Today marks the beginning of a new blog segment on Creative Liberty, The Artist @ Work. In these segments, we’ll explore that ever tenuous intersection between making a living and making art. Most artists I know struggle at some point in their careers with this issue, and The Artist @ Work will profile successful artists who’ve found ways to address the work-money-art connection, as well as look at the forces that impact how we creative folk earn our livelihoods.
We open this series with an interview with Sharon Sinclair, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of the artist web portal AmericaCreates.com. Sharon developed the site in response to the upheavals in the art world that have come as a result of the rise of the Internet and the withering of the gallery/show model of the art world.
America Creates takes a fresh approach to connecting artisans with their market, and may well be a harbinger for web-facilitated marketing in the creative world.
Creative Liberty: How did you develop the idea for America Creates?
Sinclair: About four years ago, I was selling some stuff for a friend on eBay. I was a bit frustrated with the process and the thought of throwing these things randomly into the abyss of eBay and the web. I stopped, took a shower and as I stepped out of the shower it came to me (got to trust Spirit!) that there should be a comprehensive website for professional artisans across the country. It should be a trusted and recognizable online destination – an Amazon.com for the best of American arts and crafts.
This initial idea has been coupled with our fervent belief that more importance must be given to the creative process in education and cultural values. It is creative training and the support and respect for the process that gives rise to the best in critical thought in all pursuits.
What is your business model?
We did a lot of market research – but believe me, there is little reliable information out there. Our brother and sister artists don’t divulge much, especially about personal finance.
The best reference we found was the 2001 study done by CODA (Craft Organization Development Association). That, coupled with the emerging trends in online shopping, told us there was a tremendous potential in putting together an juried site for all the tremendous talent out there in every neighborhood.
Mind you, this was late 2004, early 2005, when social networking was barely a concept. But framing something that would serve as a community, a marketplace and a centralized resource was the plan. Revenue from commissions, no fees, all non-profits list for free – lots of information on classes, art centers, schools and events. Eventually we came to believe that advertising – that is, advertising that is relevant to our subjects – will be our primary revenue.
How does the site aid the artists who participate?
We are a marketplace and a marketing agency for all our artists and organizations. The gallery and show models are crumbling – the Internet is inevitable. Let’s build a site that is by and for artists. Most artists we know have websites but not the means to promote the site or do the necessary technology to keep it relevant and high in the search engines.
Who makes up the customer base for the artists on America Creates? How does site meet their needs?
Let’s admit it: the patron is a wonderful vision, but most people are looking for gifts and something to grace their homes. (Surveys indicate) 220 million people in the United States use the Internet everyday and almost 75 percent of them have purchased something from the Internet. America Creates offers a selection not found anywhere else, and we’re open 24/7.
How did your background (and those of your management team) influence how you built this site? What did you learn from your previous income-producing endeavors as an artist?
We (my husband, Larry and I) come from a background in stage design and production. I also had a commercial interior design business that spun out a line of custom lighting fixtures and hardware. So our business life has always been based on the creative process. This is a consuming life, project to project. We believed that individual artists would rarely be able to focus on their work and be able to keep pace with the rapidly evolving online market.
You could have developed an e-commerce site with out the social networking and community-building, or a community building site with little or no e-commerce. Why did you decide to blend the two?
There are many Internet portals for various interest groups, but none have emerged for working artists and craftsmen as a whole. To be sure, there exist guilds and associations that do a relatively good job of serving their colleagues with forums, etc. However there has never been an “aggregate” site for professional artists and the public that supports them. We believe that it is imperative that we band together, especially in this economy.
There are many online sites for selling art, but few have any guidelines for the quality of the art, most are open to anyone who will pay the posting fee. That’s why America Creates is juried in all mediums and charges no fees. We make a commission on sales and that is our primary revenue. The gallery and show business model is severely hampered in this economy. The artist can’t rely on the very limited foot traffic in both those markets and should be able to access the world market available through the Internet.
In your experience, what is the biggest challenge for artists related to integrating making art with making a living? How does AmericaCreates.com address these challenges?
As I mentioned above, the past two years have radically altered the traditional markets. Artists must adapt to the means at hand to promote their work. This has always been the dilemma for the creative: how to put as much imagination and spark into marketing as in their work? We have seen that the real “superstars” of the art world have been those who were just as creative in self-promotion as they are in their work. The Internet offers a huge gallery in effect.
America Creates believes that we can build an Internet market that gives the artist simple enough tools to present their work with multiple images, videos and other representational tools. We believe that videos of the “Artist at Work” are very important as they give the viewer/buyer an intriguing opportunity to watch the process and become involved with an appreciation of the skills involved.
How has the site grown since its inception? What are your goals for the site over the next few years?
The site took along time to develop. We are not programmers. It took us a couple of years to get a team together. While we’ve been working for over four years, the site was completed and launched just seven months ago.
Our goals are simple – provide the tools for the artists to sell their work, attract the best artisans to America Creates and equally important give the general public compelling reasons to visit and explore the site again and again. Eventually, we’d like to put shows together with an emphasis on inclusion of the public, more workshops, more interaction between the artists and “patrons.”
I understand plans are in the works for a radio show? Tell me a little bit about that and how it will enhance your site/business.
We believe that story is the most engaging form of attraction. Among the artisans of America there are thousands of inspiring stories. We’ve always wanted to do an “On the Road,” Charles Kuralt-type of road trip/interview show. We will be interviewing artists and creative people in all walks of life. We believe that the radio show, distributed through Internet radio and podcasts, will draw in our core audience and spread the word.
What advice would you have for artists (of any discipline) for building a livelihood around of their art?
Don’t give up! And take advantage of the wonderful communication tools that the Internet provides.
Do you have any advice for serious hobbyists or part-time artists on balancing the “day job” and their art work?
It takes time for the transition. Our studies showed that the median age for the artist to become self-sustaining is 49. Get your work in front of people as soon as possible. Read their reactions and don’t get discouraged. You will find your strengths – trust your instincts. Experiment – and put your whole self into your efforts.
Is there anything else on this topic we haven’t covered that you think is relevant?
Embrace the Internet. Learn to take great pictures of your work. Come join AmericaCreates.com.