Working Artists Today: Willa Koerner on Art Business

Working Artists Today

Willa Köerner weighs in on crowdfunding and digital marketing opportunities for artists

By Siena Oristaglio on April 18th, 2018

Willa-Köerner_The-Creative-Independent

Willa Köerner is the Creative Content Director at The Creative Independent, a growing resource of emotional and practical guidance published by Kickstarter for artists of all types. She joined Kickstarter in 2015, at which point she she spearheaded the development of their creative prompt series, ideating, producing, and overseeing creative direction for initiatives like Make 100, Kickstarter Gold, Projects of Earth, and Commissions. These initiatives generated over a thousand new Kickstarter projects, and more than $2 million raised for creative projects overall — most of which were in the Arts & Culture categories. We had the amazing opportunity to chat with Willa here about marketing tools for artists and the ongoing struggle for financial sustainability.   

Can you tell us about the mission of The Creative Independent, and how you came into the role of Creative Content Director?

The Creative Independent came into existence because of a need to better understand the emotional and practical implications of being a working artist today. Our mission is to be a resource for creative people by illuminating many of the universal trials and tribulations experienced when working to bring new creative work to life. We live up to our mission by publishing interviews with working artists of all types to learn about how they got started, where they’ve struggled, and how they’ve overcome obstacles like anxiety, lack of support, time management—that kind of thing.

Lately, we’ve also been collaborating with various types of subject experts to publish how-to guides that demystify some of the more opaque aspects of living life as a creative person—from our artist’s guide to financial planning, to our guide on how to start a podcast. Our hope is that, over time, we can chip away at some of the misconceptions and myths related to being a working artist, and help people be more successful—both in terms of their creative practice, as well as in terms of their overall mental health and happiness. Sometimes we joke that TCI is like therapy or self-help for artists, but in all honesty, it kind of is. We’re here because everyone struggles to make good things, and rarely do we let each other see into the perils of doubt and confusion behind the finished work of art.

Now, for the last part of your question: I came into the role of TCI’s Creative Content Director after watching from the sidelines for a while from my perch as Kickstarter’s Curation & Content Director. I was somewhat involved in TCI’s birth and early conception, and then helped out from time to time as an advisor and contributor. Every time I worked on something TCI-related, it just felt so right to me—like the kind of thing I should be working on all the time. Then, you know how it is when things just work out? It was one of those stars-aligning kind of situations—the right clouds parted, and a series of fortunate events revealed how much sense it’d make if I joined the TCI team full-time. So, we made it happen, and the rest is history.

In your opinion, how have social media sites and digital marketing tools changed the landscape of funding opportunities for independent artists?

What it comes down to, for me, is that these platforms are really just another tool that artists can choose to make use of, or not. Just like any tool, these platforms aren’t going to work well for you if you don’t first put in the time necessary to master the craft. And, some tools just won’t make sense for certain artists. But overall, options are good—especially in the art world, where options have historically been pretty limited in terms of how artists can break through, earn a living, and just generally have mobility to advocate for themselves and be successful. (Of course, it also depends on how an artist would describe their own definition of “success” for themselves in their practice—some people simply want visibility and engagement with their work, while others might wish to make a living selling their work, or to establish a more notable reputation that could open other doors for them. Understanding the end goal is something that is so important to know when you’re deciding which tools to use, and how to use them. All artists should think about this!)

 

Understanding the end goal is something that is so important to know when you’re deciding which tools to use, and how to use them. All artists should think about this!

 

So yes—at their most basic level, social media platforms and digital marketing tools give artists options. You can cultivate a community around yourself easier these days, for sure—and if you can become close enough with this community that they’ll want to support you, all you’ll have to do is ask for what you need. I’ve seen artists shocked to see such an outpouring of both emotional and financial support from the people who they’ve previously just seen as “followers.” The internet can still be a place to build and sustain meaningful relationships. When people care about you, and care about your work, you might be very surprised to see how willing they’ll be to show their support. Moving into the future, I’d recommend to all artists that they be as direct as possible in advocating for their work’s value. Don’t feel weird when the subject of money is brought up. Be honest, and ask for what you need. You might be surprised to see what happens when you become confident in the value you bring. And: if you ask for what you think need, and don’t readily receive it, don’t take it personally. Use it as an opportunity to understand how you could be in better dialogue with your peers, friends and family about the value of your work, and slowly work to cultivate the trust and interest that’s necessary in order to be meaningfully supported by your community.

How have you seen Kickstarter (and crowdfunding, more broadly) evolve to fit the needs of artists? Is there anything that artists have done with crowdfunding that has surprised you?

Kickstarter is a PBC (public benefit company), which means it’s always striving to do more to benefit society, and artists in particular. That said, when I was in my old job and looked at Kickstarter projects all day, I found it endlessly depressing to see how much money projects in the Design, Technology, and Games categories would raise in comparison to projects in the Arts category. This is symptomatic of our culture’s confusion and/or lack of education around the value that art and artists bring to society. (And I’m not saying this situation is anyone’s fault in particular—it’s just a truth we should be honest about, so we can move forward with thinking of strategies for changing it).

