Conversation with an MBA Grad

Today's Deep Thought Thursday is written by guest blogger Yong Joo Kim.
In school, I got the impression that “selling” was “below” artists. “How do artists make a living?” students would ask. “Teach” was the most flippant answer. So I did. And it was wonderful. But it was not sufficient to make a living. To live off of teaching, you had to be a full-time professor. And full time positions in art is scarce, not to mention highly segmented.
While contemplating my options, I got to talking with my friend with an MBA.
“Why aren’t you selling your work?” he asked
“Sell? That’s not what artists do.” I responded.
“What do you do then?” he asked.
“I make art.” I responded.
“Then what?” he asked.
“I send it off to exhibitions or galleries.” I responded.
“And what? Hope for the best?” he asked, sarcastically.
“Sure.” I responded as-a-matter-of-factly.
“That’s the most uncreative thing I’ve ever heard of” he exclaimed.
“What?!” I responded, shocked and annoyed.
“You call yourself an artist and that’s the most creative business model you can come up with?” he continued.
“What are you talking about?” I responded, offended, not even knowing what a business model was.
“MBAs would kill to be in your position.” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, confused.
“You see, our passion is in making businesses, not products. But businesses sell products or services. So when we graduate we are going crazy trying to figure out what to sell. Artists like you already have that problem solved. So it pains me to sit here watching you parked on your ass hoping for the best.” he exclaimed.
“You just don’t understand! Art is not for money.” I fight back, feeling the need to defend myself and the discipline of art.
“Who said anything about money? You’re thinking about large corporations. Not all business is infatuated with money. Money is a natural byproduct of a business exchange. It is the currency of business. But business, at its core, is about forming reciprocal relationships.” he said, firmly.
“Reciprocal relationships?” I asked, unsure of what to make of his reply.
“Yes! A business decides to offer something they believe will have a positive impact on a group of people. Armed with this idea, they go around different markets trying to find such people, and when they do, they exchange their goods for money.” he said, passionately.
“That’s it?” I responded, quietly.
“That’s it.” he reassured me.
“Don’t I have to change what I make or how I make things to suit people’s tastes?” I asked, unsure of myself.
“Not if you can find people who like your offer as it is.” he explained, as I was still digesting what all this means.
“You see, I think Art has tremendous value in society. Yet for some reason, you artists are content with hanging your work on the wall of museums and galleries. Oh, and you guys know nothing about business, yet assume to know everything about it. That’s just plain ignorant and lazy. Take some responsibility for your work! Find a way to get it out there in the real world!” He had thrown his final blow.

Deep Thought Thursday

Ever had a conversation like this?

Yong Joo Kim PortraitA native of Seoul, Korea, Yong Joo Kim is a Niche award-winning artist and co-founder and executive director of Sublime Experiment who explores how beauty emerges by investigating both conscious and sub-conscious modes of making. Yong Joo's work has been selected as part of the prestigious Museum of Arts and Design’s (MAD) permanent collection and has been internationally exhibited at museums and galleries.

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44 thoughts on “Conversation with an MBA Grad”

  1. While I’ve never had this conversation, I imagine it should happen more often. Great article. Can’t say much more than that.

  2. Now why can’t they teach this in art schools? It took me so many books, e-courses, and countless hours of telling myself, that I can offer my work to people and they will love it and its ok to charge a certain amount for it ! I wish I had met an MBA sooner 🙂 Thank you for this great post Yong Joo Kim .

  3. Very interesting. As I read this, the MBA chastised the artist for not understanding business, as if she should have despite no business training, and seems to suggest that because the artist creates a “product”, she is lazy for not simply searching for her market. Something is obviously missing. Should we teach artists business (seems unlikely to succeed in most cases), or should we make an effort to better connect the MBAs, in search of something to market, with artists?

    1. That would seem an extreme interpretation of the text. My take was that the MBA was surprised that the artist had not extended her creative abilities beyond the creation of the product. She artificially limited her creativity.

    2. In a perfect world, I like the idea of artist/MBA (in marketing, preferably!) hook up. There are many forms of talent and developing businesses is one. If a fine or craft artist can find a marketing/business (artist) to develop their market further, wouldn’t that be wonderful? I’ll parcel out my time wearing both, and other hats for now, but after all, I’d rather be in the studio…

  4. So why don’t more MBAs collaborate with artists? Why do artists have to know how to do *everything*? In my former life, pre-art, I worked in diffusion of software engineering technology, and no one would have expected ONE programmer to know how to do customer support, design, code, market, sell, document, test and package a piece of software. TEAM work was valued, and organizations worked to build teams that were highly collaborative.
    I’m willing to work with an MBA to
    – develop lines of business
    – find markets
    – expedite licensing
    – hire salespeople
    – develop business plans and budgets
    – raise capital
    They are REALLY good at all of that; I’m REALLY good at making art.
    Send me some MBA’s!!!

