When Shannon Linker went to work for the Arts Council of Indianapolis in mid-2002, it was a typical pass-through organization--re-granting
city money to local arts groups. Its leaders hobnobbed with movers and shakers at local not-for-profits, but they didn't
have a lot of direct contact with artists.
"The standard since the organization started [in 1987] was to help local arts organizations," Linker said. "We had really never thought about the idea of working with artists directly."
As office manager, Linker fielded calls from artists needing help. They sought assistance with legal problems, information on how to market their work, and advice on getting health insurance. Linker either hunted down information or sent them elsewhere.
But she took notes and before long approached then-CEO Ramona Baker, asking if she could do more for artists. Now Linker is director of an artist-services program on par with those offered in communities like Seattle and New York City but few other places.
"I realized there was this other subculture of artists who weren't thrilled with the Arts Council," she said. "They said, 'We're part of the arts community, too.' ... The arts organizations are critical to the city, but without cultivating individual artists, we're shooting ourselves in the foot."
Now artists can market themselves via an Arts Council database, attend free business-development classes, and get the lowdown on opportunities through a weekly e-mail. Local artists say the council programs make a difference in getting their works noticed, building the ranks of local arts patrons, and keeping creative minds in Indianapolis.
"I've lived in Washington, D.C.; Boston; Philadelphia, and I've never seen services like this," said Gautam Rao, an artist who does photography and oil paintings. "In the other cities, I don't know that I was even aware that there was an arts council. They didn't interact with artists."
Linker, 37, is a Texas native, having grown up in a small town just outside Dallas. Her dad was a basketball coach and, as a kid, she saw herself following suit. Later, she decided she wanted to write, got interested in painting, and went on to study art history, earning a master's degree in art history from Texas Woman's University.
She moved to Indianapolis in 2001--while still finishing up her thesis work--when her husband got a job with Eli Lilly and Co. She worked at a few area not-for-profits before landing at the Arts Council. Though she paints, Linker never really wanted to pursue a career as an artist because she didn't like the risk.
"I'm sort of an artist wannabe, someone who never really pursued it as a career but I still have the sensibilities of an artist," she said. "There's an amount of risk taking to being an artist. You're your own one-person show. I respect those who can do that."
Instead, she's fallen back on her roots and become a coach of sorts, hanging out with artists instead of administrators at local events, listening to individual artists' needs, and acting as a liaison with the business world--and working with an artist services budget that hovers around $20,000 a year.
Building the program
Linker's first project in 2003 was to gather information for a free booklet listing all the galleries in Indianapolis, including nontraditional spaces that display local artwork. Though it sounds like a tame idea now, it was the first time the council worked to promote for-profit entities.
"That was a radical change for the council," Linker said. "Back then, we didn't want to talk about money. But art is a business and to pretend otherwise is a fantasy."
The gallery guide, which has been updated regularly and now also includes public art displays, lists contact information so artists can pitch their work. And it includes a full spectrum of venues so consumers can find a place to see, learn about and buy local art no matter their budget.
After the guide, Linker started a weekly e-mail newsletter highlighting every type of opportunity she came across for artists--calls for proposals, grants, job listings, auditions and more. Before it, artists often said one big hurdle was finding out about art festivals and other shows. The newsletter now lists 10 to 15 opportunities per week and is distributed to 1,300 people.
"It's the single biggest thing we've done to help individual artists," Linker said. "This evens the playing field."
Rao said it would take him hours to gather the information contained in the newsletter himself. But after following up on leads in the e-mail, he's had his work included in many shows and applied for several grants.
"You have no excuse for not at least participating in one or two things in there," he said of the newsletter.
Next, Linker helped start an artist database, which now includes 600 listings--450 visual artists and 150 artists in the performing and literary realms. The database includes still images and it soon will accept video clips to increase the value for musicians and dance troupes.
Also in 2003, Linker set up the first round of seminars for artists. Experts volunteer their time to coach artists on legal issues, marketing and business plans. Artists also learn how to polish their portfolios, set up a Web site, and shoot images of artwork.
Fabric artist Stephanie Lewis Robertson said she learned from the seminars.
"[The classes] gave us insight into what we need to do as a small-business owner," Robertson said. The Arts Council "has given artists an entree into professionalism through information we always had to hunt and search on our own before."
Photographer Ginny Taylor Rosner said the seminars helped her polish a grant proposal she wrote for a 2007 Stutz residency, which she won.
"[The council] is taking artists seriously and to a certain extent being mentors to those who want to take advantage of it," Rosner said.
Linker also helped start the "Be Indypendent" campaign, a grass-roots effort to get people to buy local art, complete with an online brochure explaining the mysteries of pricing and gallery shopping for novices.
That support is "a huge benefit and that's why artists want to stay" in the city, Robertson said.
Linker said she thinks the programs have been a success because the artists' needs drove the offerings.
"If it were just us, with our desk jobs, coming up with these ideas, it wouldn't be successful," she said.