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Stayin' alive: Winter Holiday Art Market helps creative entrepreneurs sell cool goods

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WHAM small business impact, November 2012, Hello Lucky, shop window
Teresa O'Connor opened the doors to her Hello Lucky boutique on Studemont five years ago. Photo courtesy of the artist
WHAM small business impact, November 2012, Black Swan Screenprinting 2
For Ann Brooks, owner of Black Swan Screen Printing at Spring Street Studios, the collective support of events like WHAM is essential to grow her clientele. Photo courtesy of the artist
WHAM small business impact, November 2012, Tracy Carlson
Fine art landscape photographer Tracy Carlson gleaned that there's not a single path to success, that each individual artist or collective finds their own individual recipe. Photo courtesy of the artist
Jenni Rebecca Stephenson
Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, executive director at Fresh Arts, provides educational information that art entrepreneurs can implement to increase sales transactions, among them average pricing, proven best-practices, merchandising suggestions and customer service strategies. Photo by Jeremy Keas
WHAM small business impact, November 2012, Hello Lucky, shop window
WHAM small business impact, November 2012, Black Swan Screenprinting 2
WHAM small business impact, November 2012, Tracy Carlson
Jenni Rebecca Stephenson

Pacing to and fro is how Teresa O'Connor feeds her creativity.

For days, the kitchen counters in her home in the Heights are swathed with raw materials, often salvaged leathers, fabrics, metals from sources as varied as retired handbags, vintage sweaters or obsolete hardware.

She doesn't edit herself at first, rather she lets her imagination stew on the endless possibilities, some whimsically fabulous, some ridiculous and absurd. Perhaps a purse from this? Earrings from that? And a necklace from whatever that used to be? Albeit when she draws her final designs, O'Connor reigns it all in as she considers her buyer.

That's business, and business is about selling. Even in the métier of fine arts and crafts.

"It's more than just age range, occupation, income level and sex," she says as she prepares to stockpile inventory for Fresh Arts' Winter Holiday Art Market (WHAM) at Winter Street Studios this weekend. "When I think about who my audience is, and I start to make adjustments, I am thinking of a hip, savvy consumer who values the back story of an object in addition to textures, colors, feel and style."

When O'Connor opened the doors to her Hello Lucky boutique on Studemont five years ago, she couldn't afford to take any uncalculated risks. She had no funding, no backers, no partners, no wealthy significant other to support her endeavors — no Daddy Warbucks. She balanced several jobs, including working at an art gallery, as a marketing consultant, as a web designer and as a project manager for Hewlett-Packard while cultivating an artsy and funky clientele with a penchant for handmade, one-of-a-kind pieces.

"Most people don't realize how much work running a small business is; there's no such thing as an overnight success. If you don't commit to it, the odds of being successful are very slim."

"I had nothing," she recalls. "I had no money to lose. So from the very beginning I learned to be strategically cautious. It wasn't a hobby for me, and most people don't realize how much work running a small business is; there's no such thing as an overnight success.

"If you don't commit to it, the odds of being successful are very slim."

O'Connor is at a much different place today. She holds no additional jobs, she's investing in hiring more staff, and she's learning of letting go of certain duties and responsibilities so others can help her business flourish. She opened at the worse possible time, she says, and now she wants to ensure Hello Lucky doesn't stagnate in a growth plateau.

Supporting the economic development of artists like O'Connor is at the essence of Fresh Arts, formerly known as Spacetaker, a grassroots artist service organization founded by David A. Brown.

WHAM, the nonprofit's largest public event, offers a venue for artists of all mediums and genres to sell their work and meet new clients. This year, WHAM welcomes 60 artists, 20 of them new to the concept. It has grown in revenue, from $43,000 in 2009 to $78,000 in 2010 to $89,000 in 2011.

Its success is attributed to the leadership's understanding of the psychology and sensitivities of a career in the creative economy. More specifically, Fresh Arts is conscious that regardless of the artists' ambitions of stature and reputation, there are tensions between fueling creative impulses and producing marketable merchandise.

Generally the idea of art as a practice is divorced from the notion of commerce and business.

"What every single artist is engaged in is a small business activity," Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, executive director says."The goal of WHAM is to be an important opportunity for artists to capture some of the income generated at a time of the year when commercial activity is at an all-time high."

To help artists prepare for the three-day juried shopping festival, Fresh Arts provides educational information that art entrepreneurs can implement to increase sales transactions, among them average pricing, proven best-practices, merchandising suggestions and customer service strategies.

 "What every single artist is engaged in is a small business activity."

"At WHAM we try to help the artist contextualize how markets differ when they are selling out of their studios or in a gallery or online," Stephenson says. "We suggest products of different price points, to think creatively when presenting their work, to diversify their income stream by offering different sizes and applications — to make their work marketable and to maximizing a creative assett."

Fine arts photographer Tracy Carlson, whose nostalgic landscapes and portraits capture the genteel spirit of Texas Americana, often struggles with aesthetic decisions: Is it wiser to shoot and process a photo speaks to her personally or is it more astute to look through the lens and filter what will sell? 

"I'm really no good at the latter, honestly," she confides. "Does that hurt my sales? I honestly don't know. There doesn't seem to be a point in having a career as an artist if I'm not doing it for myself. In the end I have to believe that my passion for my vision will affect buyers and they will respond to it with lots and lots of money."

From her many years as a WHAM participant, Carlson gleaned that there's not a single path to success, that each individual artist or collective finds their own individual recipe. For her, connecting with business owners through Fresh Arts has opened a vehicle to learn what has worked for others and share what has proven beneficial and profitable in her profession. One thing is certain, she says, "you have to work hard and market yourself."

When it comes to selling art, Carlson sees rising real estate prices as a threat to having a physical retail location. 

"More and more of the big companies like Weingarten are pricing small businesses out of the good shopping areas," she says. "That's why I'm grateful for Etsy. It gives me a global storefront."

 "The balance of artistic printing and commercial printing is a constant challenge. I wanted to bring commercial tools to assist artists with managing income."

Gentrification is a double-edged sword, Stephenson says.

"Artists come into a neighborhood, make it cool and trendy, then the property values increase and force the artists out," she explains. "That's what makes projects like Winter Street Studios and Summer Street Studios critical. Jon Deal, the developer, keeps prices affordable purposefully to safeguard the activity from migrating elsewhere."

For textile artist Ann Brooks, owner of Black Swan Screen Printing at Spring Street Studios, the collective support is essential to grow her clientele. Though she sees a scarcity in financial support from credit institutions for bridge capital, she feels Houston is friendly to small businesses and small businesses in the arts.

"No one does it alone," Brooks says. "I have had support from the art community such as Fresh Arts and from working with the University of Houston Small Business Development Center."

When she first penned her vision for the workspace, she recognized that she could work with textile artists to better capitalize and monetize their original output.

"The balance of artistic printing and commercial printing is a constant challenge," she explains. "I wanted to bring commercial tools to assist artists with managing income. Black Swan has grown in a steady manner.

"And that shows that the balance is possible."

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Fresh Arts' Winter Holiday Art Market begins with a preview reception Friday, 6-10 p.m. ($10). Admission to the market is free on Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

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