Find your niche

Be nimble or perish. Find new ways to do things, or resign yourself to “go gentle into that good night.”

The Day Begins, mural by Peter Yesis, Waldo County Justice Center

Whenever I mention to my husband how fine a painter Peter Yesis is, Doug answers that it’s because Peter trained as an electrical engineer. I suspect there’s some truth in that. Engineering teaches orderly processes, and it’s dispassionate. There’s no flailing about, examining one’s soul, in circuit design.

Peter has been as thoughtful about his career as he is about painting. In recent years, he found a way to use Maine’s Percent for Artto get his work into public buildings. The kind of painting Peter (and I) do has been obsolete in public architecture for fifty years. For most of our careers, it would have been easier to sell concrete canoes for the steps of a public building than an ‘old-fashioned’ landscape painting for its lobby. I wouldn’t have tried. And yet Peter persevered, calling his paintings ‘murals’ lest anyone get the wind up.

Peter and his newest mural at the Oxford County Courthouse.

I have sat through a murder trial of someone I cared about. It’s a terrifying experience. Rochester’s antiseptic, 1970s-era-courtroom provided no distractions from the litany of evidence. Had the trial been in Waldo County, Maine, I could have occasionally studied Peter’s painting of dawn breaking over the Passagassawaukeag, above. Art’s value may be hard to quantify, but that doesn’t make it non-existent.

Since 1982, Percent for Art has put almost $8 million in artwork into Maine schools, courthouses and other public buildings. I’m not a fan of government art funding, but this is a case of government buying art, just as they buy other furnishings.

Yesterday, Peter went to Paris, ME to install three murals at the Oxford County Courthouse. As Maine’s economy teeters in these parlous times, his project put me in mind of the Federal Art Project, the WPA initiative that did so much to change America’s public buildings during the Great Depression.

One of three murals painted by Peter Yesis for the Oxford County Courthouse.

(Great bureaucracies might, like ocean liners, have momentum of their own, but they are still steered by a captain. The Federal Art Project was a success largely because of the sensitive leadership of Holger Cahill. In Maine, that captain is Julie Richard. She too steers a tight course.)

The tiny post office in Middleport, NY, has murals painted by WPA artist Marianne Appel. Neither the town nor the artist are ‘significant,’ but that post office has an abiding place in my memory because of those murals. Peter will be remembered in Maine because he has placed his art in locations that matter.  

On a practical level, he has found a niche. I’ve known him long enough to know that he got there not with a grand master plan, but by trial and error. He will continue to tinker, even though he—like me—is at an age when many of our peers are contemplating retirement.

Kim and Peter Yesis installing a mural at the Oxford County Courthouse.

For every tale of frustration in the current crisis, there’s another of opportunity. Yesterday I talked with an elementary-school art teacher. She told me about her response to sudden lockdown this past spring. Her kids had no art supplies at home, so she encouraged them to make art with recycled materials. This year, she’s made kits for them to use at home. She’s doing her best to cope with something none of us wanted. Along the way she’s discovering new ways to teach art.

The lesson of our age is: be nimble or perish. Find new ways to do things, or resign yourself to “go gentle into that good night.”

A state that values its artists

The Arts Iditarod is sprinting toward a stop near you, but only if you live in Maine.

Dyce Head Light, by Carol L. Douglas
On Jan. 8, the Maine Arts Commission will launch its 2019 Arts Iditarod. This year’s stops are:
January 8 – Portland, SPACE Gallery in Portland
January 9 –Bangor Arts Exchange
January 16 – River Arts in Damariscotta
February 5 –University of Maine at Fort Kent
The idea is to hit four of the state’s eight cultural regions each year. The meetings are aimed at arts and cultural organizations, individual artists, educators, and community policy makers. I went last year in Ellsworth and learned a lot that was pertinent to my own business. 
However, I think it would be most compelling for a person contemplating a community cultural project. If that’s you, you’d be crazy to miss it.
Best Buds, by Carol L. Douglas. This carousel was a community work of art inspired by one person’s idea.
Last fall I had the chance to visit a cultural project that is the ideal example of the impact one person’s big idea can have. The carousel at Saranac Lake, NY is a community work of art and an important part of the village’s renaissance. It was inspired by local woodworker Karen Loffler, but it took the whole community to make it a reality. Today the carousel is one of Saranac Lake’s major attractions. 
The Iditarod will be your chance to figure out the nuts and bolts of bringing ideas like that into reality. Larry Rubenstein will talk about approaching potential donors and taking the fear out of asking for money. Julie Richard will give guidance on creating a strategic plan for both organizations and individuals.  

