Classes emphasize connection between artists, entrepreneurs

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expertise Owner Amanda Taflinger, right with son Zeke, wants to add workshop space at Homespun to offer art classes and business seminars. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Amanda Taflinger had a vision and the discipline to keep it in focus. What she didn’t have was the business expertise needed to get her contemporary crafts boutique off the drawing board.

So she read—how-to books, articles, blogs—and pored over whatever market research she could find. She consulted with experts who specialize in helping startups and talked with anyone who might offer a nugget of useful advice.

And last fall, she and her husband, Neal, opened Homespun: Modern Handmade in the heart of Irvington’s commercial district.

Now the Taflingers are poised to expand the store to include workshop space and help others like her make the leap from artist to entrepreneur.

“We were bound and determined to pull it off,” she said.

Trained as a photojournalist, the 32-year-old worked as an elementary school art teacher for three years before cutbacks eliminated her job. With son Zeke on the way, she decided it was time to follow her dream.

Homespun sells handmade goods from about 140 artisans throughout the United States and Canada. Workshops were part of Taflinger’s initial plans, but the retail area filled up so fast she ran out of room—not to mention time and money.

Still, she persevered and expects to begin offering educational programs this year after lining up a $25,000 grant from Pepsi. High on her to-do list: business classes for artists, who often lack the nuts-and-bolts knowledge necessary to make their passion profitable.

It’s a topic that’s gaining attention nationally, and not just in the craft community. Universities also are ramping up business training for fine arts students in hopes of making “starving artists” a thing of the past.

‘Entrepreneurial mind-set’

Indiana University’s top-ranked Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation has an outreach center at the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, for example, and leaders are working to develop a certificate program in entrepreneurship for music majors.

“They’ve really got the entrepreneurial mind-set,” said Johnson Center Executive Director Donald F. Kuratko, praising students’ “innovative ways of thinking about their skills, their art, their career.

“They see the value in learning a little more about business. It’s starting to take root.”

expertise factboxIndeed, the economic realities of pursuing careers in the cash-strapped arts are driving interest in such lessons. But Kuratko said the creative similarities between artists and entrepreneurs also are becoming more apparent. Music students have been on the leading edge of the movement at IU and elsewhere in part because they already are so disciplined, he said.

“It takes a creative mind and the discipline to put that creative mind to use,” Kuratko said.

Drexel University professor James Undercofler agrees. A professor at the Philadelphia institution’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, Undercofler introduced an arts entrepreneurship class this summer.

His 14 arts administration students tackled two projects that taught them to evaluate market conditions, determine the feasibility of their ideas, and research the competition to come up with business plans.

“If nothing else, these students will know how to go about ‘testing’ new ideas and programs,” Undercofler wrote in his “State of the Art” blog.

As the marketplace for artists has changed, such lessons have become increasingly important, he said. More and more, artists will need to come up with new ventures to make the most of their talents.

“I have to believe if large portions of artists had these skills, it would increase their ability to communicate with potential funders and patrons,” he said. “A good business plan is fundable. A good idea isn’t, necessarily.”

Even so, such courses aren’t yet required for most art students. Undercofler blamed curriculums jam-packed with history, theory and technique classes, but expects more universities to find a way to work in some business basics.

“It’s a selling point now,” he said.

‘Thrown into the real world’

Indianapolis painter Kate Oberreich has taken several business-for-artists classes—all after earning her bachelor’s in fine arts from Ball State University in 2005. College “prepared me to be an artist, not a business owner,” she said.

Oberreich, who works two part-time jobs in addition to maintaining a studio at the Stutz Business Center downtown, said it quickly became apparent to her that artists need to understand the essentials of running a business. So she signed up for training sessions offered by the Arts Council of Indianapolis on topics such as grant writing and art law.

The daughter of artists, she said she would have jumped at the opportunity to take such classes in school, but acknowledges some of her peers would have resisted.

“There’s a perception that artists don’t need it,” Oberreich said. “But when we get thrown into the real world, it’s like, ‘Oh no.’”

That is why the Arts Council began collaborating with visual-arts group Primary Colours about five years ago to offer free workshops for artists on topics such as accounting, marketing, legal issues and technology. Interest varies depending on the subject.

“It’s hard to get [artists] to come out for a workshop on taxes,” said Shannon Linker, the Arts Council’s director of artist services and its Gallery 924. “But they’re understanding that they have to have a basic knowledge of these things to build their own business and survive.”

The last round of classes was funded through a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission. Now Linker and others are working with the Indianapolis Downtown Art Dealers’ Association to develop new sessions specifically geared to gallery owners.

Feedback from artists has been positive enough that Linker is confident the courses will continue. And although she hadn’t heard about Taflinger’s plans to offer classes, too, she said there seems to be room for competition—or collaboration.

“Together, we could make a bigger impact and reach more people,” she said.

For now, Taflinger is keeping her focus on Homespun and its evolution.

Also the founder of the INDIEana Handicraft Exchange, she raised more than $6,000 through crowdfunding site Kickstarter last year to pay for workshop tables and a sign. She has some art supplies in storage to get craft classes rolling. And she has the valuable insight that comes from regular conversations with working artists.

“A lot of them are coming to us and saying, ‘Do I need a logo? Do I need a website?’” she said. “They have a really great product, but they don’t know where to start. They need help.”

To that end, Taflinger plans to bring in experts to offer assistance with things like using online marketplace Etsy, photographing artwork and packaging products—along with more mundane subjects such as business structures and tax accounting. A rising tide lifts all boats, after all.

“We had a lot of people help us make this happen,” she said, gesturing around the small but lively shop at 5624 E. Washington St. “We appreciate the community this has created.”•

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