’re shy about trading, at least ask if the attorney has a sliding scale or offers an “artists’ discount." And if you’re on the clock, don’t chat away with your attorney; you will be billed for the time.

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Technology

Anyone over the age of 35 has tech issues. Even if you have someone maintain your website, at the very least you still need to be fluent with word processing and email, and it's essential that you be able to manage your images via a digital camera, scanner, and Photoshop. Every new piece of equipment comes with a higher level of technology that must be integrated into the systems you already have in place. I get help from several sources: the person who made my computer (defacto PC support); a physicist-turned-Epson specialist who helps me with image stuff relating to my camera, scanner and printer; and more recently, a brilliant art student who understands how to pull it all together in a way that the other two don't. My technology chair is filled by several people, and I consider it an essential position on my board.

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Service fees—for financial, career, legal and technology help—are deductible.

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A Mentor

Students often look to a professor for mentoring, but that relationship typically ends with graduation. You may feel the loss for some time. A more mature kind of mentoring may develop as you continue in your career. A dealer may become a mentor. In my case, it’s a former dealer who has remained a trusted friend. But your mentor may be a curator, a collector, or an artist who is more advanced in her career. Lucky (and exceedingly rare) is the artist who becomes the protégée of someone so powerful and well connected that career success is virtually assured. If you do find a mentor, respect the gift you are given, don’t betray the relationship (you know who you are) and down the road, become a mentor yourself.

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For mentoring without a mentor per se, you might turn to various colleagues whose experiences are different from your own. Indeed, sharing advice and skills can offer an enormous advantage not only to you but to the others in your circle.

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Manufacturers of the Art Supplies You Use

Every company that’s serious about its product has an 800 number you can call or a website you can log onto for information. Some manufacturers offer free first-come demos or talks at art supply stores. In my experience, small artist-run companies not only offer products of superb quality, they are serious about product development and customer service. You may find yourself invited to try new products or to offer feedback on an existing product. If you see “your” company selling its product at venues like the College Art Association or at a trade fair or conference, introduce yourself, see what’s new. I count “my” manufacturers for paint and panels to be among my dearest friends.

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Material technology doesn’t stop when you graduate from art school, and neither should your knowledge. True story: I was at dinner a few years ago with several paintmaking friends. One had just arrived from the studio of a famous painter whose large canvases went for millions. Seems the painter had continued to use student-grade oils all these years because that was what he was used to. Not surprisingly, problems developed with the paintings because student-grade has too much filler and not enough pigment for professional-quality work. You may not get a personal visit from your manufacturer, but you can get info and advice.

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Beyond the “Board”

Depending on the work you do and on your personal life situation, you may need others on your board. Perhaps they are temporary members—contractor, automotive specialist, health care adviser. Bring them on as needed. As artists we are sole proprietors; our lives and work are intertwined, so this kind of advice, which is both personal and professional, helps us run our careers.

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Over to you: Who is, or would be, on your Board of Directors?

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16 comments:

LG said...

Good post. It's always good, regardless of your career field, to tap your available resources (ie. friends and family, etc.)

Also, I am over 35 and not only do I code my own site (CSS, XHTML strict), but I understand color profiling, shoot digital (at times), and can use CS3 with my eyes closed. With all of the ageism present in the art world at large, I expected not to see it here in this thoughtful blog.

Joanne Mattera said...

LG,
Ageism is saying "Anyone over 35 can't adapt to tech issues." Ageism is saying, "If you're over 35 there's no place for you in the art world."

It is most certainly not ageist to say that people who did not grow up with computers are going to encounter some tech issues. It acknowledges the situation so that we can learn them and continue with our careers.

Mary Zeran said...

Good post and good stuff as always!

Being over 35, I agree that some of the tech stuff can be overwhelming but, I find it exciting too! Before the internet, It was much harder to get info and get your own info out there. Now it seems like anything is possible.

Debra Ramsay said...

I think that social networking sites (i.e. Facebook) have stepped in on one level to provide a mentor community. While not as good as face to face conversations, it can provide a forum for dialog/advice, or at least lead there as relationships develop over time.

annell said...

As always wonderful Marketing Monday! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great post Joanne, good advice for artists that think money is a bad word. We have to make a living and create our own retirement plan. No one is going to give us a pension...
and we need to learn about the technology, photo and financial, tools that will help us. Artists that don't know how to use a computer at this point...whew.. going to have a hard time later...learn it now , it's not that hard...

bricarwaller said...

Terrific post, packed with essential information!

Joanne Mattera said...

Apropos of tech issues, here's a little video that anyone under 35 may not get: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1095581365241

Jeff said...

Joanne
Great post. One trusted "board member" I have is a good accountant. He set me up as a corporation. I (he) found many tax breaks and a better way for me to manage my money. It was the best money I invested in myself/company.

kim matthews said...

Thanks for linking to Lorrie's site. In addition to your as-usual spot-on post,I really enjoyed seeing her work.

Hylla Evans said...

Joanne, it's terrific to make legitimate the networking and mutual reliance that artists do informally. Thank you. I like the visual of a team sitting around a Board of Directors table all there to support the artist's career.

To avoid the legal ramifications and to keep things more casual, you know I have an Advisory Panel. I routinely get feedback from artists/customers but I also consult peers (other paint manufacturers), gallerists, other industry leaders who set color trends, chemists, academics, conservators, and readers. Yes, readers. It helps a lot to have someone else proofread before that newsletter is published.

Richard Frumess said...

Joanne,
Wonderful advice to give artists is to get them to know the manufacturers. Even fairly large ones like Golden and Gamblin give great personal service and will remember you after a few conversations. If you're not getting a thorough enough answer from the first person you talk to, ask to speak to someone in the tech dept.

Another source of information is Amien www.amien.org. The Amien site is a technical resource for artists that provides unbiased factual information about artists' materials. It is part of the Intermuseum Conservation Assoc.

And get to really know your art store, esp. if its an indie. But even some of the chain stores can be great for this. If you develop a personal relationship with them, they can be close collaborators and even promoters of your work.

All these are connections from which you can learn more about materials than many art schools teach, and and if you weave them together you have a materials supply and technical info safety net. Best of all, you can be the person with all the answers at your next communal artist meeting.

Sherman Unkefer said...

Great post - we filled our board with business men and women since we're artists and educators. They have provided invaluable information and helped us through difficult decisions.

Cynthia said...

Good post -- thanks! My framer is on my board. I've been grateful for her advice, favors, and great discount over the years!

Bradley Hankey said...

Great post, I appreciate the valuable information. It's so easy to get caught up in the work, but this reminds me that making work is only part of the equation!

Fi said...

Your posts are always worthwhile and this one is is particularly useful in helping artists to frame themselves as a business. Thankyou.