When Mindsets Shift, Big Things Happen

I am cautiously optimistic! I know that might be surprising to some of you who know me, but I’ve been reviewing submissions for our 2017 Business Accelerator Program, and I am feeling the wind at our backs. This crop of artists is eager to underpin artistic practices with solid business ones. Let me show you how I know. Here are a few of the responses we received to this question: “Why do you think many artists push back against the idea that the creation and sale of art is a business?”

“We’ve been taught that art and business cannot coexist. This is a damaging and incorrect perception. A working artist needs to be a businessperson … to create opportunities.”

“Whether I am working for someone else or for myself, I need to know how to manage money, create lasting reliable relationships, pay taxes, have appropriate insurance … I might as well figure out how to do it by making the art I want to see in the world.”

“My six years of art education prepared me in no way to think of art as a business, or to consider the financial realities of supporting myself through creativity … This is a situation which needs addressing…”

These responses excite me. These artists know they can and should be in charge of both the creative and business outputs of their enterprises, and they are willing to demand that opportunity. Now we just need to instill in thousands more this kind of confidence and conviction, because when enough members of a group simultaneously make a psychological shift, revolutions occur. Real change starts inside.

CHF’s Investor Model

The Red Paintings album art
Album art from The Red Paintings’ The Revolution is Never Coming

When my mother and I established The Clark Hulings Foundation, our long-term goal was economic viability for independent artistic practice. We believe in the middle-class artist as an essential member of our society, and a strong contributor to our GDP. What drove us in this pursuit? Well, for starters, we’re the widow and daughter of an artist who was unafraid of the business world; my father never equated financial success with selling out, because he knew how to achieve the former without doing the latter. (Yes, it’s a perpetual balancing act between market and muse, but it’s entirely possible to maintain that balance over a long, successful career, if you are willing to do it.)

Beyond that, I’ve been a business strategist for more than 25 years, and I work with start-ups all the time. Finally, my educational training is in social science, so I am well acquainted with dependency theory; it applies just as well to the art industry as it does to the persistent consequences of colonialism. We founded CHF to replace a paternalistic, NGO model with an investor-based, free-market one that provides artists with the same kind of hands-on support that business incubator programs offer to entrepreneurs in the tech world and other fields. At CHF, we don’t drop coins into the donation jars of starving artists—we help them dispense with the jars. Out with dependence, in with sustainable independence.

Yes, the “product” we’re supporting is art. So what? Why is it acceptable to spout that artists are not as capable of management as other inventors? (How insulting–and how convenient for those who make their living managing things for them.) That’s what artists are, after all: inventors. Given the same training and self-confidence, they will be as terrific, mediocre, and terrible at business as any cross-section of doctors, lawyers, and real-estate moguls.

Down With Dependency!

CHF is a start-up nonprofit organization that runs like a business: by delivering quantifiable value to stakeholders, and measurable impacts to customers. As every investor worth her salt knows, handing out cash without tools and strategy for its effective deployment is like running water through a sieve. On the other hand, targeted funding delivered in the wake of proper training and planning—and in conjunction with ongoing support and built-in accountability—becomes exponentially valuable.  

Think of it this way: We don’t hand Suzy a wad of dough, and tell her to go buy herself a bike. First, we teach her how to ride, provide advice on what types of bikes might be best for her, help her compare cycling retailers to see who offers the best price and warranty, brainstorm methods of raising the necessary funds to purchase and maintain the equipment, and assist with trip-planning and riding goals. If Suzy then proves that she’s serious about cycling, we kick in some of our own money to set her on her way. After that, we help her stay on course, or improve the route or destination, should it make sense for her to do so.

This approach builds self-esteem and fosters long-term independence. That, in turn, spurs economic growth throughout the community, which means Suzy gets to continue cycling while contributing to the economy by purchasing goods and services, filming her travelogues, and paying taxes on the revenue she earns doing it.

Confident in our Confidence-Building

Of course, CHF invests in artists, not cyclists, but we use a similar blueprint—EXCEPT that, unlike other business accelerator programs, we must first convince the artists in whom we wish to invest that they have the right to ride those proverbial bikes in the first place. We must overwrite years of negative programming designed to convince them that they’re incapable of managing their businesses, and shouldn’t even bother. If we fail to shift this deeply entrenched, centuries-old paradigm, the rest of our work is for naught.

What a dark thought! Good thing I’m a cautious optimist, right? Also good that all of us at CHF are absolutely committed to realizing this change, and confident that our “independency model” will prevail. That’s how start-ups succeed.

“If you [create art] professionally,” writes another of our applicants, “you cross that line from the experience into the marketplace. You do the work for love, but it’s okay to accept money for it, and send it out into the world to its new homes. You recognize that the people [who] really value what you do WANT to pay for it, because they want you to be able to keep doing it.”


Don’t be left in the dark. Elizabeth Hulings’ regular column shines a light on a different facet of the art industry every month. To receive her insightful commentary by email, sign up here.

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Elizabeth Hulings
Elizabeth Hulings is the Executive Director of the Clark Hulings Foundation, and a principal of the business-strategy consulting firm Counterpoise, where she has worked with startups, nonprofits large and small, multi-national corporations, and sole proprietors--including artists of all stripes. Before launching Counterpoise in 2001, Elizabeth lived through five Fortune-500 mergers at the predecessors of Citigroup, Cendant, and Verizon Communications. She also honed her skills at several nonprofit organizations including the International Development Exchange, The Management Center/Opportunity Knocks, and Human Rights Watch.

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