Not too many years ago, Olive Parker was a single mother living in the Bitterroot Valley, trying to figure out how to send her kids to college and pay her mortgage.
She had a four-year degree from a prestigious college, but her work experience was in hazardous waste consulting. There just weren’t any jobs here that fit her skill set. So Parker decided to see if she could turn her lifelong hobby of leather carving into a career.
She isn’t alone. All over Montana there are artists like Parker toiling away on beautiful work in garages and shops, and all they need is to connect with the right customers. One out of every 60 people in this state is a working artist.
To be a successful artist in Montana, you have to have good marketing and business skills. However, many creative people are wary of commercializing because they think it means mass producing something that consumers want rather than pursuing their passion.
That’s why, in 2009, the Montana Arts Council established the Montana Artrepreneur Program to support individuals working in rural areas throughout the state who want to make a living through the sale of their work. It’s a 10-month participatory training course geared toward helping artists gain a comprehensive toolkit to find a market for their crafts.
“We have a very different philosophy we teach from a business perspective,” said Sheri Jarvis, the statewide MAP coordinator. “The traditional theory focuses on creating supply to meet demand. But we are looking at helping artists create the best work that is most unique to them, helping them find their distinct voice in their art and then strategically figuring out who their target market is likely to be. Then deliberately placing them in front of those people to make sales and cultivate collectors.”
It’s almost 180 degrees from traditional business theory, Jarvis said.
“Instead of a local artist saying ‘Hey, I live in the Bitterroot and tourists here love landscape paintings depicting mountain scenes so I better crank out a bunch of those if I want to make money,’ we’re saying, if that person is more interested in doing something different, we need to figure out how to help that person find customers interested in a unique value proposition,” Jarvis explained. She said artists are always relieved to hear the fundamental principle of the program is that they don’t have to change their art to be successful.
“They don’t have to develop some inauthentic sales pitch to sell their work that is phony and distasteful,” Jarvis said. “They’ve often steered away from marketing and business classes because they’re afraid that’s what they would be told. As artists, we’re often told by well-meaning people to get a real job.”
Artists are also told that they should make “fill in the blank” because everybody loves “fill in the blank,” and they’ll make a fortune. But Jarvis said that’s insulting.
“The fact is there are a lot of people in the world with a wide range of tastes in art and there is a market for every person’s art,” she said. “You just have to find the market, and we live in a global market these days. We have access to the Internet and the ability to present ourselves outside our region. It takes strategy. And this program helps map out that strategy. It’s really math-centered with pragmatic terms, goals and objectives.”
Parker said when she took the course, she realized all the ways she could improve her marketing and start making a living. She hand carves unique jewelry pieces from leather, including feather earrings with an incredible amount of detail that are painted so they almost look metallic.
“You learn the nuts and bolts, like how to price your work,” she said. “You learn how to display, how to go to an art fair, what you want to consider when building a display, how to approach a bank for a business loan, how to approach a gallery to show your work. You learn how to look for resources, places that would want to display your work.”
Competing against hundreds of other artists at the Western Design Conference in Jackson, Wyoming, Oliver won the top award for her leather work. She came home from that market with thousands of dollars in her pocket and a newfound inspiration.
“That encouraged me big time that I could make a living doing my art,” she said. She eventually developed a wholesale line of bracelets, and now Montana Leather Designs can be found in more than 85 stores, from Philadelphia to Hawaii. She’s now thinking of expanding her shop and hiring one or two employees to help out with booming demand. Because she’s taking in money from out of state and spending it here, stories like Parker’s are an economic boon for Montana.
“It’s a great program,” Parker said. “My success is because of the MAP program, it really is. It helped me come up with a plan, a business plan and a marketing approach. It forces you to think about what your goals are for two, four or six years out.”
Jarvis said that the program costs only about $350, although when it was originally developed it was about $7,000.
“We really try to keep it affordable and accessible,” she explained. “We want people to reinvest in their business. One of our primary goals is to keep it flexible and attainable for Montana artists.”
All the coaches are MAP-certified artists, so they know the ropes of applying for a business license and going through the program.
“It’s led by working artists who have been through the program,” Jarvis said. “They understand what is most relevant and current.”
Art is big business in Montana. A recent survey of 80 artists conducted by the Arts Council found that they generated $470,387 in net art sales in 2014, a 397 percent increase from before they took the MAP course. The people who completed the MAP program and responded to the survey also increased their sales of art outside the state by 44 percent and generated 37 percent of their gross personal income from art sales. Many reported increased sales locations, increased customers and new business investments.
The program has now served more than 400 people in the state.
“Montana is full of artists,” Jarvis said. “Look at this beautiful place. You can’t not be inspired and ignited by the grandeur of the state. People here are also kind. When you live in a land of kindness, you are propelled to do your best work. And when artists sell out of state, it’s all new money. So this program helps them be more efficient in getting recognition out of state and out of the country.”
For Parker, who got a scholarship for the program, it’s been a life-changing event to see how many people are interested in the things she spends hours painstakingly creating.
“It’s nice to have a community of support to do an endeavor like this,” she said.
For more information visit https://art.mt.gov/map.