The Art of the Business

A blog dedicated to artists who are serious about their business.

Running a small business is unstable economic times October 29, 2008

Filed under: Business of Arts,Finances — Rebecca Coleman @ 9:57 pm
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I’ve been thinking a lot the past few weeks about the economy. I know I’m not alone. Lots of people are–for better or for worse, our economy is somewhat dependent upon the States, and the downturn in their economy affects us. Everybody is talking about the “r-word.”

So, as the owner(s) of a small, arts-based business, what do we do?

First off, I think small businesses are in a much better place than large corporations in a time of economic

This is no time to make like Chicken Little!

This is no time to make like Chicken Little!

instability. We have the ability to react faster to belt-tightening. Reigning in our expenses, taking on more hours ourselves, waiting a little longer for expansion are all things that we can do without too much difficulty.

Second, because we have the ability to react faster, we can more easily afford to take a ‘wait and see’ attitude. For me, at this point, I have contracts that go through to the end of the theatre season. I am unsure about next year’s theatre season, but I know I have work at least for the next few months. If I find that offers are slow coming in for next season, I can change my strategy.

Third, this is an opportunity to get creative. Try to avoid cutting your prices if you can. Instead, try to get your clients to look at things in a different way. Part of the problem of a recession is that the first thing to go are things that are considered ‘frills’ or ‘luxuries’, and often art fits into that category. Is there some way that you can reframe your product or service so that it becomes something necessary? For example, I think that if someone is producing a show, they need to hire a publicist to help them get the word out so that they can recoup their investment.

There are other ways to attract business without cutting your price. Think about ‘value added’ options–things that you can add on to your product or service, that are like a little bonus. Or consider bundling.

Finally, don’t panic. This is not the time to be running around yelling “the sky is falling! the sky is falling!” Take a deep breath, make a plan, have faith in your abilities, and go for it.

Check out this excellent article in The Report on Business.

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Vancouver’s Pantages Theatre in Jeapordy October 25, 2008

Filed under: Politics of Arts — Rebecca Coleman @ 3:58 am
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Early this year, I got involved in a project through my friend Kevin McKeown over at Publicity Plus Event Marketing. It was a project that was close to my heart, and every single person who got involved in it worked for free because we all believed in it so deeply.

Looking down at the stage from the balcony

Looking down at the stage from the balcony

Vancouver’s Pantages Theatre, opened in 1908, is it is the oldest surviving theatre in Vancouver, and the oldest purpose-built vaudeville theatre in Canada. It is also the oldest surviving Pantages theatre in North America. In 2005, developer Marc Williams bought the property and the four adjoining ones to the west. The plan was to gut and restore the 650-seat theatre (which has incredible acoustics), build a new lobby, a new entrance, an art gallery, and 130+ units of social housing.

On April 16, 2008, after many, many tours, meetings, and getting people on board, we had a press conference announcing Williams’ $26 million development plan. It was attended by media, members of the arts community, and the Downtown East Side, and it was a huge success.

This theatre is magic. I don’t know any other way of describing it. Being in there was amazing. Even though the theatre is derelict and falling down, the energy is incredible. The history of that building, and its potential impact its resident companies, specifically, and the Vancouver arts community in general, is immense.

I have just received word from Kevin that the property has been put up for sale by the developer. According to Williams: “We tried for over three years to find a financially viable proposal that would satisfy the many interests at stake. Ultimately, we could not. The Pantages was a very powerful idea. The theatre, the housing, the retail businesses – the combination was extraordinary. I was proud to have been a part of it. I am so disappointed we could not make it work.”

According to CTV news, the issue is that “the city wants more time to study the $26-million restoration plan that would be funded by governments at a number of levels.”

My understanding is that, during this time when politics are at the forefront, in anticipation of a municipal

The Boxes

The Boxes

election, this could become an election issue. The Pantages Theatre Society encourages you to send an email of support to:, and cc: it to

Vancouver needs the Pantages. The Arts community desperately needs more performance space. The Downtown East Side would benefit both from the social housing, and access to and involvement with cultural events in their own neighborhood.

Adam Abrams’ blog post on the Pantages

The Vancouver Pantages Website

The Save the Pantages Facebook group

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Survival Skills for Artists: Chris Tyrell Interview October 23, 2008

Okay, visual artists, this one’s for you…. (but those of you who aren’t painters, sculptors or photographers, you can benefit from this one, too)

This month I interview Chris Tyrell, author of Artist’s Survival Skills, subtitled How to Make a Living as a Canadian Visual Artist.

