Strength in Numbers

How does a hardworking artist become an economically thriving one? In today’s art world, talent alone is rarely enough. Without sufficient financial support, most artists will struggle to get ahead—or even stay afloat—but direct funding for the arts is getting increasingly harder to come by. In 2014, individual artists received less than 5% of the grant dollars awarded by nonprofits or state arts agencies for arts-related work [Sources: The Foundation Center; National Assembly of State Arts Agencies]. What’s more, the vast majority of support that individual artists receive from non-governmental institutions is filtered through fiscal sponsors, a step that not only creates an additional obstacle for artists, but also cuts into the total dollar amount that they receive.

While the fiscal sponsorship approach may work for some, it is counterproductive for many. Art is a business, and artists are the consummate entrepreneurs—taking on huge risk, with often extremely limited resources—but they need more than just money to become financially viable. They need to know how to manage their businesses, while still creating salable work that realizes their artistic vision. And they must be able to sell and promote their art, while navigating a highly predatory environment for which many are ill prepared. Business savvy and strong organizational skills are rarely taught in art school.

Instead of treating artists like children, and offering them a proverbial allowance in exchange for cleaning their rooms, we should be equipping them to survive in the world of business. One way to do this is by providing them with the tools, knowledge, and targeted funding they need, so that they can continue to do the work they do best. It means being their patrons, advisors, and partners, instead of their parents.

That’s the model we follow at the Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Artists, a nonprofit organization established in memory of the noted realist painter. Clark was successful both as an artist and a businessman, and the fund is predicated on the belief that there are many more artists out there who are capable of achieving that same balance.

That’s why we award our Business Accelerator Grants directly to artists, without requiring fiscal sponsorships. But that doesn’t mean we simply hand over a fistful of cash, and head for the door. We share knowledge and resources with artists so that they can make the most of the funding and income they receive, and sustain their enterprises over the long term.

Our grants are awarded annually—up to $5,000 per person—to support targeted activities or services related to a specific project that has the potential to boost an artist’s career and grow his/her business exponentially. Applicants must explain how the money would help them undertake, improve, or expand a particular project. For example, one of our 2015 recipients is a sculptor for whom the grant will cover the cost of materials and transporting her work to two solo shows. (To find out more about our 2015 recipients and finalists, please visit clarkhulingsfund.org/recipients.)

Whether they receive a grant or not, all of this year’s finalists will get a free 12-month subscription to a cloud-based inventory- and collection-tracking system (ArtWorkArchive.com) to help them with tasks such as managing provenance and invoices, as well as showcasing their work online. They will also receive exposure, including an interview on “The Thriving Artist Podcast” (our regular interview program), and they themselves will be expected to interview art-world leaders (e.g., gallerists, curators, publishers, etc.) for the podcast, thereby gaining knowledge and networking connections.

The grants program is simply an extension of our year-round efforts to educate all visual artists—not just our finalists—on the fundamental skills required to run a successful art business, including project management, tax planning, marketing, and new business development.

Like any successful business relationship, we require artists to provide something in return for the funding, tools, exposure, and knowledge that they receive from us. Beyond their professionalism and hard work, we also expect them to “pay it forward”—to give back to the community that we’re building together—by sharing their insights and expertise with others. A group can make more noise than an individual, and a vibrant artistic community facilitates information-sharing, advocacy, professional networking, and social support, all of which can be invaluable to folks who spend many of their working hours alone in a studio.

These are exactly the kinds of outlets and means of support that exist for professionals in other fields, so why should the art world be any different? Artists should not be expected to live as paupers to maintain their artistic credibility, and we believe in supporting those artists who are not afraid of success, and are willing to work smart to achieve it.