How Do Artists Develop New Products and Services?

By Paul Bindel

In 2010, at the height of the recession, when a friend admitted to considering grad school for  literature, I begged him to turn around. Of course, I’d nerded out on Emily Dickinson and African postcolonial lit on my own degree a few years earlier, but I was left more indebted than inspired and wound up hustling at a coffee roaster and homeless shelter to pay the bills.

Six months later, between coffee bean deliveries, my coworker Chloe found out I could write and walked straight up to the owner: “Did you know this guy has a fucking English degree?” The one thing I was most embarrassed of, my professional chagrin, ended up leading to a raise and my first writing project: a barista training manual.

While I didn’t become a full-time technical writer, I did get better at translating skills from one context to another. I had to learn how to see all the skills I’d already developed as valuable and build from there.

Most creatives understand the challenge of pivoting and repackaging. Your chosen medium may be oil landscapes or three-act plays, but how do you distribute—and make money on—your work right now? And if your medium is term limited (like dance) or site dependant (like installation art), how do you develop other revenue streams? I spoke to three artists who created new paths for themselves along their way to finding creative (and economic) fulfillment.  

If you’ve ever felt bittersweet fuzzies before the Robin Williams mural on 14th Ave, or taken a shameless selfie at a “Love This City” mural in RiNo, Golden Triangle or the Arts District on Santa Fe, you’ve seen SoGnar Creative Division’s colorful work. Today, their clients include Denver Zoo, Denver Public Schools, the Broncos, Budweiser and many towns across Colorado. Their journey to large-scale murals, however, was far from direct.

SoGnar’s founder Pat Milbery was a pro snowboarder, so his company took the best parts of that culture—music, gnar and art. Their submarine logo spoke to an underground aesthetic and DIY ethos: “We were communicating tons of guerilla marketing: stickers, wheatpasting and a lot of propaganda. For the first handful of years, very little of what we did was done with permission.”

Milbery’s athletic success inspired a snowboarding camp for kids and multiple collaborations with sports and marketing companies, effortlessly shuttling from designs and prints to in-store and experiential installations.

To switch to full-time art, though, Milbery had to leave the sport behind. “As much as I loved what I was doing, I saw a bigger calling. I was scared because it was a shift in image. If we pulled out of the [snowboarding] market, would people still have our back?” (Spoiler alert: they did.)

Denver artist Kaitlin Ziesmer, whose work straddles the line between illustration and fine art, never expected to be designing merchandise—but now buttons, pins, books and stickers are part of her regular monthly income.

“I started making products so that my friends could afford my work,” Ziesmer says, “I was surprised that I really enjoy designing packaging. From a practical standpoint, the better the packaging, the better it would sell. It makes creating the work that much easier, less dependent on selling originals. Selling originals is awesome, but you can’t rely on it.”

Now that Ziesmer’s work is available in eight different Denver stores, she can finally afford a studio, which has boosted her art production. Recently, she began creating sculpture and even murals, including a PBR-sponsored polar bear on Colfax Ave.  

If you’re looking to break into the retail world, Ziesmer explains, most stores will either offer consignment—paying you monthly or quarterly when your work sells—or wholesale: paying you in a lump sum. Be sure to ask how often you’ll get paid and how much you’ll make (splits can range from 50/50 to 70/30, with the store taking more for overhead). Ziesmer says her biggest lifesaver has been a spreadsheet that tracks her payments. If a store owner forgets to send a check, her spreadsheet reminds her to send a gentle reminder. Finally, you’ll need to know if the store will be tracking inventory, or if you’ll need to come by and refill it yourself. Before a big art project comes up, Ziesmer calls her vendors to see if they’re well-stocked, so she can put her full attention on her art.   

At the same time, the risk of others exploiting your innovation is real. This happened to Ethan Bach from Alt Ethos, an experiential design company: “We developed an interactive mirror for live events, but this year, three to four similar products came out that claim to do it better.” His solution? Double down on what makes your offering unique. For Alt Ethos, customer service and sustainability give them an advantage over other creative companies.   