    1. Priscilla, I’m sure there are plenty of business people (MBA and otherwise) who would love to work with you on all these aspects of your business. Problem is that most artists don’t want (or don’t have the means) to appropriately pay for these services. Good luck in your search.

    2. Artists are willing to pay galleries 50% for marketing services – why wouldn’t they be willing to pay 50% to an MBA for the same service? I don’t agree that artists aren’t willing to pay for marketing services – we already do it via galleries.

    3. Giving a wholesale price to a store (or gallery in the case of artists) isn’t the same as marketing. Companies give a discounted price to a store to distribute the product…….thus paying for a distribution channel not marketing services. Walmart, for instance, is not responsible for marketing all of the products on their shelves. They bring people into the store thus closing the distribution channel loop.
      If you want someone to specifically work for you on business strategies.
      – to develop lines of business
      – find markets
      – expedite licensing
      – hire salespeople
      – develop business plans and budgets
      – raise capital
      Then you need to pay them…..and hiring someone with these talents and this expertise can be an expensive venture. Marketing and sales are not synonymous… can’t expect someone to do these tasks on a commission basis.

  5. I constantly fought with this while I was getting my BFA- there is a huge stigma against producing art that is “sellable”. When we would have our semester print sale to raise money the top sellers would always get dirty looks and were accused of being sellouts.

  6. This is wonderful and thought provoking- the articles as well as the comments. The idea of collaborating with MBA’s- especially in grad school. While I was getting my MFA from the University of Hawaii at Manoa we did have someone give a series of workshops that were about business and marketing your art. I like the idea of taking it a step further- making it a course, as well as partnering with MBA students. At this point in my career I need to take a hard look at how I am marketing myself and where to go from here.

  7. And here I was buying into the idea that I was dumb/stupid/lazy/inept, you name it!
    I wish I had a dollar (heck, even a penny!) for all the conversations (more like lamentations!) I have had with other artists about “when I am in the studio, I am not out marketing, and when I am marketing, I am not in the studio producing.” And we could not come up with a solution, except to try to work harder/smarter (thanks, Alyson!) Even my CPA was no help except to sneeringly say “You have a hobby!” And yes, I know I need a new CPA!

  8. I second Priscilla Fowler’s post. It sounded like the MBA in the conversation considered that business needs no talent. Some MBAs are successful at selling art without themselves having any artistic talent. I’m pretty sure there are artists who are successful at making art but have no business talent.
    In any case, what snagged me was the following exchange: “Don’t I have to change what I make or how I make things to suit people’s tastes?” I asked, unsure of myself.
    “Not if you can find people who like your offer as it is.” he explained” The sticking point is finding people who like one’s art enough to choose to buy it (and can afford it). His “explanation” is not really explaining anything. Rather, it is dismissing a valid concern and source of confusion.

  9. That would be a great course for some MBA school – pair with an emerging/existing artist to get them both some exposure to the others discipline.
    In my limited experience, working with artists is like herding cats. It would be a wise move to teach both parties to move a little closer to the middle.

    1. Good idea though maybe not an MBA. Perhaps junior or senior undergraduate business majors. Though to be honest I have no idea what MBAs actually study, I think this is something they should encounter before graduate school.

  10. I never went to art school so I never learned that “selling” was “below” artists. But I did get a MBA in marketing and entrepreneurship. I work full-time now as an artist and this article was all too familiar in the discussions that I have with many artists about selling and marketing their work.
    I love the concept that as creative people we should put creative energy into establishing our markets!

    1. Katheryn OldShield

      I so agree with what you shared–my education was aimed at different fields of study, and I have been creatively entreprenurial in other arenas, so it is actually frustrating now that I paint to be told I shouldn’t “sell” my art, or creatively apply to finding better markets for my art. It is “lazy” thinking when an artist feels it is beyond their responsiblity to assume on others to sell their work, and worse, slam the artist who do put themselves out there to bring their work to potential buyers. Even if historically they were “great” and their art once sold in galleries, my guess they are a lot more interested in finding more venues for more sales than they care to admit, or they have settled into a “hobby.”

