Ceramics artist Lindsay Oesterritter wants to take her work to the “next level” – profitability.
A couple years ago, she formed an online company, Objective Clay, with 13 other ceramic artists “grappling with how to create a niche for ourselves,” she said.
“None of us have any business sense at all. ... I feel like I’m skilled in my field ... but I have no idea how to take that idea to the next level,” Oesterritter said. “For a lot of ceramic artists, what they wish their graduate experience included a business class.”
The Kentucky Arts Council has its eye on entrepreneurship as a way to grow the creative industry in the state, but lacks resources to train artists in business because of programming cuts.
State funding to the council has fallen 40 percent since 2001, according to arts council data.
To overcome its lack of funding, Executive Director Lori Meadows said the council is looking for resources throughout the state, hoping to partner with other entities to “tailor” small-business training to artists.
‘An extra $5,000’
Artists are an “underserved audience” in business development, said Vallorie Henderson, an artist and a management consultant at the Small Business Development Center in Louisville. She consults with artists in the state to help them find a larger market for their work.
She said it’s difficult for artists to get a commercial loan because they’re not “what we would call ‘impact clients.’ ”
“The best way I can work with them is to help them market. I’m not typically going to have an impact in helping them hire new employees or start a big business,” Henderson said.
As a group, creative industry workers have a large presence in Kentucky, boasting more jobs than the auto/aircraft manufacturing industry and making up about 2.5 percent of total employment, according to an arts council report published in December.
Though not all artists want to go full-time, many rely on their creative work as a secondary income. But art doesn’t make much money for the self-employed.
In a small survey of self-employed artists and designers, about a third rely on their art for their primary income, according to the creative industry report. About half of those surveyed made $5,000 or less in a year from creative work. About 13 percent made more than $30,000.
“The ability to earn even an extra $5,000 a year through independent work was critical to helping some households meet minimal household financial needs,” the report states.
The image of an entrepreneur in the U.S. is shifting to include more artists, said Whitney Peake, a professor of entrepreneurship at Western Kentucky University.
Various groups aim to help artists develop the business skills they lack.
“Universities have really been on the cutting edge of this trend, encouraging artists and craftsmen (or craftswomen) to supplement their artistic skills with entrepreneurship courses,” Peake said in an email. “We are working hard ... at WKU to encourage students from across disciplines to take entrepreneurship courses. ... Artists are one of our targets, as we believe our courses are very helpful to them in monetizing their ideas.”
The artists with whom Oesterritter started Objective Clay hold other jobs, but they don’t create wares as a simple hobby. They hope to create a community at objectiveclay.com, where they keep a blog, offering insight into each artist’s creative process and interests. It hosts an online shop, as well.
The group wants to take it further – they want to make enough money to start advertising and increase their visibility.
After several semesters of trying to make her schedule fit, Oesterritter enrolled in one of Peake’s entrepreneurship courses at WKU, where she is an assistant professor of ceramics.
The course has her looking to solve the company’s market problem.
“How do I get this area – fine craft, fine ceramics – to people?” she said. “When people think of ceramics, they think of things they find at ... a department store. This realm I work in and am passionate about is lesser known.”
Last year, Henderson and Slaughter put together a one-day bootcamp in Bowling Green to train artists in business. A similar program called Access to Market at Eastern Kentucky University was funded by federal grants in 2011 and 2012.
Henderson said hosting more bootcamps would help artists, but “the hurdle is coming up with sponsorships.”
Instead, SBDC offers free consultations to business owners, including artists. Henderson said she gets calls from WKU’s SBDC director Miller Slaughter when he needs help consulting with a creative client.
She focuses on accountability in her work one-on-one, helping artists change their mindset – “to think of themselves as makers .. making a product.” For that they need accountability, she said.
“They’re following their creative drive and most of them are doing that more as a hobby than as a business,” Henderson said. “For me to say to them, ‘If you don’t treat it like a business, it’s never going to be one,’ it’s kind of an ‘ah-ha’ moment for them.”
‘Slashed and slashed’
Mark Whitley, a woodworker with a shop in Smiths Grove, learned to run a small business through the art council’s Kentucky Crafted program.
“I went into woodworking because I think it’s what I was put here to do. The fact that it makes me a small-business owner is a little beside the point to me,” he said. “I knew I was not a good employee and I’d grown up around entrepreneurs, and that’s really the only path I saw to start a career on my own. I floundered around for a few years to figure out how to do it.”
In recent years, the council has eliminated a handful of grants and reduced funding for several others, Meadows said.
“We’re lucky to give anything to individuals,” she said.
Annual funding from the state for the arts council has declined by $1.7 million since 2001.
“As funding has been slashed and slashed, they’re able to offer fewer and fewer programs,” Whitley said.
What remains includes Kentucky Crafted and several artist directory programs, which help artists in various mediums market their work.
Some artists rely heavily on Kentucky Crafted: The Market for their annual income, Whitley said.
“I would say 40 percent of my annual sales originate at that market,” he said. The market includes crafted gifts – as many people picture, he said – and it includes artists who make custom pieces, like his furniture.
The annual Kentucky Crafted retail market is March 7 and 8 at the Lexington Convention Center. A wholesale market for buyers is March 6.
The council also has maintained its arts fellowship program, which awarded $7,500 to 26 artists across 10 counties in the last three years.
That program – the Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship – made up less than 4 percent of total dollars awarded in three fiscal years, beginning in 2013, according to a Daily News analysis of grants.
More than 90 percent of grant funding in each of those years went to nonprofit arts organizations through the Kentucky Arts Partnership program, which provides operating funds to groups that, in turn, make the arts available to the community.
Arts partnership funding is awarded to organizations across the state, from Jefferson County – with more than 4 million residents – to Wolfe, with about 7,200. Organizations receiving funding are reviewed by an outside panel of art professionals. They must demonstrate that their primary purpose is to provide arts programming to the public year-round.
“We want to be able to serve as broad a range in the state as possible,” Meadows said.