Your Unique Hands“When you are an artist running her own business, you are the heart of that business. Someone else can do the filing and bookkeeping and administration. The one thing you can’t hand off is what YOU do.”

I was talking to an artist at a mixer at the Asheville Area Arts Council and this line just popped out of my mouth. As I said it, I almost left my body. Tears sprang to my eyes.

Truly, artists and any other creative business owner must look to themselves to provide the product they sell. This is why these sorts of businesses are so hard to pass along in any form. The thing which makes your thing YOUR THING is what makes your business go.

Over a decade ago, I took a class on valuing the closely-held business (which is banking speak for a small privately owned business – like a small wine shop or a single artist selling her jewelry). The first thing the teacher, a silver fox business consultant, said was “The point of a business is to sell it to someone else. That is the value you hold in your business.”

My pen refused to move. I sat staring at him like he was an alien. As my wife and I had begun our business, and even as we looked to perhaps selling it, we’d never thought of it that way. We’d always said, “We are in. We’re here to run this business. We’re in it for the long haul.”

As it turns out, we were in that business for a decade. A couple of years after taking that class, we sold that business and went on to other things. That business, an internet service provider, was transferrable. We were able to sell the assets: the client base and our equipment and our systems and our lease and our relationships with our employees.

As a working artist, you are the main asset. While you can teach someone how to paint or how to knit or how to bend metal, you are the only person who can create THAT painting or donut or necklace. That’s why, when you watch Antiques Roadshow, the appraisers talk about a certain painter who worked at Rookwood Pottery or those few anonymous slaves from South Carolina who made face jugs or how Tiffany & Company (Charles Lewis Tiffany who created the jewelry company) is different than Tiffany Studios (Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles’ son, of the amazing stained glass).

Usually, when you start a traditional business, you consider whether or not the business will go, what will happen if it doesn’t, and how to build it up. You’ll write a business plan with a year to five years of financial forcasting. As you run the business, you put systems in place which make it possible for you to teach employees and set standards of service. If someone else follows what you did, then they should be able to make the business go. At this point, you can sell your business to someone – anyone – else.

Scrubbing the PotAs an artist, the main asset of your business is non-transferable. All the systems in the world can help you teach someone to sew up a project bag or print a giclee or ship the packages at the right time, but they will do nothing to show someone how to pick THAT fabric or drop color on a canvas in THAT way or place a cable just THERE in the sweater pattern.

I’m not saying that, because you are an artist, you can’t build your business to be transferable. Within the business that you’ve created, you have assets which can be transferred to others.

  • Your list of clients are people who love art. That list has a value.
  • The equipment you use to create your art has a value.
  • If you work outside the home, your studio space or office has a lease.

I’m just saying don’t think about your art in that way. And don’t think that anyone can do what you do.

Because they can’t.

You’re in it for the long haul.

I doubt you’ve ever thought about it any other way.


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