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Art Gets Entrepreneurial

Artists looking to make a name for themselves are forgoing the gallery/museum route and selling their own products.

Jaime Zollars began selling her art prints almost as a lark. Soon after earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration, a friend encouraged her to set up a booth at the alterna-craft fair Bazaar Bizarre in Los Angeles.

"I made some prints and hoped to sell a few at the event," Zollars recalls. "When I got home, I was shocked to find that I had made over $2,000 in sales. It was great market research to find out what people liked and did not like about my work."

zollarsZollars is part of a new crop of artist-turned-entrepreneurs who forgo the gallery system by starting their own businesses. These artists create products--prints, T-shirts, stationery--to sell online, at craft and art fairs, and wholesale to boutiques. They might hook up with a manufacturer and put out a line of limited art toys, or license their designs to other companies. They may even sell some work via galleries--but it's not like they're waiting around to be discovered. They're branding themselves and creating a DIY revolution.

Zollars initially invested about $1,500 for printing. Today, Zollars does about seven shows a year and sells her products--which include pins, postcards and T-shirts--online, wholesale and in galleries. She says about one-third of her income comes from her products; the other two-thirds derive from gallery sales of paintings and commercial illustration work.

"The market is very exciting for artists right now, but to survive as an artist, you need to be more flexible than ever. There are so many opportunities and venues now for illustrators that were not available 10 years ago: vinyl toys, web comics, galleries, alternative craft fairs, online shops and more," Zollars says.

BisProlific artist Tim Biskup, 40, says the internet is mostly to thank for this rise in entrepreneurial artists, but the art scene itself is also causing the DIY revolution. Biskup co-owns a clothing company (Gama-Go), and a gallery (Bispop). He also sells books, prints, clothing and collectible items like vinyl toys on his website, Flopdoodle.

"I think there is a backlash to the kind of art that has been prominent in galleries and museums over the last 30 years," Biskup says. "The fine art world had become so opaque and self-referential through the '80s and '90s that it was no longer giving the general public much to look at that they could enjoy on an aesthetic level. Most of the artists that are truly DIY are making art the average Joe can look at and understand."

How do galleries and the "establishment" feel about these upstarts selling their own work through venues that didn't even exist 10 or 15 years ago? Biskup notes there are artists, like famed pop surrealist Mark Ryden, who have stopped selling products because it affects their print and original work sales.

Others don't care about that effect, or haven't felt it. Zollars says that she's been lucky enough to meet gallery contacts and art buyers at craft fairs but plans to start a company for her products under a different name to separate her fine art from her commercial products.

One arena that seems far from the high-end galleries of New York City is the vinyl toy scene. Usually sold in limited editions, these artist-designed works are relatively inexpensive and addictively collectible. Raymond Choy, 43, founder of Hong Kong-based Toy2R, is a pioneer in the field that provides artists the chance to design in 3-D toys and collectibles as well as in 2-D prints. Choy started his line of Qee collectibles in 2000. Originally, there were four Qee characters--a bear, a dog, a cat and the mascot Toyer--but now, Qees feature the designs of both internationally recognized and new artists.

As a toy industry veteran, Choy used his contacts in Hong Kong and Japan to market Qees. Choy says the first Toy2R series sold 20,000 to 30,000 units, but the company has since sold millions of Qees.

Jim Crawford and his business partner, Gregory Blum, both 39, were inspired by the Hong Kong vinyl scene when they started STRANGEco, a San Francisco-based toy manufacturer, in 2002.

"[The toys] carried a lot of elements that shouted 'tipping point': underground product with a dedicated fan base; roots in a variety of subcultures, from streetwear to independent comics; a great combination of art and commerce; and a product that was both nostalgic and totally fresh at the same time," Crawford says.

Originally, the duo had to knock on many artists' doors to find design partners, but now Crawford says artists come to them. They also sell their wares in a bigger variety of stores these days.

"When done best, art toys are 3-D representations of an artist's 2-D work. You might not have $2,000 for a painting by your favorite artist, but you might have $60 for a limited edition vinyl toy designed by that artist," Crawford says.

Qees1He sees market saturation currently of "too much product at a certain price point and edition size, which may turn off some of the core collector base." However, that doesn't necessarily mean bad news. Rather than artists trying to fund individual, limited editions runs of a single vinyl toy, Crawford envisions them making more licensing deals with companies that can stomach the costs of making toys.

Getting some kind of help--whether finding a manufacturing partner or hiring someone to do your shipping--is something all artist entrepreneurs eventually face. Biskup acknowledges that running so many businesses while still trying to maintain an artist output is a major problem.

"I'm always trying to figure out how to streamline my business so that I can hand off as much as possible to other people, but it's very difficult for me to let go," Biskup says.

He also predicts that other businesses will pop up to help this new legion of artists and business owners.

"I hear a lot of people talking about creating a single infrastructure for multiple independent artists, whether it's distribution, marketing, PR, etc," he says.

The trend of artists-turned-entrepreneurs is likely to continue, especially as newer artists witness the commercial success of DIY veterans like Biskup and Zollars.

"There are a lot [of] artists that have decent heads for business and are able to capitalize on their artistic output," Crawford says.

"It's not hard to find any kind of a manufacturer now--[just] a matter of Google searches and some determination. It's still hard to make a living doing art, but there are more ways to reach an audience now, no matter how niche an artist's work is."

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