In many ways artists are the quintessential entrepreneur: self-employed, operating as a small business, with significant elements of risk, control and reward.
In Illinois, there are more than 88,000 individuals who identify themselves as working artists. They represent an incredible diversity of education, age, background, artistic media, and career success. What ties them together is that all of them are reliant on making a living through their creative practice, whether it’s as an abstract painter, a session musician, or a writer.
Chicago has some of the best art schools in the country; however art students consistently report that their schools do not provide the business and entrepreneurial skills training that they need to support their careers. According to a 2012 survey of arts graduates by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, only 22% of respondents indicated that their schools helped them “some” or “very much” to acquire or develop financial and business management skills, and only 26% say the same about entrepreneurial skills.”[i]
That’s where the Chicago Artists Coalition comes in. For more than 39 years, this Chicago-based nonprofit has been dedicated to empowering artists with real-world skills—beyond their artistic training—that they need to operate successfully in an increasingly business-savvy art market. This kind of community-based, extra-curricular entrepreneurship training outside of academic institutions is essential, especially for working artists.
“Artists are entrepreneurs in the truest sense,” says Carolina Jayaram, the Coalition’s Executive Director, “but the ones that are most successful are those that really think like small business owners. With our programs, we give them the opportunity to learn from and tap into those skills and that mindset, which may be unfamiliar at first, but have the greatest potential to help them develop a creative means of sustainability.”
With support from The Coleman Foundation, the Coalition has focused on expanding its entrepreneurial training through two signature programs: the A.B.C-Art.Business.Createseries and the Chicago Artists Resource (CAR)[ii] website. The goal is to provide artists with on-site workshops and online resources in business planning, financial management, networking, contracts/legal matters, and marketing/branding.
As the Coalition seeks to build these programs, it faces some unique challenges:
- No two artists are alike: the Coalition serves a wide range of artists who are at different points in their careers, work in different artistic disciplines, and who have differing degrees of familiarity with entrepreneurial skills and trainings.
- Countering the stigma of “selling out”: many artists still have an outdated notion that incorporating a business ethic into their career may adversely affect their status in the fine arts world.
- Credibility within the business sector:the strength of the Coalition’s programming relies on convening business experts, but it is often difficult to gain access to this community because artists are not often thought of as traditional entrepreneurs.
- What does success look like for an artist?: it can mean selling a piece, earning a commission, receiving a grant award, getting great press, etc. But these results often take time, and are difficult to quantify as entrepreneurial success stories.
Even with these challenges, the Coalition has achieved a great deal in the last year:
- 490 artists trained through A.B.C. workshops at the CAC’s facility;
- Implementation of a new annual “Launch Invitational Residency” for 24 BFA grads;
- Newly developing partnerships with business departments at DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago, Millkin University and more;
- Double the number of articles and other online resources on the CAR website (e.g. “Calculating Net Profit” for artists[i]);
- More than 40,000 unique visitors to the CAR website every month
“Arts entrepreneurship has been an important element in our overall entrepreneurship education program for some time”, says Coleman Foundation President Michael Hennessy. “We see tremendous value in the Coalition’s programs and potential in helping them forge meaningful collaborations with schools and other entrepreneurial leaders that will elevate curricular and experiential offerings”.
For more information about the Coalition’s programs and services, please visit www.chicagoartistscoalition.org.