No stranger to the Vancouver arts scene, Chris began as a drama teacher at West Vancouver Secondary and Capilano College. He designed, built and managed Presentation House Theatre and established the Presentation House Gallery of photography. As well, he co-founded the BC Touring Council and the Alliance for Arts and Culture. He’s probably best known, however, for being the editor of The Opus Visual Arts Newsletter for, oh, like, forever.
I asked him some questions about how to survive and thrive as a visual artist.

AotB: If I’m a visual artist who is interested in selling more of my work, and possibly even making a living from my artistic practice, how can your book help me?

CT: I have never heard an artist say, “I wish I earned less money from my art.” However, after every one of my workshops for artists on ways to increase income, I see expressions of despair on some faces. “I don’t like thinking about my art like a business,” says one. “Oh my god, I couldn’t possibly take all that on,” says another, “I’m going to get a gallery to do all that for me.”

“Then make art for enjoyment, keep your job, and stop thinking about making more money from your art,” I say. My book is for artists who want to make a career of their creative skills. It addresses art-making in the context of self-employment; it uses business language and subscribes to principles of small business development applicable to any small manufacturing business.

My book reveals how much work it takes to develop an artistic career. Starting a small business (and this is what we do when we set out to be self-employed artists who sell our work) is a serious challenge regardless of the nature of the business. And while there are many worthwhile books for Canadian entrepreneurs on starting and growing a small business, my book looks at key components of small business theory and discusses them in the context of a creative, skills-based small business—the self-employed Canadian visual artist.

There are many associations that support professional artists in Canada. The writers have the Writers Union of Canada, actors, stage managers, and dancers have the Canadian Actors Equity Association and ACRTA; musicians have the Musicians Union. Directors, choreographers, and composers—all artistic professions in Canada have a trade association or union to which they belong. These professional organizations provide support to their members in areas such as health, taxation, and copyrights, and they negotiate collective agreements with employer associations that cover salaries and benefits. Visual artists, however, do not have sufficient professional guidance and support. My book seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of professional development issues for the committed Canadian visual artist.

Why shouldn’t I just hire an agent/accountant/publicist? Won’t that leave me more time for my artistic practice?

CT: You can do all that if you can afford it. Often, artists who get represented by a gallery get a lot of management services, but unless the artists takes responsibility for his or herself and his or her career, it will never be as successful as it might be. An artist may well take advantage of the professional services of others, but still, the drive and direction of one’s career is best self-managed. It all depends on what the artist wants, and that is why my book begins with a chapter on planning.

A lot of artists want success but are not prepared to work hard for it. Those who have genuine genius need not worry, their career will unfold for them (Brian Jungen, for example), but those with admirable, even great talent, require HARD WORK to establish an enduring successful career, and no one works better for an artist than the artist his- or her self. Gallery owners have many artists to represent and cannot do for an artist what the artist can do for themselves.

AotB: What are some of the most important things I can do to help my artistic business along in the areas of marketing and finances?

CT:Read my book.
Set realistic, achievable, measurable and incremental annual sales goals.
Study small business management, take marketing courses.
Have a fabulous, selected and diverse product line visible in your portfolio.
Study the best practices of other visual artists.
Provide interesting insight into your work—people do not buy what they do not understand.
Join a co-op, work with other artists to achieve goals.

AotB: Thanks, Chris. Really great stuff.

Artist’s Survival Skills is available for purchase at Opus Visual Art Supplies.

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The thin line between confidence and ego October 18, 2008

Filed under: Attitude,Business of Arts,Business relationships — Rebecca Coleman @ 9:15 pm
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They don't call these guys 'Dragons' for nothing!

Last year, while I was taking my small-business training program at BCIT, I was introduced to The Dragon’s Den by one of my instructors. The Dragon’s Den is a Canadian production on CBC, and, as far as I can tell, is unique in the genre of reality television. Basically, there is this panel of very successful business people that have money to invest in start-up companies. Small businesses and corporations come in and pitch their ideas for expansion and development to the Dragons, in exchange for a percentage of their business.

As a person who was starting, and is now running, her own business, watching this show is an education. Looking beyond all the cheese of the reality-television formula (the tension-inducing music, the cutting-to-commercial before the final verdict), it is so interesting to see which businesses succeed on this show, and which ones get shot down in flames (another mainstay of the reality-TV formula). Generally speaking, the ones that succeed are super prepared with marketing materials and facts and figures. They’ve thought about what kinds of questions the dragons might ask, and are prepared with the answers. They don’t oversell, but allow the product or service to speak for itself.

