The Rise of the ‘Indiepreneurs’

No longer at odds, art and business have learned to coexist, thanks to emerging creatives who strike a balance between commerce and creativity -- authentically.
October 21, 2014

There was a time when business and art resided on opposite ends of the spectrum. The “arts” were a calling for the pure at heart, willing to put up with years of poverty and obscurity and even starvation in pursuit of their passion. No more. Thanks to Andy Warhol, who embraced the two in holy matrimony, the world of commerce and art have merged, and independent artists are increasingly learning business skills to build their brands and promote their work, forming a group I refer to as “Indiepreneurs.”

These indiepreneurs know that the mantra to “Be a Brand” extends to everyone working independently or with aspirations to one day have their own business. Thanks to the Internet and social media, this is not only possible, but mandatory, in creative fields where name recognition is part of one’s intellectual property. More and more, they understand that there is a business to art and an art to business.

Indiepreneurial endeavors often grow out of a lifestyle. The famous streetwear brand Supreme, for example, was started by someone with a passion for skateboarding who built his brand by understanding and living the culture first and learning about business along the way. Networking—aka “hanging out,” for example—comes naturally to the indiepreneur, whether it manifests itself through Parisian salons and café society at downtown bars, as with the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, or at the Chelsea Galleries of today. Social media is a natural extension of the hangout, so much so that Google has appropriated the word for its instant messaging and video chat platform. Indiepreneurs often make up what they lack in formal business skills with learnings from the school of hard knocks where cooperation trumps competition.

Business, today, has become cool: Artists design sneakers (Futura 2000) and snowboards (Jeff Koons), make titles for films (Shepard Fairey), sell direct via the Internet (Kaws), open pop-up stores (Damien Hirst), launch art centers (Marina Abramovic) and shoot fashion ads (Marilyn Minter). It’s no longer commerce versus art. It’s now commerceXart, a great world of collaboration, each one contributing to the whole—and many emerging creatives are following in the footsteps of these boldface names.

So who are some of these indiepreneurs—and how have they struck this new balance authentically?

Tanya Selvaratnam: Figure Out What You Need to Do to Support Your Art

Tanya Selvaratnam is a writer-producer-actor-activist who does public relations in her “spare time.” When not on a speaking tour for her book, The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock, she’s working on movies like the documentary Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity that she co-produced (with Catherine Gund). Or one of her other many art-related activities and causes. Her solution to making a life in the arts? “I do what I do,” she says, “to support my writing and artistic production.” When not doing her own work, she takes “pride and satisfaction in helping others to produce their vision.”

Her advice for creative business types? “Figure out what you need to do to support the things you want to do,” Selvaratnam says. “I produce films and events to support my work in theater and writing. Educate yourself about creating and balancing budgets, and about writing grants if you need funding for your projects. Identify ways to promote your art so you generate buzz, attract press, and build an audience. Seek out mentors who can provide crucial advice for how to sustain a life in the arts. And be a mentor to younger artists. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t met inspiring artists when I was starting out.”

Fred Brathwaite: Graffiti as Marketing

Fred Brathwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, has been a brand since at least 1981, when Blondie’s “Rapture” went to No. 1 with the line: “Fab 5 Freddie told me everybody's fly/DJ's spinning I said my, my.” If asked to describe what he does, he’d say artist—which includes being a widely exhibited painter, director of movies and music videos, producer, as well as a celebrated personality who’s figured in many of hip hop’s iconic moments, like producing the film Wild Style and hosting "Yo! MTV Raps," the show that brought rap music into living rooms across America.

The road from there to here started in the graffiti culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when “bombing”—spray painting—New York City subway trains was the outlaw activity of the day. Brathwaite says he and his friends were just having fun, never expecting to be famous or have their work seen around the world. “It was an underground thing for itself by itself,” he says. “Yet, before it became as ubiquitous as advertising today, we wanted to be everywhere like Coca-Cola.”

Boom Box Boogie Woogie, 2013 (Courtesy of Fred BrathWaite)

A bridge between the yards and the public at large, Brathwaite’s Campbell Soup Can train, which mimicked Warhol’s famous painting, was an attempt to spread the message beyond the street. “I was speaking to people who knew about art. People were painting graffiti in the same brush. I wanted to paint something other than your name. It was a calling card transitioning into the art world.” Call it marketing.

Brathwaite’s present-day approach to business is more strategic than reactive. Having established himself in several fields, he’s a highly sought-after artist and personality aware that his credibility and authenticity is vital to his brand. So when he’s approached by a company that sells art to hotels that wants to work with him, he has to weigh the short-term profits versus his long-term goals. “These are decisions one must mull over,” he says, citing artists like Hirst and Banksy “who are rewriting the rules of art and business. There are radical changes going on in the game,” he says. “Artists are taking a more aggressive position in the selling of work.”

John Cafarelli: From Financial Analyst to Men’s Beauty Brand Guru

John Cafarelli represents another iteration of the indiepreneur. While working as a financial analyst at a private equity firm, he assisted designers and creative people in realizing their vision, but, he says, “I was never given the opportunity to be overly creative.” So he channeled his yearning into photography and discovered that the “numbers person really needed a creative outlet”—setting the stage for the next phase of his life when, at the age of 35, he launched a men’s beauty products line called Ernest Supplies.

As he had learned working with bigger brands, he hired a few people to design logos and give him ideas for packaging. He felt that he needed help on the visual side. “I was very disappointed in the results,” he says. “The work that I got back was not what I had in mind.” Being the DIY guy that he is, he took to Google and YouTube videos. “I taught myself [Adobe] Illustrator, taught myself how to build a website through rudimentary HTML and Ruby.”

Cafarelli also learned that there was more to being an indiepreneur than having a business background and artistic tendencies. “I have an endless need for content to push to my digital audience and I don’t have enough,” he says. “For ideas, I started following brands and individuals that had the same aesthetic as mine.”

After having little success experimenting with posting photos and links, attempting to connect the brand to a community, he met with a consultant who set him straight with what he considers to be the best piece of feedback. “You need to be the face of the brand,” he says. “It was great advice. The brand is designed around the life I want to live. Customers have a similar lifestyle. It makes perfect sense that customers want to see a face with a brand.”

But he’d learned from the big boys, which did not apply to the situation he was in. “How you do big-business brand building is hire a branding firm,” he says. “I wasn’t familiar with the nuts and bolts of brand building.” Fortunately for him, he was consulting at the time for Paper Communications (where we met). “Everything I learned about social, I learned at Paper. The finance community and the corporate community didn’t have an appreciation for the dialogue with the consumer. My knowledge of PR I learned at Paper.”

The Evolution of the Indiepreneur

This kind of commerce-savvy approach for artists and creatives continues to evolve. Back in the day, Brathwaite recalls, “it wasn’t cool to talk about money. One had to be reverential, above-it-all.” He cites Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Warhol as 20th century artists who changed all that. “Picasso was very media savvy. He was always aware of the camera.” Dalí designed a perfume bottle. And Warhol painted dollar signs. “Money is a reality that artists have to deal with,” Brathwaite says. “If you need to make extra money, it’s all good.”

“Every day, I’m figuring it all out,” adds Selveratnam, who continues to pursue “the balance of the business of art with the act of creating it.” A mentor to young women interested in careers in the arts, she advises them to “be practical. Get a job, but don’t be bitter about it. Look at it as a gift.”

Photo: Shutterstock