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Kansas City Artists Get A Crash Course In How To Be More Like Business People

Betse Ellis  has played the fiddle in Kansas City for a long time, with her old band the Wilders, as a solo act, now in her duo Betse & Clarke. She’s been on national TV. She’s toured the country.

“I’ve been a professional performing artist for 15-plus years, muddling through the best way I knew how from one year to the next,” Ellis says. “There are many things I get about the business of being an artist but there are so many things I really don’t know. I need help.”

Another successful Kansas City artist is Phil Shafer, otherwise known as Syke. He’s painted murals all around town – including a fifty-foot zebra on a building at 12th and Grand in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. He recently got a commission from the Kansas City Royals. He, too, knows he could up his game.

“I’m thinking about what I can add to my repertoire of business savvy. I know there are some things I’m not doing that I should be that I don’t do – like, eh, I’ll get to it, take care of that thing I need to take care of.”

Brian Huther is part of the company that draws crowds to the Kick Comedy Club in Westport. He does theater, writing, video, audio — “multidisciplinary to the point of distraction,” is how he describes his work. He knows he needs to focus.

“I have to find some way to start making decisions about what to do and what not to do. I have to start thinking about my brand — I have all these questions because no one of these things, or even all of them together, can support me,” Huther says. “There is no career path for someone who does the things that I do.”

These three artists are not alone. In fact, they’re among 25 who spent two months this spring going through a program known as Artist INC. It’s basically night school for artists who are sick of starving, a crash course in how to make a better living from the work they’re already doing.

Art business 101

It started back at the beginning of March, all of them crammed into a room downtown at the Mid-America Arts Alliance. Each Monday night they spent three hours in class. They listened to lectures – about doing their taxes, taking care of legal concerns, writing a resume. How to get grants. How to craft a social media strategy. They broke into small groups, and other artists in town, ones who’ve already been through the program, worked as facilitators to help them really dig into the issues. They had take-home assignments.

It was a lot of work, but they were ready for it. Just applying to the program and getting accepted clears the first hurdle.

“The application process is very competitive,” says Lisa Cordes, who directs the program. “That’s part of why it works so well: People have to be really serious, and commit to all the work required and the change it may mean when they come out on the other side.”

That work continued down the street, outside on the patio at the Cashew, where they unwound with drinks after class.

One night, the conversation at different tables covered a range of topics: “The first day of class, (I told everyone) my fear was I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to start a family because of how much debt I’m in,” Cydney Ross, a sculptor, told multimedia artist Anson the Ornery

Painter Michael Schliefke was talking about what he heard in class —“There’s just so many ways you can make an error in taxes. It freaks me out, every single time. It’s crazy” — and telling stories about the non-art ways he’s paid the bills. “When I was at the Art Institute, my summer job was working at the Royals, I sold hot dogs and Cokes. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. You’re walking up and down stairs, you’re at the ballgame. They sucked, no one cared.”

They told each other about what they’re working on now, describing their artistic process. “It’s a lot of sketching in black and white, and remembering what colors I want to work with,” textile artist Debbie Barrett-Jones explained. 

They talk about all of the shows they have booked. After all, as singerCalvin Arsenia put it, “Gotta eat, man!” 

But these artist want more than to just eat. They want sustainable careers.

A support system kicks in

Just taking this class is interfering with their work.

“I am stressed out!” Brian Huther admitted halfway through the class. “I keep myself very, very busy because I don’t know how to prioritize."

Phil Shafer was worrying about the time he spent in class instead of working, until he finished his commission for the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Shortly after that, one of the classes was about artists’ statements and resumes, and Shafer’s small-group peers gave him some helpful feedback.

“Also, everyone said, ‘Good job on your projects, because we’ve been through all the steps with you now.’ I thought back and I was like, yeah, the first day of the class I talked about how I was emailing back and forth with the Royals and waiting to see what happened. They said, ‘Wow, you’ve come a long way in just that month.’ I was like, man, yeah, glad you guys were there for me! Thanks for putting up with me being grumpy.”

That type of support from a small group of peers is one of the reasons Artist INC works – for some of them, this support system continues for years after the program is over. Also, thanks to the lectures, Shafer had new motivation to take care of things he’d been putting off.

“I have a new way of doing paperwork for every job. I have a little envelope, and it says the location, and the mileage from my studio to that location, how many trips back and forth, who worked on that job, how much I spent on materials, what we ate that day, who brought me free food and deserves a thank-you card,” he says. “Little things like that I hadn’t thought of. I figured that out after the tax lecture. After law lecture, I was like, I need an intern non-disclosure agreement.”

Betse Ellis had to miss one class because she was touring in the Pacific Northwest. But by the end of the program, she could tell how much she’d learned.

“Some of the things I feared, as far as facing the realities of being a working artist – which I have been for so long, but knowing there were things I could do better — those things all came to the plate. And having an accountability for it is new. I know I have those tools.”

Huther was having more existential epiphanies.

“I’m surprised at how much I have to learn and how many people are out there doing a really amazing job — my excuses don’t matter. No one’s going to do it for me. I’m realizing that it’s possible, but it’s up to me. You have to get down to work and do it and stop complaining. So that’s been surprising. And not altogether pleasant. But it’s pleasant to know the power is in your hands.”

Return on investment

A partnership between ArtsKC, the Charlotte Street Foundation and the UMKC Innovation Center, Artist INC started in 2009. Since then, 325 Kansas City artists have been through this training. Artist INC keeps track of them for years, and measures how they’re doing.

“We go back and ask them the same questions we asked them before day one,” says program director Cordes. “‘Do you have an artist statement? Do you have a website? How do you feel about the business side of your career? Have you ever received a grant? Do you write grants? Do you use an attorney? Do you use an accountant? How much money do you make from your art practice?’ We go back one year, two year, and now five years to ask them how all those things are going long after they leave the program. Happily, we find a lot of success.”

Now, Artist INC is exporting that success. A couple of years ago, they started training people on how to do the seminar in other cities.

“We started out with two communities, Oklahoma City and Argenta, which is North Little Rock, and had very successful results. The minute they were done with first seminar, they wanted to do another one. That second year, we also added Omaha and Austin, Texas. So this fall, we’ll have all four cities going for second and third rounds.”

They’ll also add Lawrence and Tulsa. More cities where artists will be acting more like business people.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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