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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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St. Pete artists trying to add business savvy to make a living

ST. PETERSBURG — As it collects accolades for being a top arts destination and creative hub, the city has branded itself as a beacon for artists, both developing and well-established ones.

Artists at all levels say the same thing, though: It’s tough to make a living as an artist here.

“The average artist makes 17k a year,” said John Collins, head of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance.

That’s mostly due to a lack of buyers in the area, despite the profusion of galleries and local art walks. There’s not much in the way of grant funding these days, either.

“We have to support them more,” Collins said. “The good news is, the arts buzz is out there. If you want to be an artist, St. Petersburg is a welcoming place.”

The support is there, albeit in ways not as direct as fellowships and grants. Instead, it comes through efforts to cultivate common-sense business savvy among local musicians, visual artists, sculptors, photographers and others hoping to pay the bills with their creative efforts.

Arts advocates are trying to help newer artists establish themselves — and reach buyers everywhere — so they won’t go somewhere else to ply their trades. In recent months, this has come in the form of workshops that aim to instill basic business skills in artists of every form who are trying to get to the next level. Creative Pinellas launched one last week, days before a city-sponsored workshop holds its last Monday evening class.

Such programs are important to nurturing the arts as a part of the local economy, advocates say.

“In order to have that robust arts community, it is on us to help artists be successful entrepreneurs,” said Sean Kennedy, economic development coordinator for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. “We think the arts component to our city and region’s business climate is very important. Having a great arts community leads to increases in tourism, but it also makes St. Pete an attractive place to do business and makes it easier to attract skilled employees that our region’s companies need to grow.”

Kennedy manages the Greenhouse, an economic development outfit that targets entrepreneurs, including artists. The arts business program there, called the Creative Pinellas Academy, had its first session in south Pinellas County Tuesday. This summer, the six-week course was held at the St. Petersburg College Clearwater campus. The course teaches things such as bookkeeping, branding, social media and search engine optimization — skills that may not always be apparent to an artist just starting out.

“It’s part of the process of being a professional artist,” said Creative Pinellas director T. Hampton Dohrman, who runs the program. “We try to be really practical with what we’re providing. We’re not being super-theoretical about it. It’s more applied knowledge.”

The area’s successful artists say that, while distinctive work and talent are vital to an artist’s success, so, too, is practical knowledge about potential buyers and the most effective ways to reach them.

“It is essential to have an effective social media plan, creating buzz, ricocheting off any media coverage to keep momentum going,” said Scott Durfee, who with partner George Medeiros formed wearable art brand Spathose.

The two recently raised $10,710 through a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign, exceeding their $10,000 goal, so they could market themselves as wholesalers. Durfee attributes their success to networking with other artists, even supporting those that are just getting started.

Fine art photographer Siera Vaughn said she enrolled in the Clearwater course to make sure she was going by the books.

“I really wanted to make sure that I’m doing everything legally,” she said. “It’s very easy to focus on being creative and miss things that you have to do.”

Learning about how to create and market a coherent brand has earned her space in galleries as far away as California in recent months.

“They want you to be able to be articulate about your work and your emotions,” she said.

Marketing to galleries is one place where many artists can fall short.

“The most important thing they have to have is a mission statement,” said Rob Rowen, who owns Nuance Galleries on Central Avenue and has taught classes on marketing to artists across the state.

Collins said he hears a lot from skeptical artists who think branding and marketing compromise their work. Without them, though, it’s pretty tough to connect with a gallery or reach potential buyers across the globe over the Web, he said.

“You need to know the business to become a business,” Collins said.

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