A career in art is not for the faint of heart.

Particularly in Montana, where artists are far from major art markets.

But thanks to a program created by the Montana Arts Council, several hundred artists are gaining tools to grow their art business.

Montana Artrepreneur Program artists say the program is like a college business class in how to market their art.

A 2014 economic survey by Surale Phillips Research, Evaluation, Planning, shows MAP has been “enormously successful,” according to Arlynn “Arni” Fishbaugh, MAC executive director.

“Artists saw a 275 percent increase in net art sales since they started participating,” Fishbaugh said. “Another important fact was the increase in out-of-state sales. Sales increased 31 percent, or about one-third,” she said. “That’s incredible.”

And artists surveyed reported that 21 percent of their household income was derived from art sales, she added. “I think 20 percent is really important when thinking about household income. ... It’s the start of something great. It can be a major portion of that household’s income.”

It’s the money used for sending kids to college, for paying mortgages and for putting food on the table, she said. “This is a real job -- a real profession. It isn’t something to be scoffed at.”

One anonymous artist reported in the study, “my sales increased exponentially each year -- culminating in sales exceeding $100,000 last year.” Not only did the artist have money to put toward the family’s new home, but also flexible time to spend with their small children.

“The whole idea is to help to create the tools for a better living for artists,” said Fishbaugh. “The main focus has been on rural Montana because they have the least access to marketing and training. It’s a tried-and-true investment.”

“(The study) is a very accurate snapshot of the program,” she said. “It’s not inflated. As in anything -- there are people who do better than others. There are those who didn’t pursue it seriously. Not everyone is going to be a rock star.”

Life interrupted some artists -- whether it was illness or family demands. Others decided they preferred creating art as a hobby.

MAP is now in its sixth year. So far it has trained more than 300 artists.

It has been funded by the New York Foundation -- Leveraging Investments in Creativity -- as well as a USDA grant and the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. It’s now in its final year of foundation funding, but the Montana Arts Council is pursuing several funding avenues and is committed to continuing the program, said Fishbaugh.

Artist directs program

Edrienne L. “Cindy” Kittredge, an artist and specialist in adult education, designed the hands-on program and calls it “kitchen-table learning.”

Artists who are accepted in the program commit to more than 50 hours of workshop classes, as well as creating 35 tools as part of their Artrepreneur Toolbox. They also log their studio time (a minimum of 120 hours).

In addition, the cohort of artists in a MAP class come together periodically to hear talks, share their ideas and get feedback on their artwork and marketing tools.

Virginia City potter Sheri Jarvis started out as a MAP artist but now directs the program.

“It certainly has taken my pottery as an art form to a whole new level,” she said. “It’s helped me with credibility and how to present myself with certainty.

“It’s so brilliantly focused,” Jarvis added. “You get more and more ideas.” Rather than being restricting, as some artists fear, “it’s propelling.” MAP demystifies the business end of art. “It’s an incredibly practical and doable program.

“MAP recognizes that it doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “It takes time and commitment and digging deep to tell your story. Art comes from deep inside. It comes from a tender place.”

The person buying the piece of art “is buying the opportunity to be with that story,” she said. “A piece of original art has so much that comes with it. Through this program, we teach artists how to articulate that.”

The product comes first because the artist puts their heart and soul into it, Jarvis said. “We affirm art first. I want people to find their authentic voice in the arts,” rather than tailoring art to a market.

The MAP program nurtures both sides of the artist, their art and their business, Jarvis said.

MAP has “shown a way that just works.”

And as to her own life as an artist, “I’ve just become more and more impassioned to find a way to have a sustainable life in the arts.”

MAP artists speak

Focus is the key thing artists say they gain from MAP.

Professionalism is another.

“It’s totally amazing,” said Butte artist Jim Goebel. “It turned me around about what I have to do.”

“One of the amazing things was the roundtable conversation between artists and (a speaker) at the table,” he said. The outpouring of ideas from the artists was invaluable.

“Overall, (MAP) is fantastic. I’d give them an A++ for the program.”

While he’d wanted to keep his art in Butte, he’s realized, “I have to take my art to where the market is.” He was recently approached by an out-of-town gallery.

Goebel, who worked as a professional drafter and surveyor, suffers from trigeminal neuralgia that causes severe pain. It’s made him change his career path to art, which he’s loved and pursued since he was a small child.

“What I find is that art is about the best therapy you can do,” he said. “I’m using this to divert pain -- to get away from pain.”

But, he also has a new sense of purpose.

“I know the direction now I need to take,” he said. “I see the pathway.”

When he enrolled in MAP, he paid $300, he said. “It was an amazing deal -- like paying a quarter for a gold nugget. I’m just so glad I did it. It’s uplifted my life immensely.”

Helena photographer Linda Roberts says MAP has changed her life as an artist, as well.

“I have had a camera in my hands most of my life,” she said. She’s taken workshops, worked with a mentor and also taught herself a lot about photography.

“(MAP) made me more conscious of my business image,” she said. “They teach you how to promote your art and create a professional persona.

“It helped me focus and identify my style,” she said. “What MAP helped me understand is what I focus on. I focus on detail and capture the essence of a scene … capture a story. I don’t think I had identified that before.”

For Helena mixed-media and assemblage artist Liz Harter, MAP was intense and invaluable.

“I learned professionalism,” she said.

As an artist who loves to create using different media, MAP helped her narrow her focus and create “a brand.” She wants people who see her works to say -- “Ah, that is a Liz Harter.”

Harter also learned how to professionally approach galleries and to market online. And she's opened her own storefront, Liz E Designs ArtScapes, 330 Fuller Ave.

“I highly recommend the class for artists,” she said. “It gives you a special professional edge.

“It lit a fire,” she said. “It lit my passion for believing in myself artistically.”

“I’m marketing myself as Helena’s most unique experience in art.”

For more information about MAP, visit Montana Arts Council at www.art.mt.gov or call 444-6430. 

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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