One of our most persistent cultural myths is of the artist as cloistered genius.
Solitary in her work, the artist painted alone in her studio. He wrote songs, and maybe someone bought them. She made earrings. He performed “Hamlet,” and people bought tickets and watched.
But for artists working in Madison today, simply creating something beautiful (or provocative, or smart) and waiting for somebody to discover it is no longer enough.
Artists have become marketers, web designers and social media experts. For many among Madison’s creative class, their business skills must be as diverse and sharp as their artistic skills. The sculptor must learn how to set up an LLC and the musician must also be a promoter.
“The notion of the artist as a solitary genius — so potent a cultural force ... is decades out of date,” wrote William Deresiewicz in a December 2014 story in The Atlantic called “The Death of the Artist — and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.”
“A new paradigm is emerging, and has been since about the turn of the millennium, one that’s in the process of reshaping what artists are: how they work, train, trade, collaborate, think of themselves and are thought of.”
Madison has become a hub for creative entrepreneurs for a variety of reasons, such as a relatively low cost of living compared to big cities; the university, which attracts creative people; and resources for young families.
Anne Katz, director of Arts Wisconsin, noted the importance of a support system. It’s a little easier, she said, to strike out on a creative venture when your spouse or partner has a job with health insurance and benefits — at the state or university, for example.
“Some people think I can only be famous and sell my work in big galleries in New York,” said Katz. But “most people, not just artists, put together a lot of things — what their hearts drive them to do. Entrepreneurialism is at the heart of all of that.”
“Artists have always been entrepreneurial in their nature,” agreed Sarah Marty, who teaches an arts entrepreneurship class, launched in 2008, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s very rare that an artist has been able to just exist and someone else takes care of figuring out their audience ... who’s going to buy what they’re doing.
“Even through the patron system, you had to figure out a way to make your living as an artist.”
What has changed over the last 10 years, Marty said, is “the level of business background and entrepreneurial skills you need to have to break through ... to build an audience, to build a following, to get your name out there.
“Now, as an artist, you need to be savvy in social media,” Marty said. “You need to build yourself a website, you need to think about how you’re going to market what you’re doing to your audience.”
When talking about the artist as entrepreneur, some bring up Amanda Palmer, the Dresden Dolls and Grand Theft Orchestra punk/cabaret musician whose “The art of asking” 2013 TED Talk has been viewed more than six-and-a-half million times. (In 2014, she turned it into a book.)
In that talk, Palmer explains how her connection with her fans has changed, from interacting with people as a human statue and talking with them after shows to, now, asking for things directly on Twitter.
“Through the very act of asking people (to pay for music), I’d connected with them,” said Palmer, whose $1.2 million Kickstarter toward her album “Theatre is Evil” broke records in 2012.
“When you connect with them, people want to help you,” she said. “It’s counterintuitive for a lot of artists; they don’t want to ask for things. It’s not easy to ask, and a lot of artists have a problem with this. Asking makes you vulnerable.”
But arts advocates like Marty say that, in the 21st century, that’s what creative entrepreneurs have to do.
“You have to help sell your own shows,” Marty said, “and build your brand and do all of that extra legwork on the side, in addition to what makes you an artist — painting, or playing music, or being onstage, or choreographing.
“You have this whole second job now that’s all related to business and entrepreneurship.”
Here, then, are four Madison area artists — creative entrepreneurs — who have made it their professional goal to live and work at what drives them.
Ben Ferris, 25, bassist
When Ben Ferris tries to explain how he balances all of the music-related things he does for a living, he shrugs.
“I really don’t,” Ferris said. “It’s not balanced. I’m able to do it currently because I’m crazy.”
Ferris, a bass player, is just a year out of school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Already, the list of ensembles he plays with, places he teaches and bands he books gigs for is dizzying in its length and scope.
“I love what I’m doing,” Ferris said. “I’m a little too busy. But that’s such a nice thing to be.”
Ferris spends weekdays at Winnequah Elementary School, where he teaches general music and strings. After school, he heads to James Madison Memorial High School where he directs the jazz program, or to Madison Music Makers, a nonprofit where he teaches bass, violin, guitar and piano.
After that, Ferris might rehearse for one of his bands. He headlines the both the Ben Ferris Quintet and the Ben Ferris Octet, a scaled-down big band, and plays with a Latin group called Edi Rey y Salsera, among others.
When Ferris was in high school, “the hip thing was MySpace,” he said. “We made a demo recording of some original music ... and played mostly at a place called The Journey.”
The idea was that Ferris’ high school fans would come for his band and stay for the unknown indie band they opened for. This sometimes worked, but more importantly, it started Ferris on a road of savvy self-promotion.
He learned how to promote a gig, make a website, take photos and get people to come out.
At school, studying music education at the UW, Ferris joined the Wisconsin Union Directorate and played with the Black Music Ensemble, which during his time moved from playing gigs in the smaller Morphy Hall to the Play Circle at the Memorial Union.
