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Thursday, May 06, 2010
  workshop biz

I have spent almost the entire day at the computer doing art-related business--my few hours in the studio I devoted to cleaning up in preparation for an upcoming workshop, so, not exactly creative time. You can probably guess this is not my favorite kind of day. But I had let business things pile up, and become overwhelming and stressful. The best solution seemed to be to spend an entire day dealing with them--I'm not done of course, but did make a satisfying dent.

If you're wondering, just what IS all of this art business...a great deal of it has to do with teaching workshops. I've been planning for some time to make a general post about art business, but quickly realized as I started writing that workshops have come to completely dominate my non-studio time. The actual teaching part is very enjoyable and rewarding--so much so that I hardly feel justified in charging anyone--we're just having an art party! But in the months and weeks leading up to a class I definitely earn my fees. There is so much to deal with--innumerable emails and calls with venues and contact people, efforts on many fronts to spread the word about my classes, website information to update, print publicity to design and/or distribute, donations of sample supplies to request, my own supplies to purchase, travel plans to make and schedules to coordinate. For classes held in my own studio things are somewhat easier. But many of the above jobs still need to be done, and in addition there is organizing and cleaning, and figuring out food. The most enjoyable task is always that of communicating with people interested in taking a workshop from me-that brings a flavor of actual teaching, which is a pleasure.

To get a sense of my life right now, take that list above and multiply it by 9--the number of workshops I have coming up in the next 6 months. There's some overlap for sure...a blanket request for donated materials can be made for everything on the calendar, for example. It's also a huge help when someone volunteers to help coordinate things, as Carol Icard has done for me for my workshops in the Carolinas in June. But for the most part, each workshop has to be treated individually, as its own project.

I want to offer a few tips and hints I've learned over the past year or so about teaching workshops for anyone who is contemplating this life. I haven't come across very much information about this aspect of art business via the usual channels, and have learned it mostly by experience and talking to other people in the field. I'm convinced that although the work load can get a bit crazy at times, teaching workshops is a great job and very rewarding. I treasure the experience of meeting artists from around the country and becoming immersed in art-making with them for days on end. I learn so much and always come away feeling stimulated and personally appreciated, which feels good of course!

Clearly I've started this post with one big "what not to do." Don't let business tasks pile up. I mean literally, in terms of stacks of papers, and also electronically, with that dreaded "messy in-box." I like to use the little red flags that Yahoo accounts have for important emails (I assume other types have something similar) but when there are 20 or 30 red-flagged items they lose their impact and sense of urgency. Obviously I am not one to lecture here, but..I do try. I try to spend a couple of hours a day doing business chores. Often this is not enough, but it's enough for me! (It is about all I can stand on a regular basis.)

Here are a few other tips:
Deposits from students, and contracts with venues are necessary (I learned both of these the hard way.) Nail down in writing (email is fine) all details no matter how tedious they may seem--anything that if misunderstood will cause problems. These include what you will be paid (a big one!), the supplies if any the venue will supply, making sure the physical set-up is adequate, the minimum and maximum number of students, the time frame for registration. If you will be flying to the venue, you need a cut-off date for registration that allows you to either cancel or buy your plane ticket depending on whether you've got the minimum number of students.

Designated teaching and demo supplies are a good idea and save a lot of time (this may seem obvious, but until this particular light bulb clicked on, I was running around before every workshop collecting stuff off my painting tables.) Stockpile paint and other supplies when they are discounted and put them aside on the Designated Supplies shelf. I am currently working on getting duplicates for everything I use and take to workshops.

Realize the limitations of your student supply list, and figure out how to cover any lapses. My list is fairly open-ended because it includes choices for people who are on a budget or aren't sure how deeply they want to dive into cold wax painting. But because I don't have a clear cut, "Buy This!!" kind of list, and because there are a lot of choices available, sometimes people show up with inadequate supplies. And not every venue is conveniently located next to an art supply store, as was my very first workshop at Rochester Art Supply. (I recall this one fondly, and how fortunate it was that people could just run up a tab in the shop...the first version of my supply list needed a wee bit of fine-tuning.) So, I've learned to bring extras of panels and some of the more specialized supplies that I sell at cost. This doesn't work when I fly to a workshop, but otherwise seems to provide a welcome cushion.

Ask for donations form art supply manufacturers. I've been pleasantly surprised to realize how willing--eager even!--the people who make paint, panels, and other supplies are to provide you with freebies for your students, and for your in-class demos. Actually until recently I hadn't asked more than a couple of places for donations, but now I see how it works, and will be expanding my requests. Everybody wins--students save money, you have more stuff to offer, and the companies gain new customers.

Make the effort to communicate with your students prior to the class. When someone else is handling registration, ask for the email list of people who have signed up, and send out a welcome email a few weeks ahead. This gets everyone thinking about what's ahead and often prompts questions about materials to purchase. You can arrive at the workshop feeling a bit more connected to the participants, and they to you.

During the class, be flexible, listen carefully, stay loose, have fun. I have a plan but it's mainly a reference. I check it over a few times during the day to make sure I'm hitting the main things, but I don't get too compulsive about it. I try to keep a good rhythm going, keeping talk and demos fairly short, and providing lots of work time. I work on my own paintings during the work time, which I gather is somewhat unusual, but the students seem to appreciate seeing my work develop over the 2 or 3 days. I make sure they know I am always approachable, and break frequently to walk around and see who might need help.

