DIY your artistic career

We hear a lot about the burden of student loan debt for young people starting careers – but we don’t hear as much about the financial burden of emerging artists.  Like any self-employed entrepreneur, visual and performing artists need supplies and equipment.  That becomes, for most artists, a significant investment.  In addition to consumable supplies, like paint, fabric, or canvas, many artists are also dependent on expensive equipment like musical instruments, kilns, and printing presses.

There are two issues here: affordability and availability.  While in school, the student often has access to equipment, along with studio, rehearsal and performance space, which goes away after graduation. Unless you are connected to a school, your choice is often between purchasing expensive and bulky equipment for your home (assuming, of course, that you have an appropriate space), and finding something else to do for a living.  What does a young graduate, living in apartments and paying off student loans, do?

On my sabbatical journeys last spring, I met with two organizations who are working to solve this problem: Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring, Maryland, and ADX in Portland, Oregon.

Pyramic Atlantic Art Center is an organization dedicated to printmaking, paper and book arts.  Their facility includes a papermaking studio, print shop, letterpress studio, bindery, a darkroom, and a wood shop. They have a variety of ways for artists to access the equipment and spaces, ranging from an hourly fee to an “art gym membership” – a monthly fee which allows you unlimited access during open hours, kind of like the gym.  Artists who wish to go to the next level can apply for fellowships or residencies, or rent one of a dozen or so private studios.  The day I was there, there were several artists in the printmaking studio, a lovely exhibit in the upstairs gallery, and volunteers stuffing supply bags for an upcoming school field trip.

ADX (Art Design Portland, a play on the city’s airport nickname PDX) is a similar facility, but the bulk of its footprint is devoted to wood and metal.  The 14,000 square foot facility has all of the big, heavy, scary-looking equipment you’d expect from a wood and metal shop, and the adjoining rooms have laser equipment, long arm sewing machines, and an autocad studio sponsored by AutoDesk.  Founder Kelly Roy says, “In the years following our launch, ADX has incubated over 100 businesses, helped 200 crowd-funded projects reach their goals, and provided a home-away-from-home for thousands of designers, builders, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, designers and artists. What began as a D.I.Y, bootstrapped makerspace has quickly become a local hub for both artists and artisans, pioneering a new model for both education and the modern sharing economy.”  Financial options are similar to Pyramic Atlantic: a monthly unlimited membership, hourly fees, and the option to rent a permanent studio space.

Both Pyramid Atlantic and ADX are taking advantage of the DIY trend and maker movement, and both are providing valuable services not only to budding artists but hobbyists and the community at large.  I was impressed that both facilities had robust corporate programs.  Both organizations offer

ADX's floor plan

ADX’s floor plan

corporate memberships that provide discounts to multiple employees of the same company.  Both facilities hold corporate maker days; Kelly at ADX told me that a company recently came in and built a conference room table as a team-building activity.  

Another aspect important to both ADX and Pyramid Atlantic is collaboration.  Art can sometimes be a solitary activity – alone in the studio or practice room. At facilities like these, experienced artists can mentor beginners, pros and hobbyists can share tips, and everyone can enjoy the camaraderie of just being in the same creative space.  ADX even has collaborative “co-working” office, so that artists can collaborate and everyone can take a meeting without having to invest in office space.

Although they offer similar programs and financial options, these organizations are structured very differently.  Pyramic Atlantic is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, a structure, they say, that allows them to keep prices low and offer residencies, internships and fellowships supported by grants and donations.  ADX chose to go the for-profit route, reasoning that this would allow them to stay nimble and respond to changes in the economy and community needs without having to go through a complicated governance structure.  Both structures seem to be working, at least for now – and perhaps provide some evidence that there is not just one path to a goal.

As a proponent of the the theory that arts are for everyone, not just those who can afford them, I hate to see money and access be barriers to artists, any more than they should be for audiences.  These two organizations are changing the artist’s story: allowing people to be creative without a huge up-front financial commitment.  That’s all good.

Thanks to: Gretchen Schermerhorn from Pyramid Atlantic and Kelley Roy of ADX.  

In the entrepreneurial spirit that defines ADX, Kelley is crowd funding a new book about the maker movement and manufacturing renaissance in Portland.  You can find information about that project here.





About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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