“I got to do things I can’t believe I got to do,” Ferris said. “I booked the entire Isthmus Jazz Festival with a committee. I got to pick up Diane Reeves in my minivan ... that was a treat.”
Ferris studied with Prof. Richard Davis, playing classical and jazz music. He played in theater pit bands, subbed in for bands like The Big Payback (soul/funk/R&B) and began teaching younger students.
Now, his schedule is so full, he sometimes doesn’t have time to sleep. But he said teaching energizes him, and working with his quintet is how he blows off steam.
“It’s not relaxing to do the Facebook and make the website and submit to Isthmus and WORT and everything, the jazz calendar,” Ferris said. “Make a poster; I make my own posters.”
But being a successful musician is “a different thing now,” he said. “You’ve got to be diverse in everything you do. I’m diverse with the music that I play and I love that, but you’ve got to be diverse beyond that.
“I’m so lucky that I get to do music all day. And the energy and joy my students have inspires me to keep doing it.”
Alisa Toninato, 32, owner, FeLion Studios and American Skillet Company
Alisa Toninato started her artistic practice as a sculptor, planning group shows with fellow artists in Milwaukee.
“The first step for me was research,” said Toninato, who graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and now has a studio on Madison’s south side. “Reaching out, cold calling ... landlords would have an awesome space I wanted to rent out, to pitch an idea for a show I wanted.”
At the time, Toninato called her art “kinetic, interactive, sculptural installation work.” The shows involved working with bands, painters and dancers to create “these awesome events.”
“It was this weird beginning, where I thought, I need to be on my game,” Toninato said. “I need to be the organizer here.”
Then, in 2008, Toninato got a residency at Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota. Artists there were “making their own shows, finding warehouse spaces, opening up guerrilla galleries for a day.
“That’s when things started to change for me.”
She began casting pieces, not only as part of a sculpture, but as a final product in themselves. It was Toninato’s colleagues who first saw her design for a skillet in the shape of Wisconsin and encouraged her to perfect it.
“I was so profoundly inspired by the people I was working with,” Toninato said. “People were really encouraging.
“I was interested in the technical (aspects) of it. I failed a lot in the beginning. There were at least nine iron pours where I came back with nothing.”
After lots of positive reactions to the first skillet, Toninato decided to make an interlocking map of the whole Midwest, all from skillets with handles facing outward. That evolved into a map of the entire United States, funded by Kickstarter and first shown at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids.
Eventually, in 2011, Toninato founded FeLion Studios, where she makes hand-crafted skillets and cast iron art, including custom commissions. For one, she designed special fajita pans for two Tex-Mex restaurants.
“The more popular they became, I realized they were hard to turn out consistently,” Toninato said. “I thought, I’m going to do this full time. People were willing to support me enough to justify taking that leap.”
A second business, American Skillet Company, makes smaller versions of the state skillets and has received national attention from Martha Stewart. Skillets that come out of FeLion can be huge, like Texas, and are much more expensive.
Locally, Toninato designed the pig-shaped skillet that winners of the SloPig heritage pork and cocktail competitions receive (the next event is March 22, at the Madison Club). Her work was featured at Underground Food Collective’s first restaurant, Kitchen, and her Wisconsin-shaped skillets, now in use at Liliana’s Restaurant, were featured on a Feb. 23 episode of ABC’s “The Chew.”
American Skillet Company currently makes Wisconsin, New York, Illinois and Minnesota pans.
“I wasn’t planning on ... like, I’m going to a launch a business around this marketable idea,” Toninato said. “That was not the game plan at all.”
Key for Toninato were connections with fellow artists, educators and industry professionals.
“I didn’t have a business plan,” she said. “I just wanted to make this thing work.”
Toninato got help from the Entrepreneurs’ Resource Clinic at the UW-Madison, where law students helped her name and launch FeLion Studios as an LLC.
The business has affected her ability to do the kind of solo sculpting she used to do.
“That’s the sacrifice, unfortunately,” she said, but added that “when I do design work for other people that’s my creative outlet. I love collaborating with people, I always have.
“I love that kind of creativity.”
As a business owner, Toninato said she learns something new every day.
“It keeps me on my toes,” she said. “But it’s definitely not visual creativity — it’s game plan creativity. I would argue it definitely takes a creative mind to manage all these balls in the air. I think artists are naturally good at that.”
Jessica Lanius, 41, and Mike Lawler, 41, co-directors of Theatre LILA
Theatre LILA, a dance-based theater company with New York roots, started as “pure art,” according to co-founder Jessica Lanius.
She and Andrea Arden Reese were “just thinking about creating new works, less about the company or the business,” said Lanius.
But the pair, then in their 20s, quickly found that in order to put up a play that people would come to see, they had to figure out how to market it — write a press release, take photos, handle the box office.
Lanius moved herself and Theatre LILA to Madison in late 2013, using it as an opportunity to clarify the company’s vision.