Screenshot of the TCI homepage
Screenshot of the TCI people page

Who should pay for the arts? Obviously our government won’t (don’t get me started here). So for now, it’s really up to us people who understand the value of art to be vocal about why supporting and sustaining the creation of new artwork is important, and maybe even reorient ourselves to what we decide we should be paying for, as individuals. Personally, I try to buy art as often as I can from artists whose work I care about, and I support a growing list of artists on sites like Drip, Kickstarter, and Patreon with a small contribution every month. And, I know I can do more—it’s a personal goal of mine to do a better job supporting the artists I care about. It’s a learning curve, since most of us haven’t been conditioned to know how to support each other, and we all have weird relationships with money. For now, I’d recommend everyone think about how they can support artists. Even if you can only contribute a few dollars to someone whose practice you admire, it’s not just about the dollar amount—it’s about saying, “You and your work matter and I hope you will keep doing it.” We all need to get better at saying this, and not just to artists. If someone is doing something cool, you should tell them—odds are they don’t hear that kind of positive feedback or get that kind of support as often as they should. Capitalism sucks at creating supportive relationships so we gotta take it upon ourselves to do better, one person at a time.

And, no—I’m never surprised by anything artists do. Nobody can surprise me with their weird use of Kickstarter, either. Everyone should be as experimental and subversive with all digital tools at all times, and use all the platforms that exist in the most insane, awesome, over-the-top ways they can think of. People aren’t nearly experimental enough with these platforms. People should go crazy, break the internet, and earn a million dollars. It’s definitely possible… and I won’t be surprised if and when it happens. 🙂

 

...it’s really up to us people who understand the value of art to be vocal about why supporting and sustaining the creation of new artwork is important, and maybe even reorient ourselves to what we decide we should be paying for, as individuals.

 

What inspired The Creative Independent's current survey of visual artists on financial sustainability? What insights do you hope to gain from its results?

Our survey for visual artists stemmed out of a conversation with artist Yumna Al-Arashi. She’s an incredibly smart and talented photographer whose work is exhibited and collected widely. And yet, she emailed us because she still felt like she wasn’t “doing it right” (the artist thing, I mean). She wondered if she was messing up her career by not working with a gallery, and wanted to better understand what other viable paths other artists were taking to sustain themselves and grow their practices. Together, she, Brandon and I wondered why this type of information sharing wasn’t happening more openly. Why is it so hard to figure out how to make it as an artist?

I’m a pretty practical person, and seeing this serious gap in information made me want to fill it in with some real hard numbers. Since we have a platform through which we can pretty easily reach artists, I suggested we do a survey to actually illuminate, on a broad scale, how artists are making (or not making) money, among other things. We’ve been collecting responses for a few months now, and soon we’ll be releasing all the anonymously collected information as an open data set that everyone can learn from. Moving on from here, I not only hope the information will give people a more transparent look at how different structures within the art world are helping (or hurting) artists—I also hope we can continue to identify holes in knowledge, and come up with some actual next steps and strategies that will improve the situation. This could include commissioning more guides, convening conversations, launching more surveys, overthrowing the government… we’ll see. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen over time, always.

After interviewing so many artists, what is one common obstacle that stands out when it comes to creating a sustainable art practice? What do you see as potential solutions to this issue?

I mean, the obvious answer here is making money. As for solutions, ha! I guess my recommendation to artists would just be to figure out ways to make money that you can live with. Lots of people have day jobs to give them some stability, and to ease the pressure they’re putting on their creative practice. The idea of the artist who’s making most of their money through their work is a myth that needs to die. That situation is the exception, not the rule. Until our society completely 180’s and has a better understanding of the value art and artists bring, artists are not going to have an easy time making money. My best advice to artists is to become aggressively financially literate, even if it feels hard or counterintuitive. Don’t just say, “Whatever, I’m an artist, I don’t understand this stuff.” Make an effort to play the game of capitalism, and out-smart it. Take a business class. Keep track of your expenses. Learn the basics of saving and investing. If you’re an artist, the system is rigged against you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t one-up it. Figure out how to sacrifice the smallest amount of time/work for the biggest amount of financial stability you can get. Once you get a plan for financial security in place, you might be surprised to feel an enormously heavy weight lifted.

 

Even if you can only contribute a few dollars to someone whose practice you admire, it’s not just about the dollar amount—it’s about saying, “You and your work matter and I hope you will keep doing it.” 

 

Another common obstacle people face is that… making art is a hustle and it sucks sometimes (maybe even a lot of the time). Seriously, everyone I talk to for TCI has a laundry list of struggles that’s a mile long. I can tell you from experience: ten out of ten people are not waking up every morning and saying, “Wow, another perfect day in my life as an artist!” At face value, it might not seem worth it to be an artist. But for most people we talk to, it’s not a choice. They have to follow through on their ideas, and bring things out of their head and into the world. That process can be 90% painful, realistically. There’s not really a solution to this problem, except to just keep going, and to know that you’re not alone.

 
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Willa-Köerner-The-Creative-Independent

Willa Köerner is the Creative Content Director for The Creative Independent, a growing resource of emotional and practical guidance for artists. Before TCI, Willa directed editorial and content strategy initiatives at Kickstarter, and before that, she managed digital engagement at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She is currently a NEW INC mentor, and was formerly a founding member of Grey Area Art + Technology's Cultural Incubator. Willa has worked as a creative strategist for a wide range of arts organizations including the Smithsonian, Electric Objects, and Art21, and has been known to write, edit, curate, and create art for all sorts of cultural projects and publications. She's also currently working on a long-term plan to establish a futuristic art space in Upstate NY.