Plan for pre-workshop prep time and post-workshop exhaustion. Organizing and packing for a workshop, traveling to and from, and regaining energy afterward take a toll on time and energy.

These are the tips that come to mind--surely I am forgetting some, and perhaps others can contribute a few. I am fairly new at all of this and very interested in other people's experiences.

(The painting above is Interior #5, 30"x30" oil and wax on panel.)
 
Comments:
Thanks Rebecca--this is a timely post for me. I'm organizing a collage class through UC Davis Cancer Center for cancer patients, their peer navigators and staff. I've learned a lot just arranging the venue and your suggestions about fees, and particularly deposits are priceless (yes, pun intended). I've been hesitant to sink more time in, but you've convinced me its work it.:)
 
Hannah, that's great--I hadn't even considered that this info might go beyond art-technique type workshops. But much of it is more general. Good luck with your project. It does sound very worthwhile.
 
Rebecca
Very good advice for current workshop instructors and those planning to jump into the field. One thing I might add that can make everyone's experience better, and help the WS director get positive feedback and referrals from the participants, is to prepare a clear description of what the WS will cover in terms of methods and techniques, as well as knowledge-level needed from the participants.
As artist instructors we know everything cannot all be covered or learned in one session, nor will a new-comer of novice be able to walk away with a masterpiece. I have found it is good to plan workshops that focus on a limited number of processes for the time allotted, and workshops that are tailored for level of knowledge/experience, such as Intro, Intermediate, Advanced or those interested in teaching. So plan ahead and be familiar with your audience in order to give participants and the instructor a positive experience, one that will surely attract new participants.
I look forward to seeing you in June when you visit SC for the workshop at the West Main Artist Co-op.
Jane
 
Thanks Jane, and good advice. But perhaps this does depend on the WS topic. Is there, or is there not a logical pre-requisite or skill level needed for the class? For lots of WS classes the answer is pretty clear. A figure drawing class, for example, would not be suitable for someone who hasn't had basic and intermediate drawing. On the other hand a class that is more exploratory or experimental could work for different levels of knowledge/experience.

In terms of the latter...if the class covers a topic that is basically new to everyone, AND is small enough to provide personal attention from the instructor, AND the format is fairly open-ended (everyone is not working on the same/similar project)I've found that it is fine to have people with a range of backgrounds.

For example, when I first started teaching, I required students to have oil painting experience, because I assumed that to be a logical prerequisite. Then a few acrylic painters ignored my prerequisite and to my surprise they did very well in the class. So I guess you have to be open to change...at this point I've broadened my requirements to "some painting experience required" and this seems to hit the right note.

As a result, I've had professional artists painting alongside near-beginners, and it works because the cold wax is new to everyone. I've seen this same dynamic in encaustic classes...the focus is on technique so everyone jumps in at their own level, and few people are particularly wonderful at their first attempts.

Thanks for bringing this up--important considerations for sure. Yes I look forward to meeting you in SC too! We have snow predicted here for today and the thought of South Carolina seems particularly lovely at the moment.
 
wow... what great tips! Someday I would like to do workshops, but it seems so complicated. I'll bet yours are fantastic. Do you ever do one in the pacific northwest? Beautiful painting... roxanne
 
Your essay is, itself, a lovely illustration of your compassionate outlook to life, and I very much appreciate you sharing it.
What strikes me is the range of skills one must have (and employ) to be successful in the complex array of activities you pursue professionally.
We all have known good artists who are poor teachers, superb teachers of poetry whose own work is less than stellar, exceptional musicians who struggle with verbal articulation.
Those, like you, who move easily, deliberately, and competently (by necessity, if not always choice) through the worlds of art, education, business, and – as demonstrated by these essays – expressive reflection, are especially blessed.
I am reminded of the reaction of almost everyone who knows me casually when I explain that I am, by nature, an introvert. (Confirmed by my wife and by multiple Myers-Briggs assessments.) “Ridiculous,” these folks reply, because, in their experience, I am usually “on,” in my roles as policy advocate, public speaker, agency executive …
I feel fortunate that I have been able, over a long career, to become accomplished in those roles, but my real joy has always been in refuge -- alone or with my mate and dogs -- painting, writing, reading, walking, listening to music …
I suspect that you may be Solitary Artist to the core, happiest alone in your studio, a favorite CD playing in the background, solving a creative problem on that challenging gesso surface on the easel. Yes? Close?
But still, you play businesswoman, teacher, and art philosopher as well. And play them with competence and flair.
And, perhaps, playing these other roles, offers a useful break from the intensity of the studio, some perspective before your return to what you love most?
There is, after all, also beauty in diverse pursuits.
 
Roxanne--thank you..and I would LOVE to come to the Pacific Northwest sometime. I'm looking at 2011 now, and if you know of a good venue or any suggestions at all, please email me (crowellart@yahoo.com)

Max,
What a lovely post, thank you. It gave me pause to consider what you write about--yes there are many roles I play. And I would say you are right, the most authentic and closest to my heart is when I'm alone in my studio. There I simply "am" with no other purpose but to paint, and like you I am basically an introvert (Myers-Briggs and all.) I have to say though that teaching (as distinct from the business of teaching) rates very high in my experience...I love the time I spend in workshops with other artists, especially the quieter moments when everyone is just working. I do find that teaching recharges me for my own painting, and has opened up interesting and satisfying relationships with other artists that continue after the workshop (or perhaps start beforehand!) Thanks again for your thoughtful words--
 
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