/ 22 July 2016

The struggling artist narrative is dated – good business comes down to a fine art

Working for results: Ntyilo Ntyilo by Loyiso Mkize
Working for results: Ntyilo Ntyilo by Loyiso Mkize

“There is no money in the arts” is an adage accepted by artists and laymen alike. Degrees in the humanities and the arts are often not taken seriously and, as career choices, are deemed as falling short. They are viewed as laissez-faire and free-spirited when compared with what are regarded as more upstanding and respectable careers, such as finance, law, medicine and engineering.

But one can be an artist without struggling. Monetising one’s art is not a myth; artists can equip themselves with the know-how to turn their art into their business.

They are expected to work tirelessly into the night because inspiration comes in waves and must be captured when it does — typing away with the computer screen as the only source of light, getting so absorbed in bringing a canvas to life that paint stains the face from hands wet with colour while trying to get rid of an itch, musicians composing until the sun stretches its tendrils as they try to manifest the song in their heads.

People have many stereotypes about those who choose a field in the arts and creative spaces. There’s a shared attitude that views them as hippies, free-spirited, unconventional, often with an offside dress sense. They’re also seen as hustlers — and struggling.

Fine artist Laura Windvogel (28), more commonly known to fans as Lady Skollie, says both artists and those not in the art world fall back on the stereotypical idea of the artist to excuse certain behaviours.

“The concept of the struggling artist is one that has allowed us to revel in things like disorganisation and questionable business endeavours — for art’s sake.

“When I worked in a gallery, assisting with installations and other gallery dirty work, it became painful to see artists try to represent themselves but also failing at it dismally, citing ‘I’m an artist’ as the reason they never answered calls or emails. We need to take ourselves seriously if others are to take us seriously.”

Visual artist Loyiso Mkize (29) shares a similar sentiment: “It’s important to understand putting in hard work to receive the desired outcome. For me, the truth of this is down to a science. You map what you want to do with your creation, where you want to take it. It’s important to deliver well-directed work towards a specific destination that yields results.

“Making money as an artist is no longer a tangent, this other thing that perverts your art. It doesn’t exist in a realm outside of your being an artist. Making money is part and parcel of the process.”

For Windvogel, to make art financially viable, traditional business sense must be combined with artistic idiosyncrasies. “If anyone tells you that making money compromises the integrity of the art, they’re trying to sabotage you. How can money be bad?”

Mkize agrees with this. He believes the idea of the struggling artist has run its course, that it’s a restrictive, romanticised notion of what living as an artist is about.

“As creators, it becomes counter-productive to accept this as your final destination. It was a certain virtue in the past. You can trace it in history — an artist down on his luck with only his paintbrush to live off. During that era that narrative worked for the people, but it didn’t work for the artist.”

The thing that makes artists so easy to exploit is the thing that is inherent in creating — uncertainty.

“Living and working in uncertainty is exploitable. What often makes it very difficult to become a creative entrepreneur is that anything involving innovation or creativity comes from a place of uncertainty. The creative process is so much about that,” says Elaine Rumboll, the founder and convenor of a short course, Business Acumen for Artists (BAA), at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

“You get your idea and think, ‘This is awesome’, ‘This is terrible’, ‘I’m terrible’, ‘I’m abandoning it’ or, ‘I’m working through it’. The real drive is how you get to the next place, which says, ‘This is awesome’. And then, ‘I’m awesome’.

“To create anything worthwhile you have to go through a process that challenges, disrupts, makes you doubt. It’s important to know this. Then you can work through it,” she says.

Rumboll is referring to her own experience as a blues singer and poet. She also has a Master’s in business administration and is the managing director of the Creative Leadership Consultancy. In 2010, she won the Business Women’s Association Regional Business Achievement Awards in the professional category. In her own words, she straddles the worlds of business and creativity quite comfortably, describing her life as “congruent”.

BAA challenges the myth of “the struggling artist”. Rumboll says there is a mindset that distinguishes between great art and commercial endeavours. Making money doesn’t make you a bad artist.

She adds: “In order for anything to grow, you need ideas. The greatest ones come from artists. Artists become the lifeblood of curiosity, which is required to build anything innovative and new. They find theplace to foster the creativity that grows those ideas. Society needs people who think in a way that sustains creative thinking — that grows hope in communities.

“Our ranking on the entrepreneurial scale globally is abysmal. What industries need now are people with degrees in the humanities. This idea has been trending over the past year. Business isn’t just a linear paint-by-numbers experience. There’s a growing realisation that business is creative.”

She segues to an Andy Warlhol quote that emphasises the point: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”

BAA is a 13-week course, which is run with a six-month mentorship programme.

Lianne Burton has clocked up nearly two decades in the magazine industry and is the mentorship programme co-ordinator of the course. She says a mentor has to be a good sounding board and must resist the urge to preach.

“They connect the prospective entrepreneur, plugging them into the industry and identifying who would be a game-changer in assisting them in this process.

“A healthy mentoring relationship is safe, trusting, respectful, empathetic, emotionally intelligent but also challenging. Mentors offer a reality check.”

Windvogel graduated from the BAA in 2014. She says the course gave her “conventional help with things like understanding art tax, marketing campaigns and monetising something that others perceive as a hobby of sorts.

“BAA allowed me to understand the difference between value and perceived value, which plays a major role in how artists price their labour and work.”

Rumboll says: “In my experience, profits follow passion. People have big ideas but waiting for funding means that often those ideas are never realised. For success, you need passion, determination, belief and a network.”

Windvogel reflects on her work, saying:“Even though my pussy and dick prints might evoke a giggle from an audience, for me, it’s about gender tension. I make this very clear from the way I market myself and my work. I want my work to be social commentary.

“Artists have a responsibility to comment on their surroundings and their social settings in the best way they know how — through art.”

Mkize is adamant about the importance of art as a medium that helps people to navigate their understanding of their lived environment.

“It articulates us to ourselves every day. Our current mental images of God, of beauty, are because of art. Our innermost feelings of being human are captured in art and govern the way we see the world. Art is culture. Art is us.”