In 2010 I was lucky enough to be part of the Surtex Seminar Series "The New Reality of Art Licensing & Sales - Strategies for Business Prosperity in a Tough Economy" (yeah, that's a mouthful alright!). I had the opportunity to sit between Dena Fishbein and Kate McRostie in a panel called "The Art of Success - A Dialog With Artists who are Making it Happen".
While my usual MO is to avoid any sort of public speaking or extra attention of any kind, I did find this question-and-answer session to be really fun (ssssh, don't tell). I do hope that those who attended found it enlightening, and for those who might enjoy some of that same enlightenment but weren't able to attend, for you, my dear and beloved blog-followers, here is my portion of the hand-out from the seminar covering my humble little third of the questions:
Like everything else here on Stuff About Artstuff, the following content is the copyrighted property of Beth J. Logan, Artstuff Ltd. Please don't reproduce anything here without permission.
1. Was there a specific moment in time when you decided to pursue a career in art?
I dropped out of art school after 2 years because I thought I didn’t want to do it for a living. That was 1984. Just a few years and several non-art-related jobs later I realized that I had been wrong, that all I ever wanted to do was draw and that “my art should be on stuff”. Vague, but it is what I started with.
2. When you look back on how you built your business, do you feel you’ve met your expectations?
I’m very happy with the way things have turned out so far, although I can’t say I had actual expectations to begin with. Honestly I blundered into this business learning most things the hard way (often after doing them wrong the first time). Along with “my art should be on stuff” my only other goal was “I don’t want another crappy job” but these things did keep me focused and working hard.
What might you have done differently?
There have been decisions that if I allow myself, will always wonder about (Would I have been better off with Company A or Company B? Should I have agreed to a certain license without first asking for something more/different?) but even these decisions and situations have been learning experiences and have made me stronger so I’m not sure I would change them if I could.
3. What would you say are your strengths and how have they helped you build your licensing business?
I’d like to think I have a pretty strong work ethic: I’m willing to work hard and I get great satisfaction in accomplishing goals.
I have to give an incredible amount of credit to an extremely patient and supportive husband, who has helped me become more logical and practical while avoiding ending up too uncomfortably grownup.
4. What could you have done more efficiently?
As I said, in the beginning my goals were vague and my business plan was loose. Several years ago another Surtex artist asked me, “where do you ultimately want to see your art?” I laughed and said, “I don’t know, on stuff.” I blew it off and changed the subject at the time, but spent a lot of time struggling with that question in the months and years to follow.
I didn’t start with a clear vision of what my designs might become, and believed it was an art director’s job to magically figure that out on their own. It took me quite a few years to realize that although they are often talented designers themselves, most art directors are juggling so many projects at once they don’t have the time or energy to figure out how my art will translate to their product if I don’t show them myself.
My answer to that question today is still probably just “on stuff” but when I find that “stuff” now, I work to efficiently pursue that goal rather than expecting it to magically happen on its own.
5. If you could suggest three critical things to aspiring artists to help them construct successful art businesses, what would they be?
1. Be realistic.
Research and learn about the industry and your target market. Educating yourself is the first and most important step. Focus on your goal and be willing to work hard and give things up to achieve it. And finally, realize that it may not happen overnight: it will take gobs of patience and perseverance.
2. Be flexible while staying true to yourself.
This is a very fine line: flexibility is such an important quality in working with licensees, whether it’s changing a design to fit their particular product or meeting a crazy last-minute deadline. Your creative vision and that of your client, buyers, and consumers may all be quite different. Adjusting to meet their needs is necessary to a point, but don’t lose yourself in that so far that you do something unethical or that simply doesn’t feel right to you.
3. Be tough.
There will be disappointments and frustrations, difficult-to-hear critiques – don’t let emotions get the best of you in these situations.
Stand up for yourself when others try to take advantage of you with bad deals or unfair contracts – you will be better able to do this if you have taken the time to educate yourself on industry standards and fair business practices.
6. What inspires you? And how do you stay motivated?
I am constantly inspired; there are few things in this world that don’t inspire me creatively in some way or another. But while the motivation to create is always there – the motivation to create specifically for licensing and to run my business even in frustrating times can be a challenge. What motivates me to do that is the simple fact that “they let me draw pictures for a living” – this becomes a mantra during challenging times and keeps me going.