Damariscotta Main Street, by Carol L. Douglas
There will also be a mini-Town Hall discussion in preparation for the next statewide Cultural Planning process that will begin in autumn 2019. And there will be information about Maine’s upcoming bicentennial celebrations.
Registration opens at 11:30 with programs from noon to 4 PM.  You can advance register through the Maine Arts Commission website. It’s free.
“The weather for next week is looking dicey so be sure to pre-register for these so we can update you if we need to postpone,” said executive director Julie Richards. Mush!
Castine Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas
One thing I’ve noticed since moving to Maine is how much the arts community is valued here. It’s surprised me how much our opinions are sought, and how we’re considered a valuable part of economic development (and not just for the purpose of gentrification).
So I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention that I was recently appointed to the Maine Arts Commission. As a new member, my first duty was being sworn in, which I did on a dark night of wet snow in the front parlor of Dr. John Lewis of Camden. He’s what they call a Dedimus Justice up here. Unique to Maine, these officials have one job: swearing in other officials.
As far as I can see, my first tasks will be to read, listen and think. Since I’m not a joiner by nature, I’m honored that outgoing governor Paul LePage thought I had something to offer.

A strategic plan for the artist

Planning isn’t the artist’s strongest skill. Here’s a step-by-step model you can use.

Winter lambing, by Carol L. Douglas. When I stray from my narrow focus, it’s for my own purposes and intentional.
My husband’s work is incremental. His current project has a three-year timeline. The members of his team have a clear idea of the end product. Each person disciplines him- or herself to finishing their bits each week. Planning has to be part of their process, or the end result would be chaos.
Artists work alone and usually finish a piece in a few hours, days or weeks. Then we move on to the next piece. Our planning is limited, and many of us resist it. “I’m a free spirit,” we tell ourselves.
Yesterday’s posttouched a chord. I messaged with artists from Mobile to Maine about how to write a strategic plan.

Apple tree swing, by Carol L. Douglas. One of my goals is to limit how many plein air events I do.

Here are the steps:

  • Find yourself someone smarter than you to work with. Lots of artists have business backgrounds; I don’t. Ask that person questions. Ask gallerists for advice. And don’t forget your spouse. After you, she/he is the biggest stakeholder in your process.
  • Identify what you want to make and sell. In my case, that’s landscape paintings, workshops, and a weekly class.
  • Identify marketing channels, including cost-free publicity. Social media marketing is so fluid that what works today will certainly notbe effective five years down the road, so be prepared to revisit this question regularly.
  • Julie Richardsuggests that you do a SWOT analysis. I didn’t, but I think it’s a good idea. That means you identify your:
  • My Acadia workshop is important to me both personally and professionally.
  • Many artists work other jobs to support themselves (including child care and homemaking). They need to figure out how many hours a week they can honestly give their art careers. Other artists are at retirement age or have retired spouses. You’ll be frustrated if you don’t face the limitation of time honestly.
  • Who are your target clients? Bobbi Heath and I drew up profiles of our clients based on our sales experience. We each realized we have two separate client bases, one for teaching and one for painting.
  • What are your objectives? Be realistic. When I first did this exercise with Jane Bartlettmany ago, I said I wanted to be earning $10,000 a year. (Money was a lot cheaper back then.) That seemed modest compared to what I was earning as a designer. I failed to make a fundamental calculation. At the price points I’d set for my work, I couldn’t possibly produce enough paintings to hit that goal. I was selling well enough, but still coming up broke.

    The answer to that, by the way, was not to raise my prices to an unrealistic level. It was just to ride through those years. Knowing they were coming would have helped my financial planning, though.

