For small-town artists, making the art is easy; making a living is harder

  • Article by: JEROME CHRISTENSON , Winona Daily News
  • Updated: July 22, 2013 - 12:05 AM

WINONA, Minn. — Passion isn't enough to pay the bills.

It's the rare artist who lacks passion. But money, that can be a different story.

"I don't know if people realize how difficult it is to be an artist . financially," said Winona painter Julie Johnston.

Johnston and eight other Winona-area artists talked about the opportunities and challenges involved in making art and making a living far from the big-city venues generally associated with the professional art world. The Winona area is caught up in somewhat of a regional artistic renaissance, they told the Winona Daily News ( ).

For much of the spring and summer, the city is caught up in the Mid West Music Fest, the Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, as well as numerous arts events in La Crosse, Lanesboro and other area communities. Winter brings renewed attention, with the Frozen River Film Festival, and there are ongoing events and exhibits at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Theatre du Mississippi, Winona State and Saint Mary's universities. And timely support from the city government and local benefactors has laid the foundation for what has become a popular groundswell of support for the arts.

"People are recognizing the benefits of art in their lives," Johnston said. At this point, the performing arts have enjoyed a higher profile than the work of local visual artists, though that support is becoming more and more evident.

"When we have an art opening in Winona we have a crowd," watercolorist Jean Billman said, but added, "maybe it's the free food."

The challenge, the artists agreed, is to translate popular enthusiasm — be it for watercolors or acrylics — into material support for people making art.

In short, turning interest into income.

It's a challenge most artists are relatively ill-equipped to meet. Art education and most artists' natural inclinations pay scant attention to the business side of a career as an independent creative artist.

As Winona painter Julia Crozier pointed out, no fine arts degree program requires classes in marketing, accounting and sales.

Still, business and financial pressures are a harsh reality in the art business as in any other. Making sales often means packing up a collection of pieces and traveling several hours to a weekend sale or festival. Winona painter Mary Singer recalled her routine throughout much of the 1990s, every weekend traveling to shows throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, and as far south as Nebraska.

"Then I'd come home and paint all week," she said. "I wore myself out."

And profits are far from guaranteed. After deducting travel, lodging and other expenses, "it's not unusual to go in the hole," Carol Slade said.

"Still, you want to get your stuff out there," Crozier said, "because it's supposed to be out there."

To get their work out there and still have time and energy to do the work they're dedicated to, local artists have been actively developing a local market for their work and for other creative artists who come here to sell.

Re-educating potential buyers is a critical part of that task.

Raised in a mass-market retail environment, where most things are interchangeable and likely available for less next week down the street, potential art buyers often need to be reminded that buying art isn't the same as buying a toaster. People need to be reminded that art is a "one-of-a-kind thing," Joan McNeil said.

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