How to start and sustain an artist spaceTips for initiating a project space that won't end in burnout or bankruptcy, by editor, writer, and curator Paddy Johnson.
I follow an exercise program every day. The app on my phone tells me exactly what to do and how long to do it, and I like that because the goals are set for me, and I know that if I follow the instructions I will gain fitness.
Nothing like this exists for the fine art world. It works so well, though, that I started to wonder whether even a basic instruction set could be created. What if a program like this existed for making ambitious art spaces sustainable? Every venue is different, but if a good idea is paired with a stable revenue source, success is inevitable. The trick is to set ambitious, but realistic goals, and then get to work.
What follows is a two-stage process for creating a sustainable artist project that won’t end in burnout or bankruptcy. The first stage represents the workout. These are the nuts-and-bolts tasks that must be done to make a sustainable artist space. The second represents the coaching. This is all the support material you need to customize and develop for your specific space. Remember, as with any exercise routine, things should evolve as you go. The goals and objectives of any project can and should be responsive.
— Writer, editor, and curator Paddy Johnson
A TEN-STEP GUIDE TO CREATING A SUSTAINABLE ARTIST SPACE
Note: Steps 7-10 should be worked on simultaneously.
Identify the purpose of your space and who it will serve. Exhibition spaces that don’t identify their mission won’t achieve it, and those that don’t identify an audience won’t reach it.
Determine the length of time of the project. For how long would you like it to be sustainable? This may be answered by how much time and money you can realistically spend on the space. Spending more than you have of either can result in bitter feelings and a lot of debt.
Business Structure: What kind of business are you and what is needed to set it up legally?
Determine what revenue streams the space will have and how you will pay yourself.
Find a physical space that matches your ideas and means.
Set a launch date for your space. Once that date is set, all work will be towards it.
Logistics management: Do you need to ship work? Do you need permits? What do you need from participating artists, and what can they offer?
Resource management: Who will help you launch your project? What work do you need them to do, and what work will you do yourself?
Communications management: What do visitors need to know about your space, and when do they need to know it? What social media platforms will you use? What kind of website will you have, and how will you set it up?
Fiscal management: What will be your source(s) of income and how will you collect and track the revenue and expenses incurred? Invest in Quickbooks. Prioritize setting up revenue-collection methods, such as Stripe or PayPal via your phone and website. (This step always takes longer than expected.)
TIPS FOR MAKING ARTIST SPACES SUSTAINABLE
GOAL: IDENTIFY GOOD IDEAS. MAKE THEM BETTER.
HOW TO ACHIEVE IT: RESEARCH THE IDEAS YOU CARE ABOUT AND TALK ABOUT THEM WITH YOUR CREATIVE PEERS.
Creative ideas don’t always begin with a budget and a business plan, but it’s important to test their feasibility and merit. Everyone is different, but I find the easiest way to do this is by talking about it with friends and colleagues. The feedback may not always be positive, but it’s all valuable. If a friend or expert expresses realistic concerns about the feasibility of a project, it’s your job to address those questions. Sometimes that might mean killing an idea or rethinking it entirely. On the other hand, if they love it and want to participate in some way, you need to reliably communicate with them to enlist their help. (You never want a project to die because you neglected to respond to an email.)
Excitement is contagious, but only when ideas are clearly articulated and communicated. Personally, I spend a lot of time fleshing out my concepts with colleagues, so that when I finally contact potential collaborators I know less well, they understand what I’m asking them to participate in and why. I don’t want to waste other people’s time, and I don’t want them to waste mine.
HOW TO ACHIEVE IT: DREAM BIG, BUT WORK WITHIN YOUR MEANS.
Good ideas scale. I’ve seen exhibition spaces launched in apartments, garages, storage lockers, catboxes, maquettes, and even peepholes. Start small, then build up. Never compromise your dream, manage it. In my experience, launching what may at first seem to be an impossibly ambitious event or project can generally turn out to be surprisingly possible when the groundwork has been laid. Why? Because we all want to participate in exhibitions with smart concepts and great artists. That’s why doing the work to really hone a good idea before you start executing will pay off in the long run.
HOW TO ACHIEVE IT: PAY YOURSELF
All projects that don’t incorporate a means of paying the organizers will eventually shutter. The labor we donate is not infinite and it comes at a cost. Every hour spent on running an exhibition space that doesn’t pay is time we can’t spend making money, hanging out with loved ones, or simply relaxing. What’s more, projects in which organizers aren’t paid (or are paid very little) have no means of passing on leadership to others. This makes them inherently unstable because they are reliant on the sustained interest and financial health of one person.
Revenue models for artist-run spaces vary depending on the business structure, though there is cross-over. Non-profits often rely on a combination of city and foundation grants, dues-paying board members, and membership programs. For-profit entities often collect revenue through membership programs, subscriptions (such as Drip or Patreon), and the sale of artwork. My favorite out-of-the-box business model comes from Williamson Knight in Portland, Oregon, which offers a shareholder program.
GOAL: CREATE A RECOGNIZABLE IDENTITY
HOW TO ACHIEVE IT: PAY A GRAPHIC DESIGNER
The first image a potential visitor sees of any new space won’t be an artwork or interior, but instead its marketing assets. By this, I mean its logo, website, designed mailers, and social media. Marketing is what makes people feel comfortable investing their attention and money because it signals the level of professionalism brought to a project. Don’t scrimp on this. Good design is the difference between getting a grant or not, and making the sale or losing it.
GOAL: COLLABORATION WITH MINIMAL EMOTIONAL LABOR
HOW TO ACHIEVE IT: NEVER COMPROMISE A DREAM
Artist-run projects don’t happen on their own. They are a result of collective management of tasks. The smarter the delegation of duties, the more chance the project has of success. In some cases, this means setting up committees that oversee specific areas of a project. In others, it simply means making sure you have enough help to clean up after an opening.
One constant struggle I’ve noticed amongst organizers, though, isn’t related to logistics or fiscal solvency. It’s the emotional work of managing self-doubt. My own struggles with self-confidence have made me think twice about asking higher-profile artists to participate in my projects, and have even prevented me from starting projects I know I’m fully capable of executing. I have no cure for this state of mind, but instead can offer two effective strategies for dealing with this problem:
A strong belief in your idea, combined with a fear of launching a compromised project, can outweigh the fear of rejection. When I remember this, I write the emails I need to and if people say no, I find someone else who works equally well or better.
Believe in and fully trust the talent of the people you work with every day. That talent is what makes these projects so fulfilling, and from personal experience, I know that trust will be felt when it is needed.
GOAL: GETTING STARTED
HOW TO ACHIEVE IT: JUST DO IT
I’m not afraid of my own naivety and I don’t think others should be either. Learning on the job is how all projects get made. I talk to people about my ideas and do the basic research required to determine whether I can run my projects at a professional level, but I don’t do a lot more than that before jumping in. It’s worth noting that while I’ve launched most of my projects within six months of their conception, I’ve also spent more than a year post-launch developing the business structure that would allow these projects to be successful and sustainable. Normally, that work happens before launch, but sometimes you don’t know what you know until you know it. That’s okay.