Arts Summit helps artists navigate the business side of their craft

When the commercial real estate market tanked in 2008, John Donato found himself unemployed. He had to replace his salary pronto, but the only skill he could think of was drawing.

“I found myself without a job and with a baby and a wife. My very short-term goal was let’s not lose our house,” he said. “When I was faced with no other options, I said, ‘Why don’t I try being an artist.’”

If you think you know where this story is going, you’re wrong.

Donato swiftly segued into being a “collaborative muralist.” He works with children to paint colorful murals on middle-school hallways, in family-court buildings and at the Freeman Stage in Selbyville.

Nine years later, Donato said he’s far better off financially than he was when he worked in real estate.  He said he’s also happier, less stressed, and he has more time for his family, which now numbers four.

The arts employed 4,220 people in Delaware last year. That compares with 3,890 in 2008.

While the numbers moved upward, the wages inched downward. The average wage for the Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media segment was $24.56 per hour in 2008 but just $23.80 per hour in 2018, according to the state Office of Occupational and Labor Market Information.

Donato was one of nearly 250 artists, writers, musicians, performers, filmmakers and others who attended the Oct. 28 Delaware Division of the Arts’ 2019 Delaware Arts Summit, which featured a dozen seminars to help artists navigate the business end of their careers.

Delaware Arts Summit speaker
Elaine Grogan Luttrull

As speaker Elaine Grogan Luttrull told them in a session dubbed Financial Wellness for Artists, “You can love what you do and get paid. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.”

Luttrull, a C.P.A. and author of a financial guide for artists, had people nodding in agreement when she said artists should donate their work if they love a cause but they shouldn’t feel they need to donate to every organization that asks in return for exposure: “A lot of us have moved past believing there is value in exposure,” she said. “No one has ever asked a surgeon to do an appendectomy for exposure. Who says to the surgeon, ‘I really need your service. Would you do it and I promise I’ll tweet about it.”

Here are some of her money tips for artists:

  • Decide how much you need to earn in order to live the way you want to live and try to build your business with that amount in mind.
  • Send thank-yous to people who buy your work. If it’s an art piece, write, “Thank you for buying my piece. I’d love to have a photo of it in your house so I can post it on social media.”
  • If you’re asked to donate your work, say, “I’d love to. That sounds amazing. What’s your budget? I usually charge blank, but I’ll be happy to do it for blank.” “It’s like a tennis match,” Luttrull said. “You volley. There’s always a budget.”
  • If you donate, ask for something in return –a contact list for people who bid on your piece, tickets to an event where you might meet future customers.
  • Because many artists have irregular paydays, a good goal is to set aside 30% of whatever you earn for an emergency reserve fund and save 10% to 15% for your retirement.

One of the youngest Delaware Arts Summit attendees was 20-year-old Edwin Ordonez, who learned digital media at Delcastle Technical High School and is supporting his film work by working seasonal jobs. He walked out with six pages of copious notes.

“As a one-man-band production house, it’s good to get all the information you can to get your finances in order. This has really been helpful,” Ordonez said.

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