“Coming here, we started with the art again, too,” Lanius said, “but with the understanding that in order for the art to be seen, you’ve got to have a foundation and a strong company and supporters.”
Since moving to Madison, Theatre LILA has staged the moving one-woman play “No Child” starring Milwaukee actress Marti Gobel (a re-staging recently closed at Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee).
It has also produced strikingly original work, like last year’s “The Suitcase Dreams,” which drew from local writers and performers to create a mash-up of dance, theater, storytelling and clowning.
Lanius brought on Mike Lawler as a co-director, and the two now split the responsibilities involved in running the company, from writing grants to coordinating with designers.
Their next production, an adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” produced with Children’s Theater of Madison, opens Saturday.
“Even thinking about ‘Midsummer’ right now, I think, when am I going to be creative? When is that time?” Lanius said. “Because so much time is planning and marketing and selling. That could easily be my full time job.
“I just need to hide and remember that that is the product.”
Lawler, who is also the production manager for CTM, compared the making of theater to any other business.
“You have a product, whether you’re selling a widget or you’re selling art,” he said. “You need some sense of how to run your business, who your audience is, who your market is, how you get your product to them — or in our case, how to get them to come to our product.”
“It’s almost sad, in a way, that we do have to spend so much time thinking about the business end of it. But if you want to do it, you kind of have to.”
Lanius estimated that she and Lawler each do six or seven jobs to make Theatre LILA work, including directing, handling the financials and meeting with potential supporters.
Advances in technology have made it easier to handle some aspects of promotion, Lanius said.
In 2004, “there was no Facebook, was no Twitter, digital cameras were just coming up,” she said. “Now you can do videos ... and get it out to the public pretty easily. And if you’re creative people, hopefully you can do a good job at it.”
What drives Lanius and Lawler, ultimately, is their passion for the work.
“We want to be doing work that is not being done in Madison at a high level of craft and professionalism,” Lawler said. “Other places may be doing quirky, edgy, weird work, but not at the level we’re doing it.”
But Lawler accepts that they’re not always going to get it right. He would tell young artists, “You have to fail quickly and fail often.”
“Just do it. Keep failing,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to get better at anything you do. Keep doing it and doing it and doing it.”
Craig Grabhorn, 35, printmaker
Craig Grabhorn has a sharp visual eye — he knows pattern and style.
Since moving to Madison from UW-Stout in 2004, he has parlayed that skill into a half-dozen different ventures.
“I was looking for a way to output designs in a more creative way,” said Grabhorn, who maintains a studio in Dodgeville but lives in Madison. “I picked up screen printing as an output.”
At first, he designed posters for bands, album covers and t-shirts, screen printing in the basement of a house he rented. He joined Firecracker Studios, a collective print shop, and took a job at Trek Bicycles, choosing and designing print patterns.
Now, Grabhorn works with Land’s End as a producer, helping build sets for photography shoots, painting them, collecting props and composing each “scene.” He collaborates with a woodworker, who uses some of his prints on furniture pieces.
And Grabhorn recently shifted his focus to a line of housewares — pot holders, oven mitts and more, all of which he makes himself. His prints, cards and bandanas are for sale at Hatch Art House, among other places, down the street from his first major mural: “Pure Life,” on the side of the Plan B nightclub at 924 Williamson St.
“I try to keep diversity in my world which is a fine line,” Grabhorn said. “To manage a schedule takes you away from the actual creative work. I try to keep a balance that allows me not to have to constantly be ... keeping track of too many things.
“Any artist that I know that’s doing something at this level, you’re working massive amounts of hours for whatever it is you believe.”
Grabhorn has spent the last three months as an artist in residence at the Central Library’s Bubbler, leading screen printing workshops that will continue every third Sunday of the month through May.
It has been a fruitful time for him creatively, thanks in part to support from Bubbler director and fellow artist Trent Miller. Grabhorn started a new series of landscape prints and embraced the teaching side, helping budding artists as young as 6 years old turn their drawings into prints.
“I looked at it as, I have this opportunity to have face time with a lot of public traffic,” Grabhorn said, calling the Bubbler “a critical space.”
“There are not a lot of facilities in Madison or organizations that are as open and excited to have an artist come in and deal out what they believe in,” he said. The Bubbler’s paid residency “allows you this space to rest and get out your ideas without trying to ... pay the bills somewhere.”
For Grabhorn, his end goal is to find artistic endeavors that are “sustainable.”
“Housewares and screen prints I can work on during downtime if I’m going to Land’s End for awhile to do sets,” he said. “Or I’ll have a little time to work on producing a new illustration series.
“Breaking into invoices or new client meetings — it’s definitely a challenge to find a flow within a day.”
Currently, Grabhorn is working on an album design for a local band called The Czargles and will be starting a part-time job as a designer for Rubin’s Furniture.
“It’s always critical for (an artist’s) longevity to build a network,” he said, and “to find a voice that connects whatever ideas you really want to do in as clear a voice as possible.
“What do you want to say to the world with your work, and how do you want to say it?”