The Business of Art: Balancing Creativity and Focus

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Trevor MacDermid

Trevor MacDermid has learned that being an artist full-time doesn’t actually mean that he gets to create art all of the time.

MacDermid, a New York-based artist who creates “subway” signs that look much like the real signs that can be found in New York City (and now, Boston) subway stations, spends about 50 percent of his time creating his artwork and the other half promoting it.

“I have perfected the production [of the signs] to maximize efficiency, but it's still very much a hands-on process,” MacDermid said. “Because it's so important, though, to interface with customers and suppliers, and because I'm also venturing to grow the business, the creative work is balanced by time on the computer, telephone, and in meetings.”

MacDermid, whose signs sell for between $99 and $399, made the switch from being a Web and marketing consultant to a full-time artist in the midst of the recession. His business plan unfolded as his business grew.

“People seemed to be interested and I had some sales momentum, so I built a website for the products and set up a banking account. I got more supplies and secured a space at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  It soon became clear that this could be a viable venture, but I would need to commit to it fully.  I did and it ended up a great decision,” said MacDermid, whose New York signs have garnered lots of press.

In spite of the publicity, however, MacDermid has not stopped getting creative with his marketing.

“I always need to make sure that my potential customers get the concept and are drawn in by it,” he said. “When you’re a one-man business, you sometime have to [engage in] unusual salesmanship [techniques]. During the baseball playoffs, I stood outside Yankee Stadium with my Yankee Stadium subway sign. It was an unusual way to get attention, but the fans loved the signs and it helped create new product awareness.”

If he had it to do over again, MacDermid might dive into the business more wholeheartedly.

He advises artists decide early on how much money and time they have and plan their business accordingly.

“I began with a series of cautious, conservative moves and I've learned that there's no substitute for being bold and believing in what you're doing,” he said.