Friday Entrepreneurs – Kathy Waste, Artist

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Entrepreneurship isn’t just about technology. Today on Friday Entrepreneurs, meet Kathy Waste, 51, artist and entrepreneur.

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In my discussion with her below, find out how she:

  • Uses her art for multiple revenue streams
  • Prices her product in the hundreds and thousands
  • Markets her work
  • Calls people who buy her work “collectors,” not customers — and why the difference is worth thousands of dollars

* * *

I think most artists are absolutely horrible businesspeople. Yet you left a 15 year career teaching for the University of California to pursue a living as a full-time artist, and even managed to roughly equal your income from when you were teaching. Tell us a little bit about your art.

I love looking at simple, everyday objects to see beauty in things we might otherwise pass right by. So I paint still life watercolors – watercolor because I love the luminosity and glow of the colors. I tend toward objects that hold cultural and in some cases, iconic meaning – but try to leave the irony for those better suited at expressing it.

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I notice your art costs a lot (one painting I saw costs $675.00). How did you decide to charge that much?

Actually, that’s just the price of a print. I offer limited edition reproductions, to maximize the earning potential of a single painting. It’s also a great way to make fine art available for entry-level collectors, many of whom start with prints and work their way up to original paintings.

I see. So how much does an original sell for?

My originals sell for between $600 and $8,000 depending on size and complexity. Most artists use a general “per square inch” formula to price their works, based on a combination of previous sales, the going rate of artists who do comparable work… even the cost of the frame gets factored in.

Rarely (and sadly!) is an artist able to charge based on the actual time invested in creating a painting. Labor Theory of Value doesn’t apply.

[Ramit’s note: Notice how, with one piece of art, she is able to offer it at multiple price points. If you produce something similar, you might produce a free gallery online for the people who will never pay, a $50 print, a $500 limited-edition print, and a $5,000 original, sweeping the entire spectrum of customer demand.]

What are the risks of making so few pieces of art?

Art is all about risk-taking. It’s hard to predict the market, although when the economy is in a tough spot like it is right now, you can safely assume that many people are cutting back on luxury items from $5 lattes to original works of art! So my job is to keep painting, work twice as hard on the marketing end of the business and stay in good communication with my collectors.

Do you have other sources of income besides directly selling your work?

It’s easy to wish I could spend all my time in the studio – the truth is, being out in the world – not just isolated in my studio – makes me a better artist.

I teach painting classes for other busy professionals. Many of my students they tend to be left-brained types who want to take a time-out to explore their creative side. My workshops are essentially word-of-mouth, and have been so successful, that it tells me there is a real unmet need out there in the marketplace. So I’ve recently launched a new venture which takes the artist’s way of seeing the world into the corporate environment with hands-on creativity workshops.

How has the art industry changed in your experience?

It used to be that galleries would handle – and pay for – all the marketing and business end of things for their artists so that we can spend all our time making art. In general, it’s a different world out there these days.

The artist is responsible for framing and shipping the work to the gallery as well as expected to pay 50% of all costs for a gallery opening, i.e., the advertising, the invitations, even the wine poured at the event.

In exchange, the gallery provides “one-stop shopping” for art lovers as well as a venue for your work. Some people don’t buy art except through a reputable gallery.

But let’s face it – being in a gallery can be a love-hate thing for artists. It’s a huge expense, because even if your work doesn’t sell, the artist still has to pony up for all those marketing costs.

Is it common for artists to do what you’re doing, i.e. promoting on the web?

Some artists are choosing to bypass the gallery system all together and market directly online. I suspect this will be effective for selling to established collectors who already know your work – but poses a dilemma about reputation. After all, if we aren’t “vetted” through the traditional system, we’re somehow kind of cheesy if we’re stooping to marketing our own work. But I also think as more and more young artists come along, artists who grew up in a web-connected culture of internet marketing and social networking, the nature of the gallery business will change.

How did you get your first customer?

