Feeding the Artist

The “starving artist” is a thing of the past when a unique business course gives writers, musicians, and others the necessary skills to pursue their creative goals.

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When creative entrepreneurs learn to build a business, starvation becomes a thing of the past.

By Jessica Langlois, MFA ’10

When Kiala Givehand speaks, she tents the long, slender fingers of one hand on the tabletop before her, working them across its surface. As she considers a new idea, or casts about in her mind for the perfect words to express her next thought, she leans back in her chair and smiles, delighted to be considering new approaches. At her side, she keeps a small notebook, ever ready to jot down the name of an article to read later, a business model to research, or a new person to contact. When her phone buzzes (every 10 minutes or so), she gently taps it, looks at the incoming message, and seamlessly returns to her conversation. On a sunny winter morning, Givehand is sitting in a Jack London Square café, both discussing and enacting creative entrepreneurship. 

When Givehand came to Mills as an MFA poetry student in 2008, she was already a seasoned writing instructor at the secondary and college levels, and had traveled widely to train faculty and administrators in teaching strategies. At Mills, she was planning to hone her craft as a poet, and also hoping to discover ways to make her art a part of her professional life. She had a vision to combine her passions for education and poetry by founding a literary journal that would publish both young and established writers. She served as poetry editor of the campus literary journal 580 Split, working closely with Professor of English Juliana Spahr, who offered a decade’s worth of experience in small press publishing. But, still, the idea of starting her own journal was daunting. It remained unnamed, more a cluster of possibilities and hopes than a concrete product. Then, in her final semester at Mills, Givehand enrolled in a new interdisciplinary course, The Business of Being an Artist. Within a few weeks, her journal had a name, Generations; and in less than a year, she had published her first issue. 

Nancy Thornborrow, head of the Economics Department, had recognized the need to create a course for students like Givehand. In a conversation with Professor of Music Fred Frith, Thornborrow learned that MFA music courses don’t cover the practical issues of being a working artist. Thornborrow, a lover of opera and the arts whose late son had been a practicing painter, and Frith, who is also an actively touring musician, joined forces to fill the need of students who wanted to gain the necessary skills to launch and sustain their artistic endeavors. The College’s strengths in both art and business provided a natural setting for them to create a course answering that need; and so, in 2008, the course The Business of Being an Artist was first offered. 

“We asked Mills faculty to participate, and Fred talked to people he knew, artists who have day jobs,” says Thornborrow. She selected over a dozen guest lecturers for the course, artist-businesspersons who could speak from experience. Today, the lecturers for the class represent many fields in arts and business— from dance to visual arts and from marketing to taxes— and focus on the diverse topics that go into learning how to make a living as a creative entrepreneur. By putting artists in conversation with business students and professionals committed to the arts, the class is not only giving individual students the tools to become self-sufficient in pursuing their art, but also helping to ensure the sustainability of the arts in today’s technology-driven, entrepreneurial landscape. 

For many artists, the synthesis of a creative lifestyle and prudent business practices doesn’t come naturally.

What sets this course apart is the way it zeros in on the intersections among all artistic fields; musicians, dancers, photographers, painters, poets, and sculptors all find a space in the class. “To be in community with folks who are in a creative process made me look at my own creative process differently,” Givehand recalls. She discovered that the elements are the same across the disciplines: engaging in artistic practice, creating a product, sharing that product with the public through exhibition or publication, and seeking recognition or compensation. 

It was within this community that Givehand was finally able to realize her vision. She hadn’t thought of herself as an artist when she came to Mills; her identity as a writer and poet had always been secondary to her paid work as an educator. After taking Thornborrow’s course, Givehand came to recognize herself as a working artist—an essential concept that helped her apply a practical approach to her creativity and recognize the financial value of her literary efforts. “I don’t think only of Generations as a business,” she says. “I think of the writing life itself as a business.” 

Assistant Professor of English Kathryn Reiss, a widely published young-adult author, speaks to the Business of Being an Artist class about finding an agent, working with an editor, and negotiating contracts. Still, she emphasizes the importance of not letting the business side of things outweigh artistic development. “Before such work becomes a business, it’s an art,” says Reiss, who sets aside several days each week for writing, settling into her backyard garden and tuning out domestic and other demands. “You need to hone your craft and put in the time that writing and revising a book requires before you look for an agent,” Reiss says. Appropriately, that’s what professors like Reiss and Frith teach in their fine arts classes at Mills. The Business of Being an Artist provides an advantageous transition to the professional world. “In this class, I’m looking at the very end of the process of being a writer,” Reiss says. 

Communications expert Dan Cohen, principal of Full Court Press Communications, approaches his lecture in the course each year with an understanding that, for many artists, the synthesis of a creative lifestyle and prudent business practices doesn’t come naturally, or willingly. “What’s more challenging than talking to a playwright about economics?” Cohen muses. He notes that few professional artists have the means to fund ongoing, professional marketing campaigns and that artists, in particular, are passionate about their voice and may not want to work with an intermediary in making key decisions about their business. 