The ones that fail miserably are the ones that, often, are so overconfident in their product/service that they have become downright cocky, and have lost sight of reality (or maybe they never had it to start with). I’m not saying that you shouldn’t believe in your product. In fact, if you don’t believe in what you’re selling, you have no business selling it. Passion helps, too, for sure. But some people think that their product or  service is perfect, and they are convinced that every single person in the world should jump on their bandwagon. And that’s just not true. For any business.

There is a fine line between being confident and being egotistical. You need to know that there is always something that can be improved with your business. And I’m not talking about perfectionism. You might be aware that everything is not perfect with your business, but maybe you choose to not act on that right now. For example, I’m thinking about moving my business from a home-based operation to an office. Getting an office would be a big boost to people’s perception of the professionalism of my business. But I need to be strategic about it–location, money, and who I would share an office with are all factors that need to be taken into consideration. So, I’m developing a plan….

It’s a fine balance–you need to be confident, but not too confident, you need to be aware of what needs improvement, but not be mired in perfectionism (because we’ve all been around those people, and boy, let me tell you, no party there).

So, if you haven’t yet, watch The Dragon’s Den. You might learn something. And if nothing else, it’s an entertaining way to spend a Monday night… if there’s no Canucks game.

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And then life… October 14, 2008

Filed under: Business of Arts,Business relationships,Life — Rebecca Coleman @ 8:04 pm
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This is a blog about the business of being an artist, and I don’t usually like to talk about my personal life in it, because it’s not a personal blog. Generally speaking, I’m the kind of gal that doesn’t like to allow my personal life to affect my business. While I do love to work with like-minded people, I am of the philosophy that, if I’m having a bad day in my personal life, I shouldn’t allow that to affect my work. I just push through.

But sometimes life happens, and it affects your business. Six months ago today, my mother died. At the time, I had fewer clients than I had now, because I was still very much in start-up phase, and my clients, bless them, were very understanding at the time. My mother had been sick with cancer for two years, and we knew, prior to her dying, that the time was short. In other words, it wasn’t a surprise, and I thought I was prepared. But I wasn’t. And that’s what life’s like sometimes. You plan, and prepare, and you think you’re ready, and then you are just not.

My life was in turmoil that week. I was trying to keep up with my work as much as I could, while being in the middle of funereal arraingements, family stuff, and huge emotions. There were a few things that got me through that week: my friends and family, first and foremost, my son, and my work.

Two days after my mother died, I was at a huge press conference for the Pantages Theatre that we had been planning for months. Granted, my participation in this event was considerably less than I had thought it would be, but I was there. And a couple of times,  I lost it. But I showed up. And the knowledge that there were people who were depending on me, that I had a responsibilty to, kept me from going to bed and staying there.

So yes, try to keep your personal bad days from infulencing your work. But also know that sometimes life will happen. And during those times, just be good to yourself. Do the best you can, and forgive the rest. Because life is too short.

Oh, and do me a favour? Call your mother.

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The artist versus pie: which is flakier? October 11, 2008

Filed under: Business of Arts,Finances — Rebecca Coleman @ 8:35 am
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On a certain evening not so long ago, I was indulging in one of my favorite secret pleasures: a glass of wine (probably something red) and TLC’s What Not to Wear. After the show was over, another show came on, and I was curious, so I watched it. The show was called Ashley Paige: Bikini or Bust, and it followed the day-to-day adventures of this young and upcoming bikini designer.

At first I was intrigued. Here was a make-or-break story about a self-proclaimed artist (a bikini artist, but an artist nevertheless). But then it all went horribly wrong. Ashley was unable to keep up with her bills, to buy raw materials, and, in short, to manage her own business and life successfully.

I got so frustrated watching this show, because I hate it when people live up to stereotypes.

As artists, we already have a bunch of stuff going against us. We have a government (currently, hopefully that will change after Oct 14) that made $45 million in cuts to arts funding. When people ask us what we do for a living, and we say we are an actor/singer/painter/musician/bikini artist, the response is often, “but what’s your real job?” Those same qualities that make us good artists–creativity, spontaneity, thinking outside the box–if taken just a smidgen too far, can result in flakiness. And that just feeds the stereotype.

Our friend Ashley got a life coach, and was really trying to get it together, so good on her for that. But I haven’t seen the show in a while, so maybe it got cancelled. Which would be okay with me. The world doesn’t need any more fuel for that fire.

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Who needs politics? Apparantly artists. October 7, 2008

Filed under: Politics of Arts — Rebecca Coleman @ 8:13 pm
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I have to admit to being one of those people that was pretty apathetic about politics.  I belonged to that group of people that believe that politicians will say anything to get into office, and then do whatever the heck they like once they are in. And I belong to a pretty politically marginalized chunk of society–artists.

