Crista Cloutier: On Empowering Creatives

Crista Cloutier travels the globe teaching her original workshops, The Working Artist, The Working Creative & The Writer’s Life.  More than a teacher, Crista is a nurturer, emboldener and coach to career-focused individuals engaged in all sorts of artistic and creative pursuits.  Her website is: www.theworkingartist.info.

In this interview we explore how the “marketing” and “audience development” challenges of individual artists compare to those of arts & cultural organizations.

  • How significant is the tension between Mission and Money for a career-focused individual artist? For example, do you advise artists to paint what they most enjoy and let the money find them – or do you advise them to use their art to aim for particular revenue-source targets?

My philosophy is that success finds artists who create what comes from inside better than from artists chasing something that is dictated by fashion.

Being an artist is a difficult path. Artists usually choose this road because they have something to say, it is a mode of expression. Artists are, by nature, mission oriented. It is often fear that causes an artist to aim their work toward the market. Success may come, but it won’t be sustainable or help them to evolve.

I strongly advise that artists create the work that speaks to them – and only after, worry about finding their market. If there is no market then artists have to create one. For example, when I had a gallery I represented the beautiful bird portraits of Kate Breakey. I had great success with Kate’s work and was about to give her a third show. But I wanted to reach out to a new audience rather than the usual suspects, so I approached the Audubon Society. We agreed to co-host a fundraiser. They were able to raise money for their cause through taking a portion of the sales and I was able to create a whole new market for the work. Such out-of-the-box approaches can work with budding artists as well.

  • Do you advise individual artists to approach their work “more like a business?” If so, what are some examples of how they might do that?

I believe that an artist is a self-employed small business owner and that carries specific responsibilities. They must understand their market, they must behave professionally within that market, and they must set and achieve financial goals. They also need to understand the unique financial and legal situations that their business entails. It is imperative that they get professional legal and financial advice before embarking on sales. There are many resources out there for artists, they are not on their own.

But too many artists yearn for a gallery or an agent to take care of all the details for them. Such an easy solution is pure fantasy.  Even if they did find someone willing to take on those duties, it is still their responsibility to understand and oversee their business. I have seen many artists lose everything at the hands of unscrupulous dealers because they gave their power away.

  • What resources (book, magazine, podcast, blog, etc.) do you most highly recommend for a budding “working artist?”

Of course my first recommendation is my workshop The Working Artist!

But really, the best step that an artist can take is to become part of a community. There lies your best resource. Other artists will be your best allies and will share what practices work for them and what might work for you. I urge every artist to get out of the studio and interact with other artists.

Outside of that, I think that each artist has unique issues that they face depending upon their potential market, their personal challenges, and their audience. For someone who has been making art or photographs as a hobby and wishes to begin selling their work, there are books and websites and blogs out there that will help. The problem lies in finding one that speaks to you, to your work, and that presents the information in a way that you can relate to and understand.

As for myself, I am constantly looking for inspiration, ideas and information. Right now, on my bedstand sits a copy of Lewis Lehrman’s “Being An Artist.” [FULL DISCLOSURE:  The referenced book was authored by this blogger's father.]  Though the book has been out of print for years, it is full of inspiration and I have a notepad nearby to capture the lightbulb moments.

Almost every day, I spend some time looking at blogs and websites and my list constantly changes depending what my personal challenges are. At the moment, I’m following:

  • Your website make it very clear that when you say “working artist” you are not just talking about paint and canvas, but of anyone who undertakes a creative endeavor. So, how great is the spectrum of “working artists” out there? What should arts & cultural organizations understand about the size, demographics and trends of people that we suspect are (or at least should be) our most engaged audiences?

That’s a great question because there is a tendency, particularly in visual arts, for organizations to be exclusive rather than inclusive. There are millions of “Sunday painters” and “shutterbugs” out there who do not feel welcome in the hallowed walls of a museum. They are afraid to step foot into a gallery because of the potential snobbish attitudes of the staff. Many institutions feel like foreign lands to even an arts-oriented public, and there is a great deal of anxiety surrounding them. This is one reason I believe that public arts funding is such a contentious issue. By embracing all artists, institutions would be doing a great service to their communities and themselves, and they would also have a greater opportunity to educate.

When I was an arts dealer, I worked with a lot of “blue chip” artists. Now that I teach aspiring and emerging artists and photographers, I meet a whole spectrum of creatives, from those whose work hangs in museums to those who paint kittens. I don’t have any value judgments as to what is Art and what is art. What I care about is that each artist finds their audience and achieves their goals. This attitude has opened my own business up to receive support from people who I never imagined would be interested in hearing what I have to say.

  • One imagines that there is a growing trend of people trying to make their living as a “working artist.” Is that true – and is it just an American phenomenon or do you see evidence of it around the world?

A 2005 Pew Study showed that in America alone, 100,000 students graduate from art programs every year with an additional 8,000 graduate students. I have now taught The Working Artist to students throughout the USA, England, France and South Africa. I see aspiring artists of all ages, and of all backgrounds. The trend shows that the old order is quickly disappearing, jobs don’t last for life anymore. We have become disillusioned by corporate culture. Our values have changed. People are moving toward self-sufficiency, and they want to do what they love. For many, many people, that is art.

  • If you had $1 million and just 1 year to use it to either empower emerging “working artists” or remove some significant impediment from their efforts, what would you invest in, create or champion?

For years, I have harbored a secret desire to create a television show that brings audience and artist together. It would be weekly show in a half -hour format that rounds up what’s showing in a given region. In addition, it could highlight a few local artists or programs with in-depth stories that bring the ideas behind the work to the forefront, making the arts more accessible to viewers. Too often people choose not to attend a show or event because they are afraid of not understanding it, of not knowing how to read the art or listen to the performance. I’d like such a show to be an “answer” to Sister Wendy, but with bad habits.

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