7. How long did it take you to sign your first license?
I accidentally tripped over my first license; I had no idea what I was getting into. A few years into it I became aware that there was much more to the business than I had realized, and began to pursue a wider variety of licenses. With the help of an agent I signed my first couple licenses immediately after exhibiting at Surtex the first time. For the first few years it often felt like I was in a one-at-a-time greeting card license rut with very little else, but the foundation was being built and 4 or 5 years into that I began to get more varied (and bigger) licenses.
8. What would you say are the most important elements of dealing with licensees?
Again, being realistic, flexible, and tough are key. It’s also very important to remember that you are building business relationships. The fact that you’re amazingly talented and creative and that your art blows away everything else in their line means nothing if they feel you are unprofessional in any way or can’t be counted on. They need you to prove to them that you are dependable, stable, and that you will be there for them when they need you.
9. Are you using and agent?
Did you ever?
Sort of, in a very non-traditional situation. In the winter of 1999, an already successful licensing artist thought she might like to represent another artist, and we worked together for a little over a year. It was a learning experience for both of us. The other artist learned that she was happier creating and licensing her own art, and I learned that I prefer complete control over my business and my art. Although we decided to go our separate ways in business, ultimately the experience was positive and I’m extremely fortunate for that. I learned a lot, doors were opened, and I gained a very dear friend and mentor. And a cat.
This was a completely atypical agent/artist situation, and not just the part about the cat. Please don’t expect this to happen.
10. Can you describe your typical day?
As much as I try to keep a “normal” schedule with set times each day for various activities, my actual work day varies wildly depending on client needs and deadlines, so “typical” may not be the appropriate description.
In my perfect world, my day is separated by left and right brain activities. I start each morning with communication and admin – left-brain stuff. Once I have gotten through that, I am able to switch to the creative side for most of the day, with another left-brain break around lunchtime (after the mail arrives) checking messages and emails again and dealing with time-sensitive issues before switching back to creating for the rest of the work day.
But because this business is deadline-based on so many levels, I never know what will be waiting for me when I arrive in the office in the morning, and I am often slammed with unexpected and last-minute requests and client needs at various points in the day, and my “perfect world” schedule is tossed out the window to meet these needs and requests.
How much time do you devote to your business?
Many days it seems like every waking hour! I often work through weekends, and some days I’ll be at my desk from the time I roll out of bed and walk the dog until late at night when I suddenly realize I’m starving and sleepy.
But this isn’t as devastating as it may sound; remember, “they let me draw pictures for a living.”
Recently I have gotten better about taking days off during the week and even taking a vacation or two during the year. But there were many years when that just didn’t happen.
11. Greatest success?
I know this sounds phony and corny but every time a family member or old friend sees something of mine in a store and tells the people around them “this is my aunt!” or “I know her!” or calls me gasping “ohmygosh I was just walking through Target and you know what I saw?!” it feels like my greatest success ever. These are the people who have stood by me and supported me for so long and for them to experience that little rush of excitement and pride – means more than any royalty check. Although the royalty checks are pretty cool, too.
Most memorable failure??
Really I’ve tried my hardest over the years to forget these – after learning what I could from them first. I’ll just say that there have been months of my life devoted entirely to projects that were cancelled before production or for companies that closed their doors before the product hit the market; there were designs that I thought were genius but got hacked to death or simply kicked to the curb by committees, focus groups, and buyers. There have been times I completely missed the mark on a specific request when I thought I knew exactly what they wanted, and because of tight schedules never had the chance to redeem myself with the perfect design.
Character-building learning experiences, all of them.
12. Who are your favorite artists?
Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Georgia O’Keefe, Maxfield Parrish, William Morris... to name a few.
13. If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would take time to enjoy real life and the people and things I love in between building my business.
Friends and family have often taken a backseat while I focused solely on some most-important-project-everor other, believing that a simple lunch or dinner out, or sometimes even a phone call, would throw off my schedule enough it may completely ruin my business. Busy preparing for Surtex every spring, I would neglect my garden and actually went without a vegetable garden for several years (something I’ve loved doing since I was a child).
Working nonstop and not allowing myself days off for months at a time never allowed me to accomplish anything more efficiently. Eventually it always resulted in periods of extreme burnout – in which creativity became almost impossible and even worse, in some cases, caused me to let down clients who were counting on me.
Life is short and it’s ok to say “no” every so often (to taking on extra work, not to people who love you). Looking back, I do wish I had figured this out sooner.