Then, a few years back, I spent a couple of years working at The Alliance for Arts and Culture, and during that time there were a few elections, and I began to see first hand how advocacy really does work.

In one week we go to the polls, and last night I attended Vancouver’s Wrecking Ball. Wrecking Ball is the brainchild of the Department of Culture: “a growing community of Canadian citizens who are artists, arts professionals and cultural workers concerned about ensuring the social and cultural health and prosperity of our nation in the face of a Federal Government that is aggressively undermining the values that define Canada.” Last night, Vancouver was one of 9 Canadian cities that hosted Wrecking Balls: an all-candidates debate focused on the arts, followed by a cabaret.

The debate was attended by four major political parties: Hedy Fry (Liberal), Adriane Carr (Greens), Michael Byers (NDP) and John Cummins (Conservative). It should be noted that the first three candidates are the ones running in that riding, Vancouver Central, while John Cummins,  running in the riding of Richmond-Delta, was pinch-hitting last night for Vancouver Central Conservative candidate Lorne Mayencourt.

The debated started with opening statements, and all the candidates tried to convince us that they had ties to arts and culture. Michael Byers, a prof at UBC who has recently published a book, won the crowd over with his admission that he had received Canada Council funding. But then it was on to the nitty-gritty.

The moderator gave each of the candidates some time to outline thier parties’ stance on the arts, and here is what they said:

Green Party: Part of the Green platform is a bit called “Beauty and Integrity,” and that is their arts policy. Basically, it involves funding the arts to a level that is commensurate with other sectors, and increasing transfer funds to the Provinces so they can spend more on the arts.

Conservative: No real financial commitment to the arts. The candidate said it would be “irresponsible” to make those kinds of commitments without knowing where else they may have to spend.

Liberal: The theory of the Liberal candidate was to “ensure artistic freedom.” She also said they would: increase video/film tax breaks to 30%, increase Canada Council funding to $360 M, put $26 M into a digital media strategy, and reinstate the $45 M in cuts from the Harper government.

NDP: Increase Canada Council funding $150M, restore the current $45 M in cuts, and provide stability for the CBC, based on the BBC model, so that no government in the future can touch their funding.

For me, the clear winner early in the evening was the NDP’s eloquent and intelligent Michael Byers. But as the debate went on, Hedy Fry (who is a sparkplug–you don’t want to be on her bad side!) showed why she is the incumbent for that riding. Adriane Carr, while I found her to be a bit touchy-feely and not as specific with details as the others, won me over to her personality by staying even tempered and having a sense of humour. I don’t know that there was a clear winner overall, but there was a clear loser. John Cummins appeared quite uncomfortable, kept paging through his notes, and I lost count of how many times he toed this party line: “The Conservatives have increased funding to the arts by 7.8%.” To be fair, his government has not made him popular, and this was a pretty hostile crowd, so kudos to him for having the balls to show up (Lorne Mayencourt didn’t).

Who should you vote for? I don’t know. Check out the parties’ websites, go to some debates, email your MP questions. But know this: the Culture sector employs 1.1 M people in Canada, and contributes 7.6% to the Gross Domestic Product. It is the fourth largest employment sector in Canada, and is worth $85 Billion. And that gives us a voice, especially when we get together and raise it like so many of us did last night. The Wrecking Ball was packed to the rafters last night at the Stanley, and reports from across the country were the same. It was empowering to be there, to have a voice.

I leave the last word to Adriane Carr, who I think deserves quote of the night: “The crisis around Arts and Culture in this country is that we’ve got the wrong government in power.”

UPDATE: The Georgia Straight published a blurb in Arts Notes. Part of the story was this:

Responding to a question about whether the boards of organizations such as the CBC should be headed by professionals in the field or by political appointees, Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry and her challengers Michael Byers (NDP), and Adriane Carr (Green) all favoured professionals. Cummins disagreed, saying such boards should include businesspeople as well as some members interested in the arts, explaining, “There has to be some oversight.”

In the lobby after the debate, writer and producer Chris Haddock, the creator of Da Vinci’s Inquest and Intelligence, expressed his outrage at Cummins’s remark. “He insulted the whole room by implying that artists aren’t businesspeople, that what we do is some kind of arts and crafts.”

Read the entire piece here.

