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Melding Art and Business

By Lori Meadows

Participants in an AIR Institute workshop learn about developing a business model to support art activity.

Since the release of the Kentucky Creative Industry Report in 2014, the Kentucky Arts Council has been active in informing the Kentucky’s arts community about opportunities for artists and arts organizations to develop and improve their business practices.

In August, Berea College announced the acquisition of the intellectual property of Arts Incubator of the Rockies (AIR). The program relocated to Kentucky from Colorado and is now known as the AIR Institute of Berea College, part of the Berea College Crafts Program.

Tim Glotzbach, director of Berea College Crafts, said pairing AIR and Berea College Crafts makes sense and that AIR’s presence on campus will benefit Appalachia and beyond.

“Students and others in our region will now be able to access innovative programs that will help them make a financially sustainable living as artists, creatives and social entrepreneurs,” Glotzbach said.

AIR offers three-day and six-month workshops focused on business development for artists and arts nonprofit organizations.

We interviewed AIR Executive Director Beth Flowers, who is new to Kentucky, about what she sees as AIR’s mission in the Bluegrass State.

Kentucky Arts Council: Describe what AIR does.

Beth Flowers: AIR was designed to figure out a way to help individual artists and arts nonprofits find a business model that would earn them a reasonable living wage and imagine that artists and arts nonprofits could have a little bit more stability.

KAC: When a community of artists secures your services, what happens next?

BF: We have our introductory program, AIR Shift, a three-day workshop. It’s about the intersection of art, community, money and value. What happens in that workshop is a group of people reorient themselves about what their mental models are of art and value. Many artists think they actually should be starving. That’s part of our passionate ethos. “We should be poor.” That isn’t very effective and it also doesn’t really make great art. Most of us don’t like to talk about money very much, but when you start to unfold those layers a little, you find that business people and artists have a lot in common. They have the same needs and, in a lot of cases, the same desires.

KAC: What is the most unusual small-business entity that has sought guidance from AIR?

BF: We had a couple who were retiring from the high-tech industry. They had worked at HP for 25 years. One of their relatives was a quilter, so they designed a quilting app that does the math so you can figure out how to buy the smallest amount of fabric that you possibly can based on the design that you’ve plugged into their app.

They weren’t quilters, artists, themselves, but they saw a need.

The wife went through the six-month program with us and this is what she told our board chair: “I got my MBA, but this taught me more about how to run a business than any of my classes did because all I learned in school was spreadsheets. This taught me how to think about my business in the context of the world and who I wanted to be as a business person and things like what I wanted to do myself versus what I wanted to pay somebody else to do as part of the business.”

It was a huge compliment, but an interesting statement about the reality of our world.

KAC: Why Kentucky?

BF: The simple answer is that I met people from Berea College in October 2014 at a conference in Indiana about rural creative placemaking. We fell in love with each other. Berea College’s mission is so similar to the ethos and mission of AIR. We were already excited when we met a couple of years ago about how to work together.

KAC: What do you see the relationship between AIR and the Kentucky Arts Council being?

BF: I think AIR will do whatever it can to supplement the great work the council does. I believe there’s so much leverage out in the community. So much of what AIR is about is connecting groups and people and the council is already making some of those key strategic partnerships. Anything we can do to enhance that is good.

For more information about the AIR Institute of Berea College, visit AIRinstitute.org.

Lori Meadows is executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council.