  • From your objectives, set some concrete goals. Commit to them. Most of my working week is spent working toward them. They keep me focused.
  • How are you going to make those goals a reality? By setting some action items. These may include:
    • A calendar of show applications with the dates firmly inked into your personal calendar;
    • An advertising schedule;
    • A work schedule as in, “I’m going to finish six large studio paintings by May.”
    • A budget—I realize that you’d like this budget to be zero, but that’s not practical. It costs money to make art and it costs money to advertise.
  • Write it down. It doesn’t need to be complicated; my current one is barely a page long.
  • Create accountability. I use Bobbi Heath’s system for managing multiple projects, but you might need an accountability partner. Make a system and use it.
  • Go back and look at the plan on a regular basis.
Give yourself room to be flexible. My watercolor workshop on the American Eagle is a new thing.

Does this mean you can’t be flexible? No. If you see an opportunity, grab it—as long as it doesn’t take you totally off track. if it does, ask yourself if your current plan is really your best plan, or does it need revision?

Want to make a living in the arts?

Pay attention to the numbers and develop a strategic plan.
Three Graces, Carol L. Douglas (courtesy Camden Falls Gallery). Wherever I go, that’s where the party’s at, especially on the Camden docks. That’s part of my business plan.

Yesterday, we started our day with a tsunami warning scrolling across our phones. Later, they issued a clarification; Accuweather had misread a test alarm. The mighty Atlantic floated serenely on.

A tsunami would have messed up my plans, which were to drive to Ellsworth to attend the Maine Arts Commission’s Arts Iditarod.
I’ve writtenabout my own strategic planning. It’s tremendously important for the artist who wants to go from dedicated amateur to professional. I was chuffed to hear Julie Richard, Maine Arts Commission Executive Director, ask how many artists or organizations have a strategic plan. I wasn’t so chuffed by the response, which was pretty spotty. In fact, I was the only working artist in the group who had such a plan.
Parker Dinghy, by Carol L. Douglas. A commission from a day on the Camden docks.
A strategic plan is just a disciplined exercise in developing goals and objectives for your business venture. If you’re a Maine artist who wants to take that all-important step in self-development, I encourage you to attend the last of the meetings, at Lewiston on February 14. You can register here. Mush!
Artists, for the most part, operate outside a corporate structure. For us, a blueprint is critically important, and yet we’re loathe to embrace planning. When I did my first strategic planning, it seemed a strange and wondrous concept. Twenty years later, I get it. Don’t let the oddity of the process deter you. It really works.
Athabasca glacier, by Carol L. Douglas. My plan never involves giving up fun.
About 22,000 Mainers make their living in the arts, and we’d do a better job of it if we were more organized. That starts with facts about our target audience. There are, of course, a similar set of facts for every locale. If you’re not in Maine, you’ll need to ferret them out on your own.
Arts and cultural tourists tend to spend more, stay longer, and come back more frequently than other kinds of visitors to Maine, according to Maine Cultural Tourism Coordinator Abbe Levin. They’re also more likely to move here after retirement. The Maine Office of Tourism is a big player in drawing them here, although most of their efforts are invisible to us Mainers. 95% of their marketing is done out of state. This year, VisitMaine will have around 3.5 million hits, and the office will send out mailings to a list of more than 800,000 visitors.
“How many visitors are too many?” asked a participant. While that’s something that occurs to us in July, the coastal economy needs people from away.
Russ Island at High Tideby Carol L. Douglas. It was painting off the American Eagle that inspired the Age of Sail workshop this June.
Maine currently sees about 40 million visitors a year, with annual growth of 8-9%. To compare, New York City, which is America’s top-drawing tourist destination, sees 60 million visitors a year. Yosemite gets 4 million people a year. We are, in fact, a very big deal, but we have the capacity to accommodate more, according to Levin. That’s particularly true during the shoulder seasons and in places farther up north.
The question for Maine artists is how to engage these visitors. Is it with more gallery representation, a self-run gallery, signage, advertising, painting on the dock or chatting up tourists?