The business of art

Andy Warhol said that “good business is the best art.” Many local artists add that having business skills under your belt is what makes a creative living truly sustainable.

One such artist is Asheville-based potter Anja Bartels. A self-taught hobby potter, she decided to pursue a formal pottery education a few years ago after working at Claying Around, a paint-your-own-pottery shop. Bartels looked at a few art- school programs, but ultimately decided to do a full-time, three-year apprenticeship with a master potter in her native Germany. “I liked the idea of the traditional way of learning — studying with a master in a hands-on way,” says Bartels. She laughs and adds, “You also get paid for apprenticeships in Germany, which was a big plus.”

Another major difference is that, while most art schools in the United States fail to teach business skills, her apprenticeship provided real experience: “In addition to throwing [pots], I dealt with customers, worked at fairs, did bookkeeping and kept in touch with galleries,” she says.

When she finished the apprenticeship in 2011, Bartels returned to Asheville knowing that she wanted to start her own porcelain pottery business. But she also knew that she needed some guidance on the details of planning a business. At her husband’s suggestion, in November 2011 Bartels enrolled in Mountain BizWorks “Foundations” course,  which focuses on business planning.

As is the case for many creative entrepreneurs, what Bartels dreaded most was confronting her numbers. “Making budgets and looking at numbers realistically totally scared me,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to look at it and see how much money I had to bring in. As artists, we aren’t trained or encouraged to do that.”

But it wasn’t as bad as she thought. “Once I learned how to determine my sales unit and adjust the numbers,” she says, “I saw that it was actually doable.”

Course facilitator Kimberly Hunter says that she’s seen many creative clients struggle with business concepts, but that Bartels was different. “Many artists hold on to their freedom, and it prevents them from taking business advice,” says Hunter. “But Anja knew that she had to take this advice even before she understood it. Her take was, ‘I know how to be a potter, but not how to run a business.’”

This open-minded approach has helped Bartels to build a thriving pottery business. Less than nine months after finishing the class, she was earning her target salary. Today she sells her work out of her River Arts District studio, online via an Etsy shop, through several local galleries and at an occasional art fair.

Still, Bartels is very aware that the learning process never ends. “I’m still changing and growing as an artist and a business,” she explains. She’s finding that part of that process is learning what sells where. “I’ve noticed that sea-themed pieces sell really well on Etsy, but they don’t sell here locally. Here, they like my dogwood designs,” she says. “I’m still learning to adjust to the market, and it’s humbling to see what the customers and galleries want.”

When Bartels needs business or creative support, she turns to the collective she co-founded, Women Emerging Potters of Asheville. “The nine of us get together once a month to support each other,” she says. “We enter shows and approach galleries together. We bring so many different talents together; one member is a graphic designer, one is good at contacting galleries and another is good at writing contracts. I’ve learned a lot.”

In the end, Bartels says that her business education is what has made her creative career a reality. “It gave me the confidence to do this fulltime instead of getting a job as a waitress and doing [pottery] as a hobby,” she says. “I’m surprised every day that I’m actually doing it!”

Learn more about Anja Pottery at www.anjapottery.com, or visit her studio at the Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts (238 Clingman Ave.).

— Mountain BizWorks helps small businesses start, grow and create jobs through loans, classes and coaching. For more information, call 253-2834 or visit mountainbizworks.org.

Anna Raddatz is development and communications coordinator at Mountain BizWorks.

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