Artists add creative twist to entrepreneurship


By Hallie Busta

Robin Rios generates revenue through web design and art framing to supplement sales of her artwork
Artist Robin Monique Rios combines several business ventures in 4Art Inc. in Bridgeport; Photo courtesy of 4Art Inc.

Robin Monique Rios has been an artist since childhood, but only in recent years has her penchant for art become the basis of several profitable ventures.

From an 11,000-square-foot space at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport, Rios runs 4Art Inc., a gallery featuring her work and that of nine other artists. But the location is also home to Rios’ other business ventures, including website and graphic design services and art framing. “I know this is where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “I know that with every fiber of my being.”

Shedding the starving artist image

Though Rios said financial gain is not her primary motive, she considers herself a small business owner. That makes her part of a growing number of artists who are trying to debunk the starving artist stereotype by seeking out ways to turn a profit from their crafts, said Joe Roberts, professor of arts entrepreneurship at Columbia College in Chicago.

As the Internet makes platforms for creating and selling art more accessible, some experts note a dynamic shift in artists roles as entrepreneurs.   If they don t marry that passion up with a business mindset ¦ that where a lot of them fail, said Michele Markey, director of the FastTrac entrepreneurship program at the Kansas City, Mo.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.  Markey said the growing trend toward arts-based entrepreneurship has been spurred in part by an unstable job market and an increased desire among some for a creative career track.

But artists increasingly must use skills outside of their primary practice to make their arts ventures profitable, Roberts said. If your passion is the arts, why would you not find a way to make a living? he said.

For Lance Brett Hall, that meant using his collegiate studies in theatre direction and acting-coaching to start the Chicago-based Launch Pad Casting Workshop, providing budding actors with direct feedback not often available outside of acting school or auditions, he said. But he quickly saw the importance of being business-savvy, something that required skills he had yet to tap into. Business was always the furthest thing from my mind, so there been a steep learning curve, he said.

Keeping costs low

Unlike Rios, who started with a $20,000 business loan through ACCION Chicago and now uses her framing and design businesses to subsidize her gallery, Hall said he has been able to finance his own lower-cost venture himself. He said he uses free space at Lincoln Park Greenhouse Theater Center and developed his website himself.

Hall pays the directors who judge his acting clients between $100 and $250 each, depending on their experience level, and spends a small amount of money on snacks and bottled water.

Actors pay $50 per workshop. While eight registered for his November session, Hall expects 20 to register for a workshop in April. After that, he hopes to hold a workshop every six weeks.

But shifting gears to turn a profit can be difficult, he said. It tough for an artist to really believe in a product or deliverable when it not the art form you trained in, he said.

Lisa Canning, founder and director of the Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship in Chicago, agrees that the role change can be challenging. She said the institute strives to help artists leverage their skills to start a business through its workshops and support programs. In September, it will launch a two-year certificate program in arts entrepreneurship development, she said.

Part of that program will encourage artists to use technology to launch a website or, as their business goals evolve, develop an arts-based tech business such as website design, she said.

Artists in the program also will develop a non-traditional business plan called a business canvas, Canning said, plotting out their ventures in a way that fits their individual work patterns, not necessarily by recording it on paper, she said.

Creating business plans

Roberts teaches his students to complete a business journal, similar to a conventional business plan but without an exit strategy. While a traditional venture might look to sell the business or go public, artists often produce their art regardless of whether they have customers, he said. No matter how artists choose to format their plan, they should explain their business and how they will earn a living from it, he said.

Rios said she used a business plan for about two years. When she and a partner first launched the gallery in 2003, they developed the plan to divide the workload. Now operating alone, Rios said she assesses problems individually.  Her current business goals include attracting more clients and turning them into collectors, she said.

To maintain a profitable business portfolio, Rios offers lower-cost items such as coffee mugs for $18, mouse pads for $13, iPad cases for $56 and skateboard decks for $135 through an account on Over time, she hopes customers will come back for her more expensive digital art and photography.

By combining several arts ventures, Rios has been able to keep both feet where she wants them — in the art world.

If I can pay my bills, then I m happy because that allows me to stay here and do what I love, she said. Do I see myself being rich? No, but I can see myself being financially stable.

See SmallBusinessChicago‘s tips for launching an art business.

Post updated on March 9 to remove from technology  category.