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Can you make a living as an artist in Wichita?

  • Eagle correspondent
  • Published Friday, August 16, 2013, at 11:47 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, August 17, 2013, at 10:44 p.m.

Business consultant Jill D. Miller has a reputation within the local arts community as being an entrepreneur-savvy, resourceful thinker.

She helped develop the business plans for successful ventures like the Donut Whole and the Bluebird Arthouse in Delano. She’s a firm believer that Wichita is a city ripe for artists to succeed.

The key, she says, is to get creative.

“What I have found is that it is possible to make a living as an artist in Wichita,” she said. “It may not be doing exactly what you thought you were going to be doing, and you may not become a millionaire doing it, but you can absolutely make a living as an artist or a creative person in Wichita. What I’ve seen with a lot of creative people is that they aren’t just doing one thing. It’s about finding lots of different streams of revenue. I don’t think you can just look at people only doing visual arts, or only writing, or only making commercial art. The whole scene kind of melds together.”

Contemporary artist Hugo Zelada-Romero, 28, fuses together a creative life by doing more than just painting. He works for a local design company creating paintings that customers have commissioned and said that about 40 percent of his income came from selling art last year. He believes that Wichita has enough buyers for dedicated artists to eventually be able to sustain themselves, but it’s vital to build relationships. Business professionals are important, as is cultivating relationships with like-minded artists who can help broaden the circles in which your art is seen.

“I think that an artist can make a living in Wichita if you expand the definition of what that means,” he said. “If you are only speaking in terms of the paintings that I do in my studio, I don’t think I can make a living off of just that. I do think, though, that if it expands to design, or putting shows together, or doing commissions, than I think yes, you can.”

Ian Walker Stewart, 35, a graphic designer whose found-art collages have garnered him several shows in recent years, says the key is having a craft that can be monetized. That craft, he said, should become part of your art.

“Make the concept of capitalism and how you can benefit from it become part of your art,” Stewart said. “To say an artist like myself could make a living exclusively off of my collages or installation work would be a stretch. By allowing myself to broaden what I view my art to be by including the graphic design aspect, though, then yes, I think there are a lot of artists in town making a living off of art.”

John and Connie Ernatt own the Diver Studio on Commerce Street. Connie’s income comes exclusively through her work as an artist, with most of her commission jobs coming her way via word of mouth. She specializes in bronze, and her designs include Sedgwick County’s Law Enforcement Memorial and the grimacing, caged troll by the Keeper of the Plains statue. John is a carpenter by trade and has divided his time building designs for venues like the Anchor, where he constructed the bar, and painting in his studio. After 22 years, he said it’s only in the past few years that he has considered himself to be a full-time working artist. He said that being known as a painter has helped him land certain design jobs, and that he’s also sold paintings as a result of connections he’s made in carpentry.

“The older I’ve gotten, the more one has fed the other,” he said. “People will call that have seen a painting or something. One work validates the other.”

Miller noted that it can take time for an artist to find the right individual formula for success. She said artists come to her all the time with ideas, but often lack business acumen.

Numbers, she contends, are the biggest skills gap. Often that translates into where and how to buy materials, as well as how high or low to price a certain work. She is teaching a course this fall at Wichita State University called Intro to Entrepreneurship in the Arts, exploring how to get comfortable talking about and crunching numbers, as well as incorporating guest speakers who are successful working artists from Wichita. Slated speakers include painter Curt Clonts as well as Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle, whose American blues rock band has garnered international attention.

Getting out there

Getting known to the public and establishing a relationship with a potential buyer are among the biggest challenges, said Zelada-Romero. He has relied heavily on group shows with more established artist like Bob Schwann and Brian Hinkle to help introduce him to different segments of art appreciators. Those mentors have helped him gain entry to showing at galleries and have even gotten him invited to do live paintings at parties like the Wichita Art Museum Contemporaries soiree.

John Ernatt said finding an early and eager circle of buyers was crucial for him and his wife. Wichita’s gay community, he contends, also was crucial to the couple’s success. Their longtime support of Art Aid allowed their work to be seen by a part of the population who understood that the Ernatts supported them, and so they, in turn, supported their art.

For Lee Shiney, an abstract painter and kinetic sculptor who says close to 90 percent of his income comes from art sales, it requires constantly putting himself out there. It’s a precarious role for a self-described introvert who works in an arena that rewards extroverted personalities.

“The point is you are always on your game, because so are thousands of other artists,” he said. “So you cover a lot of bases, carrying postcards and business cards, keeping a website updated, posting on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.”

Another key to getting known is a willingness to show and sell work outside of Wichita. Miller said that while she encourages artists to be in Wichita creating, she knows that there’s a market for Wichita-made art outside of the city. It’s a reality Shiney has found profitable.

“My work has gone to San Francisco, Dallas, even Budapest,” he said. “There’s no one single venue or answer to make that happen. Support local, think global.”

Building community

John Ernatt says there’s a distinction between a Wichita artist and artists from more densely populated cities: Artists here, he says, aren’t as cut-throat. He said there’s a tendency for artists to undermine each other’s work in competitive markets. The opposite is true here, he said. Ernatt is part of a group of Wichita artists who meet weekly in a support-group fashion to problem solve and cultivate creativity.

“The artists here are very community-oriented. We all root for each other,” he said.

Alex Walker, an emerging artist whose works have largely focused on abstracts and videography, said he’s especially felt that sense of community over the past few years, as more established gallery owners have been willing to have him exhibit. He’s had his most profitable year yet selling. For the future, he says it’s important for the community to buy more from local artists to ensure that creativity can continue to thrive in Wichita.

“There are those who talk a lot about how languid Wichita is and that creatives are better off leaving. That seems somewhat lazy,” he said. “It should be unacceptable that we live in a place that is not overflowing with amazing art constantly. The response, rather than to evacuate or complain, should be to make it known that we care about cool stuff and take responsibility by backing that claim up.”

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