Art Works Blog

Helping Artists in Isolation Move to the Spotlight

The Montana Arts Council’s brand, our promise, is to strengthen the creative economy of Montana. And a large part of our creative economy is the thousands of artists who call Big Sky Country their home. In fact, one out of every 60 people in Montana’s labor market is a working artist, according to the Montana State Department of Labor.

Visual and traditional artists around the world frequently work in isolation. Here in Montana, that isolation is compounded by daunting geographic realities.

Imagine working in a “frontier”

Imagine Montana; a place so large that 11 other U.S. states could fit within its borders. If Montana’s eastern border was in Washington, DC, our western border would land in Chicago. Our state just exceeded one million in population. Forty-six of Montana’s 56 counties are designated as frontier populations--even more rural than “rural,” with less than six people per square mile. In fact, one’s nearest neighbor may be 1-20 miles away.

The nearest major markets for artists are 500-800 miles away, and the Montana Arts Council knows that the number one need voiced by artists in our state is for help expanding marketing opportunities and access to markets.

The Montana Artrepreneur Program 

Our gold-star model for market expansion is the Montana Artrepreneur Program--we call it MAP--created by Dr. Cindy Kittredge (who recently retired from our staff). MAP is a flexible, accessible, and affordable program geared to helping visual and traditional artists create a sustainable future in the business of art. Instituted in 2009, and now in its sixth year, MAP is an economic development training center for hundreds of artists throughout the state.

The program is designed to address the geographic isolation of artists and bridge the vast distances in Montana. It centers on a coach-and-learning-artist-cohort model set in rural communities across the state. Each cohort consists of six to twelve artists coached by an artist, usually from their own area of the state, who has gone through the MAP artist-training program. The artists spend ten months together (usually meeting once a month) developing their marketing and business skills, resulting in the creation of an “Artrepreneur’s Toolbox” of 35 elements. To date, 350 artists have enrolled in the training. Twenty-seven coaches are trained, and at present, ten have active cohorts.

The Secret Sauce

Sheri Jarvis, our current MAP Program Director, says that the “secret sauce” that makes this program especially effective includes the following ingredients: 

Affirmation

There is something special that happens when an artist finds a group of people who speak the same language and have been pursuing art as a credible profession for so long. There is always a lovely mix of relief and excitement in the room when they get together.

Support

Because artists are natural problem-solvers and creative engineers, there is no better place than MAP to share ideas. At 300+ artists and growing, the network is substantial and media-diverse so our artists can find support for most any challenge, whether business- or studio-related. Montanans are strong, humble, and generous people by nature. Though we are few and far between, we find ways of bridging the barriers of distance to help each other. Thanks to the rich combination of our general nature coupled with social media and the structure of MAP, Montana artists have a support system unavailable to most artists in other states.

Authenticity

It’s beautifully challenging for each artist to work with a group of people who “really see” their talent and potential and who will hold them to the highest standard of their genius. Artists ask more from one another--it’s not enough to simply be “artsy.” Artists will boldly and honestly encourage each other to move beyond mediocrity.

Work

Participating in a MAP group is work. Each MAP cohort starts its meeting talking about their artit’s the foundation of everything they do, their product and their purpose. Each person brings something that they have finished or are working on to report their progress as makers to the group. In learning to describe and share the story of why they make what they make, they hone the craft of communication--the essence of marketing. From there, they build their business tools together, leaning in to the hardest parts through lively small group discussions that engage each person in the room. All of this is hard for artists who would much rather be alone in the studio expressing themselves without language.

Sales Impact

The Montana Arts Council recently conducted an in-depth evaluation of the MAP program, steered by a well-established researcher in our field, Surale Phillips. We asked her to go deep and research MAP artists’ sales, and economic impact on household income from 2009 to 2013.

Artists who received “certification” by completing the program and submitting their portfolio of 35 tools in their “Toolbox,” mentioned before:

  • generated a 391 percent increase in net sales of art with some gross sales as high as $68,000/year;
  • increased out-of-state sales by 53 percent; and
  • reported that in 2013, 29 percent of their gross personal income was derived from their art sales.

Life-changing results

Artists involved in the program have told the arts council repeatedly that the program “changed their lives” and “was the most important thing that ever happened to them.” They have even credited the MAP program’s training with “helping us stay on our family ranch.”

With special thanks

This work has been funded through a collaboration of supporters including the state of Montana, the National Endowment for the Arts, LINC (Leveraging Investments in Creativity), the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Communities Development Initiative. Special thanks are due to Cinda Holt, Business Development Specialist for the Montana Arts Council and the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority.

For more information on the Montana Artrepreneur Program, please contact Sheri Jarvis at sherijarvis@mt.gov.

Comments

Submitted by Neal Lewing (not verified) on

Love this!When I served on the Council, artists were 1 in 78 Montanans. Great to see the numbers rising as population increases.I'm still disturbed that there are no similar considerations for performing arts, the first to be cut from school progams. Performing arts, as I advocated as part of my "platform" on the Council, are 1) just as beneficial, if not moreso 2) just as indicative of our culture and frankly, 3) just as exportable as visual arts. I realize that performing artists are rarely as isolated as visual and traditional artists - after all, the ver nature of performance relies on audience participation - and therefore are less likely to require the kind of program mentioned here. But I will continue to advocate for performing arts and artists until I croak - probably on stage.Meanwhile, thanks to all on MAC for continuing to carry the torch and investigate new and different models to further the cause of arts. We all need to continue to lobby schools to re-include arts (ALL arts) into curricular prominence.Thanks, everyone!-NL

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