Here are some more links of interest:
The Next Stage
Peter Birnie’s take in The Vancouver Sun
Bill C-61

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Overnight Sensations October 4, 2008

Filed under: Business of Arts,Success — Rebecca Coleman @ 7:20 am
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This blog post has dual inspirations, both linked to recent events. First, I recently listened to a great podcast over on the Prosperous Artists called How Not to be an Overnight Success. Listening to that podcast reminded me of my favorite quote about overnight sensations, which I will share with you in a sec, after I tell you about the second inspiration for this post.

Me, as a Renthead

Me, as a Renthead

One of my all-time favorite musicals, Rent, just closed after a twelve-year run on Broadway. From a marketing perspective, it’s hard to say if Rent would have been the huge success it was, had it not been so shrouded by tragedy. For those of you who don’t know the story, Rent was written by Jonathan Larson, a 35-year-old struggling writer and actor in New York City. His work was starting to become more and more recognized, and he was being mentored by the great Steven Sondheim. Rent, which, in his own words, “is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century,” had gone through an extensive workshop process, and was poised to open on Broadway. The night of the final dress rehearsal, Jonathan, not feeling well, went home and put on the kettle to make a pot of tea. He collapsed on the floor, dead from an aortic aneurysm.

Rent opened at the Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996. It launched the careers of Jessie L. Martin and Taye Diggs, among others. It won numerous Tony Awards and Jonathan was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer that year. In 2005, it was made into a feature film, starring 6 of the 8 original cast. It created a new generation of Broadway theatre-goer: the Renthead; die-hard fans who returned dozens and dozens of times to see the show, often camping out for $20 day-of performance tickets.

Okay, that was a long introduction, but here is the meat of the matter: in her acceptance speech when she accepted the Pulitzer Prize on behalf of her brother, Julie Larson said, “It took my brother Johnnie fifteen years of really hard work to become an overnight sensation.” Being an artist it tough, few people with argue with you on that. You learn and work and create, and sometimes you don’t book the role, sell the painting or land the gig. We live in a country where the arts are under funded. It’s discouraging.

Whenever I’m feeling discouraged, I always ask myself this: “what else am I going to do?” For me, being an artist is pretty much it. I get frustrated sometimes, I want to walk away, but it never lasts long, because the passion I feel for what I do always brings me back. And I am ultimately grateful that I have found a profession in life that I love.

Let me just add one thing to that: it’s great to have passion and belief that you are going to ‘make it’ (whatever that is, to be discussed in a future blog post), but you also need to put your money where your mouth is. That means, make a plan. Do tangible things like marketing and networking to help you on your way. Create or join a community or support group, and get them working for you, and you for them.

You might never be an overnight sensation, but then, maybe those don’t really exist. Instead, I’ll leave the last word to Julie Larson: “Stay true to yourselves and to your dreams, and know that they can come true.”

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Relationships: mixing ‘business’ and ‘personal’? October 1, 2008

Filed under: Business of Arts,Business relationships — Rebecca Coleman @ 10:09 am
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A very wise man once told me that business is just about creating relationships based on trust. Okay, I’m bastardizing that a little bit, but the fact remains that Sudsy (yes, that is his real name) was a pretty smart guy, and that statement pretty much makes up the foundation of my business.

Now, I’ve read tons of stuff that says “don’t mix business and personal,” but, while that might fly in the corporate world, I think we in the arts have a slightly different take.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never been burned, and lost friends because of a business relationship gone awry (those of you who still owe me money, you know who you are). But at the end of the day, I’d much rather work with people I like, than with people I don’t.

Well, duh. I mean, obviously. I have, and I’m sure you have too, worked for bosses that were overbearing, nit-picky, controlling and micro-managing. I have also had the experience of working for someone whose philosophy was “I hire good people, and then I let them do their job.” Guess which one of those bosses I am still in contact with? (Hey, Pete.) But in the world of work, it makes a huge difference to office morale when the person who is in charge believes that you are actually proficient at your job. And you spend a lot of time at work. I know, think of the money, but few people are completely satisfied with that.

Our world of the Arts is not so different. For example, in the theatre, don’t you love it when you get a director who is okay with you bringing stuff into rehearsal, who is open to playing and listening to what you might have to contribute to your character? And wouldn’t you rather spend all those hours in rehearsal with a bunch of people you actually enjoy spending time with? Some of my greatest friendships (and a few boyfriends!) have come out of those experiences.

So I say, mix away. Certainly, use your common sense–if the people you are working with are wanting to keep the relationship formal, then do what you need to to keep them comfortable. But there is nothing wrong with being true to yourself and your personality. And it sure does make work more pleasant.

I’d love to hear your comments: should we mix ‘business’ and ‘personal’? Or is is better to have boundaries and keep them separate?

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