The first step, he explains to the artists in the class, is building and carefully tending to an audience, as through it were a garden. “People feel like there’s no grey area between being silent and being an egomaniac,” says Cohen, who speaks quickly and fluidly in well-crafted sound bites. But everyone has their own “communication superpower,” he says—whether it’s attending events regularly or sending out tweets. “You might be a handshake person or you might be a digital person,” he says. 

Other visiting speakers bring their own experience to bear on how to build a successful life in the arts. Accountant and tax expert Andrew Stern has been a musician most of his life; his recent tax guide for self-employed artists, Z Art of Taxes, has been lauded by Bay Area authors and musicians. Cheryl Clarke, a grant writer and published short story author, shares her knowledge of how skills in fiction can be used to improve grant proposals. “Funders always say, just tell us your story,” explains Clarke, who answered her phone on the first ring late on a Friday and happily made time to talk between client consultations. “A proposal is a story–in the traditional sense–with characters, plot arc, antagonists. It’s all integrated,” she says. 

Givehand used such lessons in launching Generations. Building an audience meant tapping into the existing literary scene, as well as establishing an online presence and a community presence. She kept the first issue of Generations manageable by soliciting work from writers and visual artists she admired; she also reached out to local high school teachers in search of young voices. 

Responsible business practices are an implicit lesson throughout the class. Jillian Roth, who took the course while studying for her MBA, points out that many of the students and lecturers include some mechanism for giving back to the community in their work; the business plan for Roth’s online jewelry store, JillyBeads4Justice, also includes a charitable giving element. Even though the course isn’t explicitly focused on social justice, Roth says, “Mills is just good at bringing people with those kind of values together.” 

Givehand spent her own money to produce the first issue of Generations, but drew on the resources she had gained from her conversations with Spahr and from Thornborrow’s class. She composed contracts for her writers based on a lecture from a music contractor, and employed a graphic designer she found through another student in the course. Such connections are another valuable aspect of the class. “You start networking before you even mean to start networking,” Givehand says. 

Visiting speakers bring their own experience to bear on how to build a successful life in the arts.

Once the first issue was minted—perfect bound with glossy color images—Givehand felt confident enough to begin asking for both subscribers and submissions and set to finding ways for future issues to fund themselves. She sent thoughtful emails to everyone she knew through the Mills English Department, in addition to MFA program administrators around the country, high school teachers and librarians, and online literary communities. “I flooded the universe and asked others to do the same,” Givehand says. The first wave of subscriptions provided enough money to produce issue 2, which combined solicited writers with submissions that came from an open call. 

The next step was to create a website and look for free advertising through magazines and websites. To her surprise, Poets & Writers magazine featured her call for submissions on the front page of their email newsletter, generating hundreds of new submissions that month. To manage the influx of interest, Givehand signed on to an online submission manager she had learned about from another speaker in The Business of Being an Artist course. 

By the time issue 3 came out, in early 2012, Givehand had three genre editors, a designer, and a copyeditor on board, plus a team of readers. Her journal now had a community invested in its content and its success. She decided to celebrate with a reading and launch party, bringing together the voices of the young and established writers she was publishing. On a brisk March evening, a dozen writers took the mic at Oakland’s Numi Tea Garden cafe. Each approached the stage backed by a song that marked their generation—from Lulu’s 1967 “To Sir with Love” to Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 “You Oughta Know”—before addressing the standing-room-only crowd. Many attendees were Mills professors or alumnae, happy to catch up on one another’s work and lives. The physical gathering ended up being even more beneficial to the journal than all the online outreach. Givehand earned more money by selling individual copies of her journal at the launch party than she had in subscription sales for the whole year. By the end of 2012, her new business had made its first small profit. 

Once Generations had established a following, Givehand looked for ways to continue to sustain both the business and herself. She had done enough grant writing for charter schools to know the pressures of depending on outside funding, so she developed a business plan that relies on subscriptions and sales of the journal to cover costs. She has also diversified her sources of personal revenue by teaching workshops on writing, leading a creative life, and generating “visual business plans.” 

After going through the process of developing her own business plans, launching her journal, and teaching those skills to aspiring creative entrepreneurs, Givehand’s purpose became clear. She understood that the journal was just one product, and that the company she wanted to build over time was a small press. So, later this year, Generations will host its first poetry chapbook competition, and one young writer will win the chance to work closely with Generations editors in publishing his or her first poetry collection. Givehand also remains committed to supporting the local literary community by using part of her profits to provide a scholarship to Voices of Our Nation, a Bay Area summer writing workshop, and by offering scholarships to her own workshops. 

“Seeing these other writers in print feels even better than seeing my own work in print,” Givehand says. “This is what I love to do: to provide a space for seasoned and young writers, and by publishing their work to bring communities together.” In addition to publishing Generations, Givehand is now also a visiting assistant professor in the English Department and a guest lecturer in Thornborrow’s course. “I talk about how to navigate the literary landscape in order to sustain a life as a writer,” she says. “I go back because I want people to know it can be done.”