  11. Grest conversation. I especially like the statement: “A business decides to offer something they believe will have a positive impact on a group of people. Armed with this idea, they go around different markets trying to find such people, and when they do, they exchange their goods for money.”. The word selling has so many negative connotations for many of us. This makes it about mutual benefit.

  12. I applaud this post! About 3 years ago, I ended my “business” career and decided to become an artist as I’d always dreamed of. I approached it differently than most artists I’ve seen. I spend about half of my working hours on the business side of things. I think it takes as much creativity to figure out how to make a living as an artist, as the actual art that I produce. It’s a different type of creativity, but I figure I’m intelligent enough to do both.

  13. The creativity gene and the marketing/business gene are not always functional in one body although I would argue that marketing is a form of creativity. I think the conversation is much simpler: So you want to make art? Do you also want to make a full-time living from the art? If the answer is yes, then: What can you do today that will help with that goal? And if the answer to that question is, “I don’t know”, then you read (Alyson’s IRBIT), take courses (with Alyson), join artist groups (Artist Conspiracy), interview gallerists, read some more, try to talk with peers who are successful, and find your strengths and weaknesses and fix the weak area (or hire people to do the things you just hate or can’t handle) and grow the strengths.
    The “old wife’s tale” that artist should not sell their own work is being replaced with, “what is your website address” and most people expect you to be selling or at least showing your work on-line. That said, there is a great advantage to having full representation by a gallery (or galleries) in well-heeled collector communities – NY etc. and the pricing will mature in a naturally positive direction as one’s CV becomes more distinctive. But there are only so many walls available for showing – so it is a long road. And no matter how talented one might be, there is some luck and kismet involved. Being a De Kooning, or Motherwell, or… didn’t happen by talent alone. The MBA guy may know “marketing”, but I am not sure he knows the “art” business and its many quirky “rules” – including not selling your own work. A concept that basically says: I have representation at “The Big Important Gallery” and they handle all my sales is in place to suggest that YOU, the artist, has no need to sell, and no desire to sell, and no work to sell because of your “Big Important Inclusion” in “The Big Important Gallery”. So the MBA is right to a point, but at some point, some artists are fully compensated by gallery representation and the prices reflect serious collectibility and the idea of “hawking one’s wares” (said with sarcasm) becomes unnecessary and unbecoming. Possibly everyone’s long-term goal? Big prices? More collectors? Supply being outstripped by demand? Why not? And if that can be done by an Artist selling their own work (very difficult) then the MBA’s rant is credible and worth considering.

  14. Lots of thoughtful posts make me think about this more. I haven’t encountered any artist who didn’t already understand that they had to be proactive in getting their work into the market. Perhaps it is only the artists who went to college or university for art degrees that learn the old fashioned mindset of gallery representation as “it.” And I don’t know too many of those who still feel that way. I wonder if the artist community had this same problem of acceptance when the patron form of art as a living died out.

  15. Yeah!! Thank you for being brave and sharing some very important information that artists need to hear. There’re so many misconceptions about art floating around that it is refreshing to hear something that really needs to be talked about.
    Galleries, Museums, selling art directly to the public and art “services” all have their place in the world, and being informed about what “sandbox” best fits you is an important step that needs to be explored.
    Great post.

  16. For me the most interesting quote was “But business, at its core, is about forming reciprocal relationships”.
    I have always had trouble with the concept of selling, even when I worked in retail (which is why I don’t anymore). It felt like I was pushing or even trying to trick people into buying stuff. I did love helping people finds things they wanted.
    If I re-frame as sharing something I am passionate about, well that is something I could embrace.

  17. I was, at first, put off by the multiple “lazy/sit on your ass” comments by the MBA. However, after digesting it, I understand a little of they meant – they weren’t referring to laziness in making art and creativity, but laziness in the marketing/business sense. But it works both ways. MBA’s (according to this conversation) are sitting on their ass trying to come up with a product to sell. And artists are “sitting on their ass” trying to sell the product. Still a bit like turning the knife, the “lazy” comments are welcome kick in the pants for me. I think both the artist and MBA could learn from each other.

  18. I’m really glad I came across this blog. I, myself as an artist finds it very difficult to make money of what I have made. This conversation inspires me to work more and I will make sure that my art can be a source of income, sort of. 😀

  19. Ha, I’m the other end of the conversation. I only have a BBA, but it still drives me nuts to watch my artist friends do such a half-hearted attempt at self-promotion. I follow this blog because I’m starting a business selling art on behalf of several artists I know.

