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Recently I spoke with Artist and Sculptor Carl Billingsley, an artist Presco supported with a stake flag donation, about Art and Business. After the initial interaction with Carl and supporting him with Presco stake flags for his installation at Sculpture by the Sea and his first guest blog post for us, I wanted to know more. The conversation was so intriguing I thought it would be great to share as a blog post with our Presco family and friends.

Carl, I would imagine, at least from my perspective, that a lot of people think of art and business as in opposition to one another. I guess let me clarify what I mean, people see the “Art world” and an “Artist” as counter cultural and standing against “the corporate” model. Somehow though I see even at the most Avant Garde level of art, the world’s probably have a lot of overlap. At least for the business model that is looking to grow and innovate and the artist that is looking to survive and thrive making a living as an artist. Can you speak to this?

For the past several years I have been telling my students that they need to think like business people while acting like artists. Very little of the curriculum of the school of art deals with the business of art. By necessity, we stress conceptual development, skill building and aesthetic issues. Helping these young people to become competent artist in the studio is our first priority. I like to think that we do a good job with this. Our graduates are articulate, inventive and highly motivated. They can talk about art with authority and conviction and the best are exceptionally good in their chosen media. What they don’t get from the school is enough exposure to the practical aspects of running a studio (which is, after all, a small business) or making a living with their skills and abilities.

So have you found ways to facilitate this side of art, the business side, for students? If the school is focused on the developing the artist side of the equation have you found a way to help them gain the business knowledge?

In the Sculpture Area, our answer to this problem has been to create opportunities for the students to engage in ‘real world ‘ problem solving. When I was contacted by Coastal Carolina Airport in New Bern NC six years ago with a proposal to conduct a competition for our students to create a sculpture commission, I saw an opportunity. The airport manager had seen the local arts council initiate a public sculpture exhibition competition in the town center and he thought something similar could be done at the airport. He and his committee proposed that we ask our students to design and build sculptures for a year-long exhibition at the airport. The inducement for the students was that a jury would select one of the sculptures for purchase as a permanent artwork for the airport. The winning sculptor would take home the $3,000.00 purchase prize. The budget for the project was small but it did provide a good chance for one student to make and sell a public sculpture. What I didn’t like about this proposal was that all of the students would have to come up with the money to build a big sculpture but only one would recoup those costs and make a little money as well.

I could see how that could definitely limit student involvement from the outset.

Our students struggle to pay tuition, fees and living costs. They also have to pay for all of their materials and supplies and special tools and equipment. We knew that very few of them would enter the competition simply because they didn’t have the money to make a sculpture that size. I knew that the standard answer to this problem would be to have the students design sculptures, make models and proposals and then have a jury select one to be made. This would give all of the students an opportunity to create a design and present a proposal even though they didn’t have the resources to actually create a large-scale sculpture. This ‘real world’ opportunity was starting to look like a class assignment with only one student able to learn how to do the whole process.

So it sounds like your wheels were turning to create a more equitable opportunity to increase student participation, helping more students gain that “real world” experience and yet still one come out a clear prize winner as far as the jury award was concerned. Did you come up with a new solution?

I asked the airport committee to change the concept for the competition. I suggested that they reserve $1000.00 for the purchase award and use the rest of the budget to pay a stipend for materials for each student whose proposal was selected by the jury. In this way, 6 to 8 sculptures could be created for the airport with one becoming a permanent placement. All of the sculpture students would have the chance to design a sculpture, create a model and make a presentation. Those selected and would have the opportunity to build the sculptures if they could do it with the stipend and to have their sculpture exhibited at the airport for a year. One of the selected students would also have their sculpture purchased and made part of a permanent collection.

That certainly sounds like a creative business minded solution that would work for everybody. How did the airport committee feel about your suggestion?

It wasn’t a perfect idea and the amount of money available for the stipends wasn’t really enough to pay all of the costs of building sculptures that needed to be 6 to 8 ft. tall and crafted well enough to last outdoors for a year. But, it did offer the opportunity for many more students to actually make large-scale sculpture, to work within design constraints, to deal with a limited budget, to complete the sculpture by a set deadline, to help install it at the airport and to face the many other decisions that constitute the business part of art. I suggested to the committee that their money would be helping many students rather than one and they would still end up with several sculptures on exhibit at the airport for a year with one of them becoming a permanent amenity.

They loved the idea so much that we were able to get them to increase the total budget that year and every year since. Coastal Carolina Airport now has 5 sculptures in their permanent collection. Six new sculptures were installed a few weeks ago and this year’s winner has been selected. Every year that we have done this project, one or more students has sold a sculpture to a member of the public that has passed through the airport. Some clients have purchased more than one sculpture from the exhibitions. The airport doesn’t collect a commission for these sales so the students keep the entire purchase price. This is ‘real world’ experience that allows the students to think like a business person while acting like an artist.

Wow! Carl thanks for sharing. I hope we can chat again about Art and Business. Specifically maybe hit some points on innovation and creativity in the business world from an artist’s perspective!

Well I’d be glad to Michael. I am pretty busy here at the end of the school term until exams are over. Maybe in a couple of weeks.

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