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[whitespace] Beyond 'La Bohème': Like a growing number of business-savvy creative types, Sebastopol painter and sketch artist Meg Hitchcock is crafting a critically acclaimed career without enduring the traditional deprivations of the artist's life.

Photograph by Rory Mcnamara


Paint It Green

The starving artist gives way to the artistic entrepreneur

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VINCENT VAN GOGH died penniless and unappreciated--and we love him for it. Mozart wrote Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and The Marriage of Figaro. Then he died, up to his wig in debts, buried in a mass grave. By the time painter Paul Gauguin shuffled off this mortal coil, he was all but destitute and raving mad, expiring of syphilis in Tahiti.

And we're so glad he did.

Our culture is oddly attached to the idea of artists who suffer, especially when, having created work of transcendent beauty, the artist dies without so much as a crust of bread to his or her name. In La Bohème, the 1896 opera that all but canonized the noble "starving artist" (and on which the hit musical Rent was based), composer Giacomo Puccini romanticized the masochistic notion that to become a "true artist" one must endure immense suffering and ultimately die with nothing but the knowledge that you never sold out.

Half-baked or not, that 19th-century idea has persisted into our modern age.

"But it's a myth that no longer has a place in the real world," says Meg Hitchcock, 38, a painter and sketch artist of some note (she was recently singled out by San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker as one of the best artists in the Bay Area) and the owner of MeSH Art Gallery in Sebastopol.

"I think the suffering artist is a myth that's fading away. When an artist does use that, it's sort of an excuse," she says. "It's a copout. 'Oh, I'm an artist and that's why I'm suffering.' You can be an artist and be successful."

Indeed, Sonoma County is full of artists who are, to some degree, making a living at the business of art. And like it or not, the art world is big business. Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars trade hands between artists and collectors. Yet, ironically, there are still a great many artists who are stymied in their pursuit of a full-time art career solely because they haven't developed the necessary business skills--or because they are too intimidated to take the leap.

"As far as the business side of being an artist goes," says Gay Shelton of the Sonoma Museum of Modern Art, "I think there is a certain love-hate thing that goes on with artists, a resentment at even having to deal with the business end of things. They find it distasteful and inconvenient.

"But," she says, "I also think that might be changing."

For years, most major art schools unintentionally assisted in the propagation of the starving-artist image by avoiding the subject of business skills. They would offer plenty of instruction on the intricacies of color blending and composition and perspective, while never encouraging young artists to develop such mundane abilities as negotiating with a buyer, preparing a portfolio or presentation slides, or even setting up a good filing system.

In the last several years, however, a subtle shift has been taking place. Many schools now offer artists at least a few business-skills classes. There are dozens of guidebooks on the market that are designed to aid emerging artists who dream of dropping their day job in favor of full-time creativity.

Numerous organizations, from museums and galleries to community arts councils, have begun offering nuts-and-bolts business assistance to emerging artists. This assistance ranges from classes--such as the Sebastopol Center for the Arts' occasional "How to Make Money with Your Art" and the Cultural Arts Council's "Taking Care of Business"--to open forums where young painters and photographers can pick the brains of established artists.

Artist Robert Fitzgerald of Petaluma has taken the leap by signing onto a high-profile program called "Taking the Leap." The nine-month course--which costs its hand-picked students $2,700--is the brainchild of artist/author Cay Lang, whose bestselling book, also called Taking the Leap, is considered a kind of bible for emerging artists hungry for solid business information. In return for the hefty tuition, the Taking the Leap program offers students intensive schooling on the ins and outs of the art biz.

"This is the age of marketing. If you don't know how to market, you're dead," says Fitzgerald, 53, a painter and photographer who works as a bookseller to pay the bills. Since beginning the once-a-week program, which takes place in San Leandro, Fitzgerald says he's experienced a growing sense of purpose and self-confidence.

"I know what to do now," he says. "I know how to approach a gallery owner. I know how to present my work to a collector. Before, I was always a bit intimidated. I always said, 'If I only knew how to do the business part of this, I could make it.' It all appeared so daunting. 'I don't have a portfolio, I don't know what to say.' Now I know, and it makes a big difference.

"I'm an emerging artist," he says, finally more than comfortable with the term. "I'm emerging from my artistic cocoon, spreading my wings and ready to fly."

UNFORTUNATELY, after a few nasty falls, some artists give up trying to put wings on their careers.

"A lot of people don't know the basics, so they make costly mistakes," says Barbara Harris, executive director of the Sonoma Cultural Arts Council. "People don't know that, as an artist, you don't just walk into a gallery and introduce yourself. You call ahead and request an appointment. There is an etiquette, like in any other business. We have such a wealth of resources here in Sonoma County, artists need to make use of them."

For instance, she encourages artists to attend other artists' exhibitions and to compete in countywide shows, which give them an opportunity to meet one another and swap valuable tips.

"There are plenty of established artists who are more than willing to share their experience," she says. "It's terrible to fail when you don't have to."

"For a new artist who's never done this before, it's quite a learning experience," acknowledges Linda Galletta, executive director of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. "It's very difficult. It takes a huge combination of skills.

"As an artist," she says, "you are producing a product, and you are competing for the discretionary dollar with other kinds of entertainment and with other artists. Not only do your artistic skills need to be impeccable; you have to have strong marketing and promotion skills as well."

Of course, it's possible to overdo it.

"You don't necessarily have to become a superslick business person," says Shelton, herself an artist. "In fact, there's always a danger of becoming too marketing oriented, too slick and businesslike. Some people lose sight of themselves as artists, and that can be a turnoff.

"I recommend a balance. An artist really just needs to learn basic, obvious things, like returning phone calls right away and being polite to potential buyers. Those things will go a long way toward building your career. In the end, you're only as good as your art."

Lang also recognizes the importance of separating the business side of being an artist from the art side of being an artist. She discourages artists from changing their styles or subject matter in order to make it more marketable--a point she stresses in her books and classes.

"In the Taking the Leap program," Fitzgerald says, "we're reminded that when we step into our studios, we are 100 percent artists. We leave the trained marketer on the other side of the door."

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From the February 17-23, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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