Front Row Center Newsletter from the Greater Columbus Arts Counsil

frc-march2015

By Anna Lapp

In today’s age, representation as an artist is tricky. There’s your work, your following and your online presence. Many artists hesitate to use the term “branding.” It’s an uncomfortable notion for many artists—that they have to sell their image to help business. But regardless of the term, artists must market their work to earn money. In order to get a grasp on how successful local artists promote their work and online presence, we interviewed poet Maggie Smith, designer Adam Brouillette and Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD) instructor Cat Sheridan.

“I can’t imagine that any poet thinks of herself as a brand,” comments local poet Maggie Smith. “I don’t think much about ‘branding,’ but I do think about how I present myself–and I suppose those two things are more or less the same.”

On the business of poetry, Smith remarked that it’s “an odd thing. You sort of have to wear two hats…The website, social media presence, business cards, grant/fellowship applications…all of that is a part of the writing life, but it is not writing. I’ve tried to strike a balance because I have found that those other activities are important…Presses invest in me by publishing my books, and it’s my responsibility as the poet to promote the books to the best of my ability.”

Branding is essential to selling and promoting your art no matter what your discipline—painter, writer, filmmaker. And the heart of promotion starts at knowing your content and your audience. For Smith, her website is a part of her online persona. Its white background and black, tidy text mimics a book format. By designing her website around what she sells, she is creating a literary persona for her patrons and her image. But the background is just one component of the site’s success. Smith’s website features a flock of unidentified birds flying to the right corner. By using an engaging image, website-goers view the birds and connect it to Smith’s work. Birds can represent freedom or flight and viewers may associate it with Smith’s poetry. It’s a smart choice to do this—she is marketing her work visually, creating a connection between her online aesthetic and her ink-and-paper work.

Though the content of Smith’s creative work is not advertising, she has to brand her persona to achieve a higher readership. It’s an odd concept—the necessity of branding oneself as well as letting one’s work speak for itself. But as Maggie notes, promotion is key to helping her books thrive.

On her social media presence, Smith commented that she has recently joined Twitter.On one hand, it’s proven to be a time-suck for me. I could be writing, but instead I’m tweeting and reading tweets! But on the other hand, it’s been a great resource to promote my work and to connect with other writers, journals and publishers. It also helps me participate in the larger literary community.”

Smith’s social media presence bolsters her participation in the literary community, providing her with an active presence in what she calls “literary citizenship.” By promoting “not only my work but the work of writers I admire and am excited about,” Smith creates an internet platform for herself as a poet. She engages her admirers as well as who she admires, creating a circular effect for herself as a reader and a writer.

Smith’s branding technique is about balancing her online persona with her personal work, something that many artists find challenging. When Smith commented that she couldn’t see herself as brand, she was not alone; artists across every discipline find difficulty with this. Cat Sheridan, director of Continuing and Professional Studies at CCAD, has taught a class specifically on artist branding called Design for Media. The core message of the class was for the students to have an active online presence with their art and engage with the community.

Sheridan’s class was composed of students from many different mediums (film, sculpture, painting, etc.). The class members created WordPress blogs to advertise their work and were required to post at least four times a week. Although students often felt uncomfortable sharing the process of their work, Sheridan encouraged them to connect with their audience. She remarked that the concept and story behind the artist’s process has value, and furthermore, creates a link between the artist and the viewer.

Brouillette had a similar idea. “Brand reveals an extension of your work and yourself.” Though an online presence is certainly a persona and not the depth of the true artist, it reveals. Sheridan and Brouillette both remarked that this presence is a way to pave success. Moreover, Brouillette noted that if you’re on Facebook, you are “already putting an image out there of yourself that people associate with your work as an artist.” And this is true. This image is integral to helping viewers understand an artist’s work. As Sheridan told her students, revealing a “peek behind the curtain” can help viewers can understand the intricacies of an artwork.

To the same degree, Brouillette’s homepage features a self-branding technique. He has a slideshow of upcoming events, and the first slide presents a green classic motion picture rating image covered with individual and quirky cartoon characters. His front page is an advertisement for his upcoming show at The Gateway Film Center. A user has eight seconds to look at this image before a new slide pops up. The tactic is informative and engaging. A new visitor to the site will get an immediate feel for Brouillette’s art—a featured show and the alluring designs of his characters. The flood of visuals and colorful aesthetic of his site make a deliberate mark. Both Brouillette and Smith have created a specific way to portray their personal work through marketing appeal. And in this way, a brief introduction to an artist’s website will enable a visitor to create a first impression.

Perhaps Brouillette sums it up best when he says your brand is “how you will be remembered.” It’s hard to imagine a time when digital access didn’t exist. The truth is that in the social media age, we are constantly and consistently creating an online presence for ourselves. On one level this presence informs our personal persona, but for an artist, there must be a professional persona as well. How is the art made? Why is it relevant? What makes it intriguing and noteworthy? In order to answer these questions, an artist must be accessible—he or she must reach out to the public and display how and why the work is important to make the impact the artist wants to brand on the community.

For resources on branding and to access support as an artist, GCAC offers Professional Development Grants and OppArt workshops—including an upcoming workshop on business tips for artists. These grants and programs offer a supportive network to aid artists in professional development. In addition, several Columbus arts groups—such as Columbus Handmade, Art and Artists of 614, and CAW (creative arts of women)—promote one another and offer support and advice. Though branding might feel like a solitary endeavor, these groups and others offer a chance for artists to test their original ideas through close-knit groups. By beginning with like-minded individuals, artists can receive feedback and develop insights for community engagement.

Image courtesy of Adam Brouillette.

Author Anna Lapp serves as an intern for the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Marketing, Communications & Events department.  She is set to graduate this May from The Ohio State University with a degree in English and minors in professional writing and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. As a senior, Anna is pursuing an undergraduate research thesis on Victorian literature and the use of the pseudonym. She is an avid lover of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and 19th century British literature. 

Todd Camp, Metalsmiths, Stately Heads, Houston Penetrable, Tom Ferderbar