I honestly can’t remember who bought my first painting. I do know that my first batch of paintings went to various friends and long-time acquaintances and that one of my brothers stepped up to buy my very first prints when they were hot off the press. Of course, I gave him a good family discount!

And how do you get customers now?

I use the word “collectors” rather than customers, because I’ve found that if my art speaks to someone enough that they are willing to shell out hard-earned cash for it, they tend to come back for more.

[Ramit’s note: A key difference. Someone who buys from you once is FAR more likely to buy from you again. This becomes more important with higher-value goods that require more expensive marketing. The cheapest marketing you’ll ever do is to existing customers.]

Last year, I started working with a publicist and that turned out to be a much wiser investment of my resources than spending money on ads. And galleries, of course, account for about 35% of my total collectors.

I also find ways to connect my collectors and the people who take my workshops. In the process of creating community, i.e., a community of weekend painters, a community of watercolor collectors, it moves what I do beyond the sale of a product or service into the realm of offering a richly rewarding experience.

Anything else we should know?

Follow your muse!

Check out Kathy’s work at her website. Read other Friday Entrepreneurs, sign up for my newsletter, and submit yourself as a Friday Entrepreneur.

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14 Comments

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  1. Ramit, excellent questions!
    Regarding: ” But I also think as more and more young artists come along, artists who grew up in a web-connected culture of internet marketing and social networking, the nature of the gallery business will change.” Yes, but this is tricky, because Kathy invests quite a bit of time on her clients perspectives of her work: explaining, interpreting relevance, etc, which requires a personal touch which translates to an economic transacttion. This is challenging within the web-connected culture for multiple reasons.

  2. Very timely interview for me. I’m considering an art career myself (photography), and am reading everything I can on the various business models. Marketing and good business sense are key to success in art, but unfortunately most artists fall short in these areas. I am trying not to make that mistake, and interviews like this are helpful from that perspective.

  3. [...] not always a big fan of this site, but I think the interview of a successful artist is interesting.  Its nice to look at a creative person as an entrepreneur instead of a starving [...]

  4. It sounds like a reputable online gallery would be an interesting concept. I’m sure there already are a few if I looked hard enough, but I’m thinking about something that would be big enough for an online gallery like eBay is to auction websites. It sounds like each artist could benefit greatly by coming up with a low cost online option instead of the traditional gallery model she described. The traditional approach sounds expensive as hell with the added issue of relying on someone who doesn’t know your work and may not really care too much about selling it to market and sell it. I’ve only ever bought one painting at an art auction, so I’m not exactly the expert on galleries, but reaching as many people as possible at a low cost seems like it would benefit a seller. Good stuff. It’s cool to hear about the business side of something that isn’t usually associated with business.

  5. Thanks for doing this interview. I am an art student, and as an art student, when I ask my fellow art students if they ever worry about making money, they say things like “if you want money, get an office job! Art requires sacrifices!” Most of them come from rich families and don’t seem to worry the slightest bit about the idea of needing to pay off those enormous Harvard-sized art college loans.

    Sometimes I think that maybe I should choose a safer career and then switch to art when I have some money, as it seems Kathy Waste did. But, I can’t really see myself doing anything other than art, and I can’t see myself doing the forms of art that pay well either, such as architecture.

    When people think of artists, they think of painters who sell their work through galleries. The truth is, painters like this make up a small minority of all the artists out there. Unfortunately commercial artists aren’t always considered real artists, so they often get overlooked. I’m planning to get a job at a movie or video game studio some time in the future, so hopefully my job will be somewhat more stable than a painters would be, but I’m told that it’s still a difficult way to make a living.

    I have a lot of respect for independent painters, and it’s sometime I’ve considered pursuing, but it’s such an unpredictable world and I’m not all that self disciplined anyway. I also enjoy drawing things that are better suited to movies than to galleries, like dragons.