Your path to new, lucrative avenues for your art may not be clear immediately. Some of Ziesmer’s items sell better at one store than another; sometimes they don’t sell at all. It takes time and persistence to launch something new. “You gotta be passionate about it, you gotta give it all you got, and you can’t see any obstacles,” says Bach.  

Milbery clarifies that when developing new services or products, purpose always trumps profit: “If you’re going to venture into a new place, do it 110%, but don’t have huge expectations or assumptions about financial gain. I go into new projects with a purpose of what we’re accomplishing and how this can create an impact.”


Fund Your Art: Residencies & Fellowships

Some creative careers offer a narrow path through the woods (lucky you, architects!), but for composers, new media artists, entrepreneurs and the rest of us, it’s often half bushwacking, half stumbling into fields of opportunity. One respite from this choose-your-own adventure are residencies and fellowships.  

Many artists crave these structured spaces to grow and experiment. Fellowships offer a stipend for work you have done or will do, while residencies typically provide you space to work, or work and live. You might also have access to specialized tools or mentorship.

Spots may be competitive, but don’t let that keep you from applying. In fact, psych yourself up right now—you’re 100% worthy of developing your skills, and you deserve to invest in yourself.   

In the event you’re not accepted, consider designing your own residency by asking friends and family for a space to retreat and work. Remember that the endgame is spending dedicated time on your craft—not just a line on your resume. Even a weeklong sabbatical can benefit your art.

Music

Residency, The Music District
If music is a business, this is the business gym for musicians to work out at. For less mixed metaphors, contact Julie@themusicdistrict.org.

Artist in Residence, Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club
Get instant feedback on your jazz licks (for better or worse) from live audiences during your weekly performances in this 4–8 week residence.  

Visual Arts

Artist in Residency, Anderson Ranch, $750 or $1,500 fee
Who doesn’t love a mountain resort? Spend five weeks in spring, or ten weeks in fall honing your medium in Snowmass Village. Apply by Feb 15.

Film

Fellowship, The Outdoor Film Fellowship
Like a good reality TV show, this experience brings a team of students and recent grads together for a month to create a high-impact film.

Commitment Grants + Emerging Filmmaker Fellowship, MountainFilm, $1,000-5,000 award
Telluride’s iconic documentary film fest makes a ton of money; each year, they pay it forward to emerging filmmakers’ new projects.

Writing

Writing in Color Fellowship, Lighthouse Writers, Free classes
This yearlong program prepares one writer of color to publish their first manuscript. Application due in the spring.

Fort Lyon Fellowships, Lighthouse Writers, $2,500 stipend
For four weeks, work on a writing project while teaching creative writing classes to homeless veterans (~10 hours/week). Applications open in the fall.  

Performing Arts

Guest Artist Presenting, Control Group Productions
You can dance. You can jive. Have the time of your life developing a new production. Apps due in February.

Multidisciplinary (visual, performing, etc.)

Creative in Residence, Denver Art Museum, $7,500 stipend
Who hasn’t dreamed of taking over at least a corner of the museum? If you know how to inspire collaboration and visitor engagement, apply in the fall for this April–September gig.

The Residency Program, Elsewhere Studios, $600-850 fee/month
Literally any artist or creative person (“scientists, teachers, and other creative thinkers”) can apply for this year-round Paonia residency. What’s holding you back?

Artist in Residency, Platteforum, $250/week + studio space
Be the weird creative mentor that inspires high school students to take risks! This 6-8 week studio residency culminates in an exhibition in your medium.

Artist Residency, Redline Contemporary Art Center
Two years. A dedicated studio. It doesn’t get any more Denver than this Five Points, community-centered space. Applications open in March 2020.

*Don’t see a good match in our list? There are hundreds more to search from in the Alliance of Artists Communities’ database.


Originally from rural New Mexico, Paul Bindel spent five years teaching writing before transitioning full time into marketing at Doghead Creative, a digital marketing firm that specializes in content writing, strategy and social media.


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