  20. I have mixed reactions to this post. The rational part of my brain, the part that spent 25 years in a marketing career, agrees with the concept of marketing your own art. But the artist in me somehow baulks at doing it for my own work – I know all the theory, I’ve had years of practice, but when it comes to doing it for myself, I’m cut adrift. That said, I don’t see an alternative, I simply have to find a way to get round my fears. Still working on that one.

    1. I hear you Anny. I have a degree in fine arts but spent the last 7 years working in the art industry promoting arts. So, when I decided to go out on my own I thought it would be easy to “market” myself. It’s wasn’t, because being objective about myself and where my strengths and weaknesses are is difficult to objectify. All kinds of emotions and blocks get in the way. All we can do is work through those blocks.

  21. Whenever I see a movie that shows how new Popes get elected, it always seems to be the guy who wasn’t vying for the job, the only one who was sort of humble & self-effacing who everybody loves…The other men who were greedily ambitious don’t get the votes…My life lesson from watching these stories is that the people who are so eager to be on top that they step on others along their way, don’t win…This type of life lesson gets repeated in other walks of life too I have noticed…
    So with art, I wonder if the art school pressure is because of some sort of imbued or ingrained reverse psychology based on similar observation…That the diamond in the rough artist who is less aggressive is the favorite of the dealers, while the pushy egotist type is more of an annoyance…That it is worth it in some ways to be modest or meek just to have that moment where the museum curator decides they want to “rescue that poor child” or some other metaphor…That the art school teaching is really just a more subtle way to help the artist to sell…A more long term marketing approach…

  22. I’ve been following the comments to this post assiduously. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments.
    I think I could do my art as a business, ****if**** I knew what my market is. (I am assuming I am not going to change the work I’m making but rather that I want to find who wants it.)
    So, BIG QUESTION: how does an artist find out WHO their market is? What is a business-like, scientific way to determine who is most likely to buy one’s art?
    People don’t put new products out without test-marketing them – how does an artist do that? And please, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty here: do we do surveys? focus groups? etc.? Do we get professional help doing this?
    I figure that once I know who my market is, then I can develop the mechanisms to target them. Otherwise I’m shooting in the dark.

    1. Priscilla, I have found…My demographic is…1)People like me 2)People who like me 3)People who are in the location where the work is 4)People in that particular price point …In that order…

    2. I can’t seem to find the demographic that not only wants my work, but can afford it as well. Hahahaha! With respect to my bead weaving, it’s mostly other artists who want my work, but also some people who collect and use high end fine craft work (such as hand made furniture, pottery and ceramics and so forth). With respect to my painting and drawing, I have not figured out who my market is at all and, honestly, that aspect is probably second to the bead weaving market search.
      So, really, I’m kind of in the same situation as Priscilla. I find the math for Quantum Physics to be easier to comprehend than figuring out my market demographic.

  23. In my small colleguerrrs blogging they have perhaps put in all of us on their own weblog moves, although quarry at all times is parked , in the bottom with the list and does not list while i put up similar to it may for other individuals. Is this injury is a putting that have to alter or perhaps this injury is a alternative they may have crafted?

  24. This is a good article, lots of food for thought. Art and business can go hand in hand and you can be true to yourself while your doing this.

  25. The idea that fine art students aren’t currently being trained as professional artists is utterly bizarre and baffling to me. We now have countless MFAs up to their eyeballs in debt, clamoring for a handful of teaching jobs or grants, unprepared to do anything else because they haven’t been shown other options. Artists are workers–we have something to offer and should be prepared to be compensated for our work. Just because you sell doesn’t mean you sell out.

    1. I think the paradigm of what is a Vase (Visual Artist Self-Employed) needs to be
      re-examined & redefined…Are you merely a dancer, poetess, actress, author, producer, director, painter, sculptor? & so on…Or can you be an undercover Vase as a waitress, janitor, school bus driver, crossing guard, or bank teller? Can you be a Vase as a real-estate developer or architect? Is a seamstress a Vase? A chef? Who is a Vase & who is not? If we expand our vision then we can earn in fields where Vases have not traditionally be accepted? Or are we stuck? Stuckists? Like Tracey Emin’s boyfriend? Who only accept a Vase who is stuck in a frame created by a non-creative?

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