Visual Art 1-27-2003

Chris Osgood: Flight School for Artists

Ann Klefstad talks to Chris Osgood, director of Springboard for the Arts (formerly Resources and Counseling in the Arts), a man who has spoken to thousands of artists across all media about how to survive in the arts.

Ann Klefstad: What’s the biggest obstacle to living as an artist in Minnesota today?

Chris Osgood: Short answer: it varies by discipline. Some disciplines have a faster track than others.It’s hardest to make a living as a visual artist; perhaps easier for performers. There’s a lot more audience for performance in Minnesota.
The first obstacle is finding your market. But that’s not as much of an obstacle as, say, getting adequate health insurance, and the other problems that self-employed people deal with.

AK: So many of the obstacles are functions of self-employment?

CO: In artistic disciplines the challenge is less low income than erratic income. Visual artists who have shows in galleries here or in New York or anywhere—they may work for 2 years and then have a show that lasts for 6 weeks and have to generate enough income off of that to live off for another 2 years. Same with performing artists–the performing artists we work with at Springboard who are successful are the ones who are busy, who work with some regularity . . ..

AK: So it’s regular income that matters—what are some strategies for generating it?

CO: I hate to sound like Marketing 101, but usually some element of diversification is necessary.

AK: Diversification?

CO: At Springboard we don’t talk about diversification, we talk about generating income streams. . . . Artists who are able to not work part time at the Superamerica or at the Veterans Hospital—which isn’t so bad—are those who can generate art-related income streams that can make up for the erraticness of their primary income. I think of Barbara Thatcher, who works here, she works part-time as an arts administrator so that she can do her choreography. Other artists teach part time or do residency work, like Ross Sutter, a guitarist who’s a very busy artist in the schools.
The important thing is that people enjoy doing what they do. That gives them energy and complements the making of their art.

AK: Examples?

CO: I know a pleine aire oil painter who drives a truck. He loves driving through the landscape, he’d be doing it anyway, and he brings his paints and everything with him. When he has an hour or two he’ll stop and work on a painting.

AK: What about marketing strategies? Let’s say a 35 year old painter comes to you and says, “How do I market my work?” What would you tell him?

CO: I’d really have to see the work . . . at Springboard we make sure that an artist has enough work that he or she can draw samples of representative work—we want an artist to have enough work that she can go back and pull a large and representative sample of high quality work. Usually for a visual artist that means a slide sheet of 20 images, with details of bigger pieces . . . First and foremost, when an artist is getting ready to market themselves, they have to feel confident and good about it. . . . For musicians, it’s the same thing, the work sample has to be great. Now, let’s go back to your example of the painter. We take a look at the work that he’s done, and we say, “Who is the one who cares about this stuff, who’s going to like this?”, and luckily for us we’ve got depth of experience with galleries around town. We don’t have depth of experience with galleries around the U.S. . . . What we do here at Springboard, for marketing, we make sure that artists have work samples that they’re excited about, and then we think about who cares about this, let’s go find them.
What we’ve started doing is a strategy that I call “subtractification”. I think it’s a given that 19 out of 20 people aren’t going to care about any given artist, regardless of what the work sample is, so we work with artists to find out who that one out of 20 person is. Try to create a consumer profile—who is this person? Where are they? How are they going to discover you?

AK: So this isn’t just looking for galleries, this is looking for the consumers who would buy from galleries—

CO: Exactly. And this might lead us to a gallery, it might lead us to a book publisher. A lot of artists that we’ve worked with over the years wind up finding other markets for what they do besides galleries.

AK: Is what you do mainly individual consultation? How many artists do you see?

CO: A big part of it is individual consultation. I’ll do, on average, two a day, but I’m out of the office on some days—it averages about 300 a year.

AK: How long are consultations, and what do they cost?

CO: One hour, face to face; thirty bucks. And it’s a tax-deductible expense. I don’t think there’s anything that can compare with sitting down with someone knowledgeable and talking about your work. I’d like to think that it’s had a positive effect . . . It starts with an artist being able to articulate to somebody else what it is that they do. One thing that I do with just about everybody is I have them write an artist’s statement: Who are they? What is their work about? Why do they do it?

AK: You work across media, you talk to musicians, visual artists, actors . . . ?

CO: Yes, that’s right, to writers, to composers. . . . this happened in one week—I had an Elvis impersonator and then a guy who made suits of medieval armor.

AK: That’s a range! . . . Do you think that it’s necessary to leave town to live as an artist? In other words, do you need other venues besides Minneapolis, St. Paul, Minnesota, to make the income to live as an artist?

CO: It all depends on what your work is. For too many artists, it’s absolutely necessary, and usually that’s visual artists. We have a very small market for visual artists here compared to other cities around the country. On the other hand, this is a great place to produce a body of work. Yesterday we were talking here about the choreographic world being below 14th St in New York, and that’s in part true. That’s sort of where the discussion is, you know what I’m saying? I was reading a book the other day called The Rise of the Creative Class, and the creative class tends to go where the discussion is, like Picasso going to Paris in the early 1900s. That’s true—it’s like me with my punk rock band, I had to play CBGB’s in New York, Max’s Kansas City, and later on the Troubadour in LA, because that’s where the discussion was happening.

AK: Do you notice the discussion shifting or dispersing due to things like mnartists, or other sites on the web?

CO:Yes, I do . . . . People can do their work in a cabin in Tofte and they can put their work on line . . . that’s a part of what they can do to put their work into the discussion. What mnartists is doing is enabling that part. It’s pretty cool that wherever you are in the world, you can direct people to your work .. . .having a presence on the web is absolutely necessary these days.

AK: Presence isn’t discussion, though. Do you see particular websites as contributing to criticality? Are there any that drive discussion in the way certain places do?

CO: Only in that it’s the way that people find your work. It’s like being in the phone book. Just because you’re in the phone book, though, doesn’t mean anybody’s going to call you up. Except telemarketers.

AK: What about online journals and things like that?

CO: The sort of thing that happens online is a different thing than what happens when you talk to people face to face. We all still need to have that discussion with other human beings. In the book I was reading [The Rise of the Creative Class] the author talks about the need to go somewhere to have that discussion . . . . You don’t do that discussion at home, and you don’t do it at the office, either, because the experience of reading off the screen is different than people talking together . . . .He posits that’s why we see the rise of people hanging out, like in a coffee place. . . .but to not have the computer experience is to deny a part of it now, too.

AK: In other words, art is a pretext for conversation . . . .something to talk about .

CO: Well, at its most mundane it is, but it’s so much more than that. “Something to talk about” is not very far away from “raison d’etre,” reason to be, the reason that people are. . . . And we also get a chance to think with the alpha part of our brains, the fun part—not the beta part, which is about food, clothing, and shelter—Alpha is that other state of being, when we are doing something creative . . . .