How to be a Commercial Artist

Marra (left) and Dawn of Dawn and Marra.

Get real!

This post could actually be considered a continuation of that from last week in which I emphatically declared my disgust of the starving artist stereotype. I’m a Hamiltonian so as usual, I’m making reference to Hamilton artists and the “Hamilton arts community” BUT; again as usual, I believe that artists in virtually any city, region or nation can relate to the points of this blog entry.

This week I attended the 2012 Annual General Meeting of the Hamilton Arts Council, of which I am currently a third year member. This time, I brought my wife along, and we thoroughly enjoyed the two-part indie-folk harmonies of Dawn and Marra, the Spoken Word and choreographed performance of the Defining Movement Dance group and the voice of Terra Lightfoot.

As with the previous year, I was deeply engrossed in the panel discussion and boy-o-boy did this part of the AGM ever make an impression on my wife. This is the part of the meeting where you get a real sense if the art community or even the HAC is on the right track in promoting the arts, and what tactics and strategies should be considered to improve things over the next year or so.

The topic of the evening was “What will the arts bring to economic development?” The underlying conjecture of the topic was what assistance or benefits, namely funding, can local artists expect from Hamilton City Council and its arts events and culture subcommittees? Whoa boy! The panelists were Jennifer Kaye—City of Hamilton Manger of Tourism and Culture, Loren Lieberman—General Manager of the 36-year old Festival of Friends and Lorna Zaremba—General Manager of the hugely successful Theatre Aquarius.

Defining Movement Dance

Right off the hop, Lorna indicated that to attract visitors or new citizens to Hamilton they need to know that there is “great culture” in the city, along with affordable housing, adequate employment, public services, social services, infrastructure and etcetera. Of course, who wants to stay or try to do anything in a city or village that they consider to be boring? So yes, social science dictates that even in a sport driven town like Hamilton the arts are essential to nurturing the most favoured aspects of community culture, and creating more admirable and diverse culture. You can’t argue that.

Loren Lieberman; however, kept the heads of everyone present out of the clouds by reminding all that artists will always be powerless in preventing the powerbrokers of City Council from guillotining the arts and culture proponents from the social sciences. Without culture, a social science is just a science, which means that the economic viability of the arts has to be measurable in order to garner the attention of the local elected officials who are largely former football players, not artists. Mayors and City Council don’t vet or pursue anything that can’t be quantified favourably in a scientific study and/or a financial report. They’ll repeatedly try and fail to get an expensive NHL franchise and international sporting event into the city before endorsing the arts. In most considerations, anywhere not just in Hamilton, the success of the arts is barely quantifiable.

Lorna responded; perhaps I should say rebutted, by alluding to the fact that the creative industries have begun to grow in Hamilton. She made reference to mid-size computer game and graphics design firms that have been established within the city in the past couple years. I think she’s right again but it’s my understanding that those achievements for the city and surrounding areas happened mainly out of those firms concluding on their own that Hamilton is a place for them to be. Not so much that local politicians had much to do with scouting out these companies and convincing them to set up shop here.

It’s unrealistic to simply say, that the creative industries have started to grow, even though it’s so far only been a couple examples, or that we have to make the creative industries grow. These go without saying. We need to devise a working plan to make them grow and grow bigger, better and faster. We must actively set about getting those firms into the community; “deeds not words”.

DMD’s Josh Court.

For many years now, City Council has had moderate success at drawing in business; any corporation (and yes, they focus mainly on big corporations like Walmart and Target as more like Case, Westinghouse, Siemens, Camco, Proctor and Gamble and others have been lost) that can hire many citizens of wide educational levels and backgrounds, and contribute to the efforts of sustainability. Here’s what experts say is the leading reason why. While the property taxes and other costs for home owners and renters are considered outstanding by comparison to major neighbouring cities like Oakville, Mississauga and colossal Toronto, property taxes in Hamilton for business remain cost prohibitive for many companies.

It’s even been recognized that in Europe, arts and culture have long been held with very high regard but the recent economic downturn has been forcing European nations to seriously consider moving toward greater commercial commodity-based economic standards that are more like those of Canada and the US.

Most Hamilton artists supplement their incomes through jobs that aren’t related to their arts fields. According to Jennifer Kaye, the vast majority of we Hamilton artists reportedly make less than one-third of our overall incomes from our art. For readers who know the cost of living of our particular region, Hamilton artists make anywhere less than $30,000 per annum from our art. That’s $6,000 below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut Off (LICO) which, if it wasn’t for our pragmatically supplementing our incomes, would certainly put every artist below the poverty line (hence my last post on the starving artist stereotype). I’m not pussyfooting around on this issue. These are the brass tacks.

DMD’s Josh Taylor on the Mic.

So, what must artists be willing to do in Hamilton or anywhere in order to get respect for themselves and build quality of life in their communities that will inspire people to go to those communities, spend their money there and perhaps stay? We must think and act commercially, and coordinatively more than we’ve been doing up until now.

Yes, you have to believe that art can make a positive economic difference for both yourself as an individual artist and an overall community. Not just say that you believe but get over your paralyzing fear of failure and really believe. Produce the best work you think you can for market. Then you must also formulate an aggressive and pragmatic; even if ambitious, plan based on smart, established and new marketing and business development schemes which, for artists, will often have to rely on collaborations and partnerships between individual artists, art councils and creative enterprises. Once you have devised this realistic plan, you have to execute it. Don’t rely on too many goals. Have some goals, and have more targets. Work REAL HARD toward reaching those targets. Get involved in virtually any art marketing event that you can and start one of your own that others can sink their teeth into. Make it happen.

This is the commercial arts. This practical approach gives artists teeth and balls, and is the only real saving grace of the proliferation of the arts in this world of economies and attitudes that are destined to view the arts as frivolous. Understanding this is why my wife and I initiated Flying Low and our determination to make it grow on top of efforts to participate in other creative events in our city, and seek out artists to collaborate with.

You simply cannot just wait, hope and pray that your elected officials will suddenly see it your way without metrics, and begin to better fund and promote arts and culture. You’re more likely to see them make cutbacks. When that happens, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.


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