The Business of Art

The Business of Art

Writing a business plan as an arts entrepreneur

After Jenie Gao earned her BFA in Printmaking/Drawing at Washington University in St. Louis, she worked in multiple industries, from a museum and gallery to education, eventually finding herself focusing on lean manufacturing.“ I was always interested in how things actually worked, so I got a lot of experience at the museum writing assessments and best practices and creating training for museum staff,” says Gao. “Art is all about process.” Western States hired Gao to help them document and standardize business operations processes. “I realized the things they were trying to automate didn’t always make sense, and I grew into my role,” says Gao. “Whether we’re talking about the arts or skilled trades, we’re talking about how we make things. Manufacturing is just making things on a big scale—it made sense to me to look at the processes and to change them.”

Bringing together the creative and the logical is an important aspect of Gao’s practice and has been a core philosophy as she has built her business in the arts. She left her full-time corporate job three years ago to become self-employed as an artist and creative director of large-scale art projects. Now, she creates large-scale public works, woodcuts, political art, and speaks at conferences about the maker movement and creativity.

“The first two years were tough,” admits Gao. “You never know what you don’t know. I was bleeding money and trying to figure out what to say yes to and what to say no to. It was hard to figure out what it was all going to add up to, when I was going from one gig to the next.”

Last year, Gao applied for the Small Business Development Center at UW-Madison’s Entrepreneurial Training Program, which she completed at the end of 2017. “I’d gotten to the point where I was growing and needed to continue growing,” says Gao. “I needed a business plan to meet my goals for growth.”

The course helped Gao reframe some of her approaches to tasks she’d previously found daunting. Gao submitted her business plan in spring 2018, after working with consultant Anne Inman for eight months to craft it. The two have stayed in touch throughout the process. “I very much felt like she had a vested interest in where my business was going to go next, which was really important to me,” says Gao. “She really got to know what my business was about, in terms of services I’m creating, the types of projects I want to get, and my growth strategy to support it. “The hardest part was understanding what the market actually looks like,” says Gao.

“Working with Anne, we could walk through ways to approach that. The most valuable part of the course for me was the one-on-one customized sounding board, to work with someone who really got to know me and my business throughout the process.” Inman and Gao looked at trends and areas Gao could work in to make more professional contacts and, in turn, get more projects. For example, public art is gaining attention around the country, but is still fairly new and not as mature as the rest of the arts industry, so Gao decided to break in by taking on public art projects over the past two years.

“I have always cared about accessibility—to information, to creative learning and opportunities—it’s critical to how our communities evolve,” explains Gao. “Public art was a natural way for me to grow. Artworks in public spaces belong to everyone because so many people interact with them, and they have the ability to transform the spaces that we share. That’s what drove me to go in this direction.”

Gao worked with UW-Madison Business Librarian Peggy Smith, who helps students in the SBDC program, to pull industry reports and look at the arts industry from different perspectives, including those of artists, dealers, galleries, and museums. “I pulled art-specific reports to get a sense of the health of the industry and what I was up against,” says Gao.

“Who’s buying art? It’s the hotel industry, architects, interior designers—anywhere with construction and development, so I looked at those trends.” Gao also did community interviews with former and prospective clients, asking them where art fits into their businesses and whether they have plans to continue purchasing art.

She also wanted to know how larger installations would work for buyers. “It has to be easy on the client side,” Gao explains. “I realized from former clients that lots of people don’t know how to buy art. There’s no standardized process for big installations.” In response, Gao built her process to make it comfortable and easy for clients to purchase her art. “I break it down—I acknowledge that these tend to be bigger projects, and there’s a good amount of trust that needs to go into it when you pay someone to do something custom for you,” Gao explains. “I have a clear design process—a specific number of preliminary designs, a set amount of review time before I produce the final piece.”

Gao is also very clear about pricing. “That’s hard for artists and anyone who does custom work,” she says. “There are variables, and it’s subjective. I use projects as an educational opportunity to explain, this is why it costs what it costs. The client has a say, and there’s enough of a framework that they feel confident, and I feel I have the autonomy to create a great project for them.”

Gao primarily works with local and regional clients. Recent works include “How We Gather”, a mural for Working Draft Beer Company in Madison, and a four-panel mural installation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison that will be unveiled during Atwood Fest.

To keep herself visible, Gao teaches workshops, to help people become familiar with her process. She was a Bubbler artist-in-residence in 2017 and is active in other community spaces to advocate for and educate on the arts. “People get excited about making something with their hands,” says Gao. “It gives them more of a connection to the arts.”

Gao spoke at Disrupt Madison in June. “That was a chance to speak to other business professionals and frame the fact that creativity is important,” she says. “I focus on that a lot in my messaging—how to make creativity co-curricular, instead of extracurricular.”

Gao also publishes a blog and regular email newsletters to her thriving audience to share the stories she’s telling with her work. She says her long-term vision is to engage as many people in creative learning as possible.

“I really believe that creativity is not just beneficial but essential for how we grow culturally, economically, as people, and as a city,” she says. “Sustaining the creative process relies on autonomy and creative thinking, and I want my work to be part of that.”