Portrait of an Artist as an Entrepreneur

Any starving artist will tell you the difficulty of following your passion while trying to earn a living. Imagine, then, as an artist, footing the bill for a $21 million project, which could never be sold, admission to the project would be free and the project could not be funded through any outside grants or contributions. This is the situation the artists Jean-Claude and Christo found themselves in as they fought for 26 years to install their piece entitled, The Gates in New York City’s Central Park.

According to media reports the couple “made 41 formal presentations to civic officials and community leaders in 1980 alone. They’ve endured feasibility reports, petitions, angry letters of protest, and a 251-page official refusal, issued 23 years ago (before the project was approved).”[i] After decades of negotiation with city officials the project was only allowed to move forward following substantial support from New York’s Mayor Bloomberg and an acknowledgement that no public funds would be used to underwrite the project, along with considerations on the projects design, which would help to ensure minimal environmental impact on the park itself.

The question then becomes how could an artist take on the financial obligations of such a large project and potentially even make money? What allowed Jean-Claude and Christo to succeed was their ability to think outside the box. Instead of focusing on the project itself, which was sure to receive international attention and a worldwide audience, the couple focused on the plans for the project.

The Gates was a $21 million project in which a total of 7,503 gates made of saffron (or arguably orange) fabric were placed on the pathways in Central Park. The engineering, manufacturing, and set-up took over a year and 750 paid employees erected the project. [ii] A project of this magnitude took an inordinate amount of planning. It is, ironically, in this planning where Jean Claude and Christo intended to make money.

During their 26 years of preparation the artists had developed sketches, plans, and models outlining every detail of the project. These sketches were more practical than they were simply pieces of art, as they brought the concept to life in the mind of the viewer. As the project finally gained traction, it became clear that these sketches, plans, and designs could be more valuable than the project itself. It’s as if an architect were to single handedly underwrite the cost of a new building by selling his architectural renderings for the project.

The result was an incredible success. According to media reports, the works were priced by size, “The small collages, measuring eleven inches by eight and a half inches, sell for $30,000; the wall-size drawings, at four and three quarters feet by eight feet, go for $600,000.” [iii] Customers included the artists previous supporters as well as the administration officials themselves, Bloomberg is said to have purchased a piece to help support the project.

The Gates case study is a perfect example of finding alternate ways to make money. It shouldn’t be surprising that one of Jean Claude and Christo’s most ardent supporters once complimented them by praising, “I love your work because you are entrepreneurs”. While conventional artists would focus on the piece itself, or perhaps find outside grants or subsidies to support their work, Jean Claude and Christo took an unusual stance – and did so on the largest possible scale. The approach is one that should be closely followed by any budding entrepreneur.

As you wade through the murky waters of the start-up environment, bear in mind this type of outside-the-box thinking. It may be that the primary focus of your venture isn’t what will be the chief source of revenue. It may be that other underlying elements could instead bring in the most value.

i http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/10897/index1.html

ii http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christo_and_Jeanne-Claude

iii http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/10897/index1.html

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