    Ramit, (or anyone else who has advice) I was wondering if you have any tips for prospective artists who want to learn about the business side? My college has a class called business for art students, but I don’t trust it. What skills do you believe most artists are lacking in? What kind of classes should I take to learn how to network and market myself?

    I was recently given an opportunity to email someone important to the movie industry, and I haven’t done so yet. I know nothing about this stuff.

  6. I’m an artist as well, really enjoyed this interview. I agree that things are getting worrisome. I feel that we should all be taking our own financial education seriously. Books, tapes, whatever. Soak it all in. I signed up w/ iTunes to subscribe to the InvestTalk radio show podcast, which I’d read was a good one – so I can listen to the show whenever I want. I don’t end up listening to all of them, but I’ve been learning a lot just by playing them when I remember that I’ve got them. It’s good to have financial advice on demand. This is where the shows are: http://investtalk.hitfastforward.com/?page_id=13 and there is a blog too: http://blog.investtalk.com

  7. RE: Carin’s astute observation about the gallery system:

    “The traditional approach sounds expensive as hell with the added issue of relying on someone who doesn’t know your work and may not really care too much about selling it to market and sell it.”

    This is a key issue for artists to consider as they place their work into the traditional gallery system. What I didn’t make clear in my interview is that, not only do many galleries take half of all marketing costs…they also take 50% of the retail price of the artwork.

    For the others who are considering a career in art and want to learn more about the business end of things – here are a few of the books that helped me clarify my thinking:

    Made to Stick
    Chip and Dan Heath

    Trading Up: The New American Luxury
    Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske

    A New Brand World
    Scott Bedbury and Stephen Fenichell

    Art Marketing 101: A Handbook for the Fine Artist
    Constance Smith

    Re-Imagine
    Tom Peters

  8. I’m an artist too so I enjoyed reading this interview. Thank you to both of you. So many of us get into art because we love to be able to do something different everyday and then find out that that doesn’t pay the bills. The marketing and business side of art is so important. And then to find what “sells” rather than what you want to create. And hopefully what sells is what you like creating.
    Kathy, thanks for the list of books.

  9. I am a full time fine art “abstract” painter-and simply stumbled
    across this site b/c of the “artist” interview-I am so glad I did!!!
    I have managed, in a two year period, to create an internet presence that is, especially in today’s world, a way to work “for yourself.” Now, small business it may be, but I am finding out more and more artists decline the whole BIG “Gallery” concept-and sell their artwork and handle the biz side completely themselves.
    They are making much better money than I would’ve ever thought possible, without a gallery or large company to take that 50% (or more).
    I just hope this pattern continues and isn’t just a soon to be “over-saturated fad/market.”
    I love painting-but I have more to learn if I want to really be “successful” -financially speaking.
    Julianne Richards
    http:// http://www.yessy.com/richards (my gallery)
    http://www.colorspeaker.com (my blog)

  10. I’ve been playing with the idea that content-based (or in this case paintings) goods are hard to sell by themselves. I believe having a paycheck in mind can distort the value of the art itself. Art and money seem idealistically contradictory.

    So, I am curious to how much of her art instruction is based on her quality and popularity of her art work and, inversely, how her art instruction serves as a marketing vehicle for her artwork. If this is, at least in part, her business model, having quality artwork or quality instruction would drive the other side of her business. This aligns art and money to have the same goal or influences.

  11. Thank you for comments and advise.

    It is refreshing to read words on artists and finances. I was looking for budgeting advise and ran into Kathy’s discussion. As life sometimes gets in the way, I am not where I would like to be as an artist , but at least I am not where I used to be! These articles are useful and encouraging.

  12. [...] interesting interview on business side of being an artist [...]

  13. Great post. I have a friend who is an artist and I believe this area has a lot of potential. I am currently looking into different possibilities of doing this, especially within the graffitti scene

  14. I didn’t know I had a twin or was so artistic. I am the real Cathie Waste so am wondering who you are? Are you of any relation?