Artists Learn to Work with Green

Published: Apr 24, 2007

Photos and story by Robin Roger
Web writer

In today’s creative economy, artists may have the power, but they cannot wield it unless they put down their paintbrushes and pick up their calculators.

“I’m on a mission to change the way the world thinks about art and design,” said Larry Thompson, president of the Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota. “I want to destroy the image of the starving artist.”

Thompson appeared as part of the Self-Employment in the Arts Conference, held at The University of Tampa on April 21, along with author Connie May Fowler, Creative Loafing editor David Warner, and Sharon Rose, owner of Mermaid’s Slipper. Topics included “Marketing the Art and the Artist,” “Legal Issues for the Artist” and “The Bottom Line: From Survival to Success.” Attendees could follow one of three tracks: the literary arts, performing arts or visual arts.

Artists, writers and entrepreneurs came to the conference to learn what it takes to hit it big — or at least make a living — with their work.

A self-proclaimed “creativangelist,” Thompson lectured on how to make a passion into a profession. While “right brain” creativity is becoming more valuable in today’s economy, he said artists need to enhance their “left brain” abilities, such as strategic thinking and math.

For an artist, it’s all about the process, he said, and not really about the end product. In business, the product is important.

“You can’t create art on a timetable, but people don’t understand that because they’re all about the product,” he said. “Artists can go on and on and never be done. You need to make it done.”

As an artist, you can’t afford to be afraid of numbers, he said. An artist needs to learn to use a balance sheet and how to establish and follow a budget. Profit is not a four-letter word.

“Embrace profit, but not at the expense of integrity,” he said.

A UT alumna, Fowler '82 spoke about her experiences selling her first novel, Sugar Cage, which she described as anything but typical. Her professor gave her a list of three agents and said she should go down the list, sending her manuscript to each one, until it was accepted. Instead, she picked an agent whose name she liked — Joy — who loved the book and found a publisher — Faith.

Still, Fowler said she suffered some hard knocks before her novel Before Women Had Wings became a Golden Globe-nominated TV movie starring Oprah Winfrey, Ellen Barkin and Julia Stiles, in 1997.

When she was growing up, she said, she had two forms of sustenance: welfare and literature.

“Poverty made me acutely prepared for being an artist,” she said. “It took a lot of creativity just to get by.”

She struggled with the finances, though, since she never had money growing up. She said she did not know how to balance a checkbook, and her GRE math score was so low, she joked that her physician said she could qualify for a handicapped sticker.

“Numbers do a cha-cha in my brain,” she said.

It wasn’t until she published her first book, and after the IRS demanded $33,000 in taxes — $33,000 Fowler no longer had — that she realized the importance of being financially literate.

“The most common-sense thing we can do as artists is to become savvy business people,” she said.

Fowler urged her audience to “educate, legislate and Google-ate.” She told them to be ambassadors of the arts and take advantage of emerging media streams and new technology. Spread the agenda, she said, that art and reading change and save lives. She gave them an assignment: Think of five things to put on YouTube to sell themselves.

“This is the creative economy we’re moving into,” said Joe McCann, dean of the Sykes College of Business. “It’s in the interest of the business school to link itself with the creative community.”

Jo Ellen Silberstein of Sarasota said she found inspiration at the conference. The lawyer, who paints scenes of major Supreme Court decisions, came up with an idea for a new installation.

“I’ve never thought big like this before,” she said.

The event included a “meet the artists” reception at the Scarfone/Hartley Gallery, and attendees received complementary tickets to UT’s production of The Fantasticks. The conference was sponsored by The Coleman Foundation, The John T. and Jeanne T. Hughes Foundation, The Arts Council of Hillsborough County and the University.

The event was organized by the Florida Entrepreneur and Family Business Program and a committee that included faculty members and members of the arts community.

Seven skills for right-brained artists to cultivate:

  1. Communication skills
  2. Strategic thinking
  3. Numeracy
  4. Working with people
  5. Self-discipline
  6. Marketing and branding
  7. Integrity