Feature Issue on Careers in The Arts for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities
ArtLifting: Profit and Purpose
About 15 years ago, I (Liz) was doing volunteer social work helping individuals who were homeless or who had disabilities get housing, jobs, and food. My clients desperately wanted jobs, but due to mental health challenges or other reasons, a 9 to 5 just wasn’t a fit. I remember thinking that what I need to do is redefine what a job can be in order to include more people in the economy, I just didn’t know how to do that, and it was a question that stuck in the back of my mind for years.
After college, I got a public service fellowship that paid me a stipend for one year to start art therapy groups in homeless shelters, and that’s when everything clicked. I saw really saleable art in the shelters and realized there are about 1,000 existing art therapy groups in shelters and social service agencies in the United States alone. And yet, there is no marketplace to sell it. The concept of ArtLifting is to fill in that gap. We are a platform that helps individuals who have been impacted by housing insecurity or are living with disabilities sell their original art, and also prints of their work so they can make endless revenue from each piece. We also license artists’ work so it can be transformed into products such as tote bags and clothing.
We are structured and regulated as a public benefit corporation, so we are for-profit and for-purpose. Founded in 2013, today we work with 162 artists in 26 states and we have customers in 46 states and five continents. Artists earn 55 percent from each sale, and we’ve paid out $2.1 million to date to our artists.
ArtLifting began with individual customers but corporate sales now comprise the biggest segment of our business. We sell art in bulk to workplaces, hospitals, hotels, and other large spaces. This allows us to work smarter, not harder, because each corporate client needs a much larger volume of art than does a single household.
When the pandemic hit, we were understandably concerned, not only because so many workplaces were closing but more importantly, because some of our artists are living with homelessness, making them especially vulnerable. We worked really hard to help these artists secure housing as quickly as possible.
And shockingly, our sales grew last year, even though the vast majority of our sales come from buyers purchasing artwork for workplaces, which were mostly shuttered. The world is much more socially conscious now and our product is more top of mind because we help companies demonstrate a socially conscious investment in diversity.
We work with day programs and shelters to identify talented artists, helping them curate and develop their portfolios, and then we position their work for commercial success. We provide frank feedback from clients, which helps us and the artists understand what will work in various types of industries and settings. We work with artists as they develop their curriculum vitae and their catalogue and we’ve provided guidance on color theory and other concepts with which artists without formal training might not be familiar.
Prior to joining ArtLifting, I (Elliott) was a studio manager for a day program, and still maintain those relationships. Day programs provide vital, local services and settings for people living with disabilities, but they aren’t equipped to really take a professional artist’s career to the next level, with marketing and other higher-level support, and that’s where ArtLifting can make a difference. The majority of our team are sales and marketing professionals. So, no one organization can do all things for all people, but for the right artists, we can make a big difference.
When an artist is accepted to our platform, we collect a bio and curate an initial portfolio, which is guided by our familiarity with the corporate art market. Specifically, we consider what styles of work historically have resonated with our clients. Of course, this is open to interpretation, and each artist lets us know how much direction they are open to receiving. All of our artists write the first draft of their own artist statement, telling us who they are and how and why they create art. It’s their own story of why their art is important, and why creating it is meaningful to them. Then we help edit and polish, and start promoting the work itself.
There is an evolution in any artist’s career. It is challenging for every artist to navigate the art market and find their niche and it is very important that ArtLifting and the artists take every opportunity to learn. Some artists are hungry and striving to learn more about selling their art, while others are happy with their creative process but they’re not in that growth mode. We provide that extra support if needed, but it’s not required.
Like a lot of the artists we work with, we’ve struggled to deal with the fact that for some artists receiving disability benefits, earning sporadic income as an artist can lead to the loss of significant government health, income, and housing benefits. It’s a significant challenge, and we try to manage it on a case-by-case basis. For example, one of our artists living with disabilities and facing significant health challenges discovered that if he earned more than about $20,000 a year in commissions from his artwork, he would lose six figures in medical and other benefits. Other artists with more modest benefits have told us how thrilled they were to have their income exceed their benefits, meaning they were self-supporting.
Beyond the financial aspects, to see the confidence our artists gain because of the positive feedback they’ve received here is heartening. We hear about artists we’ve worked with applying to gallery shows or other exhibitions or even applying for a part-time job, and we can see the pride they have in themselves. Hopefully, it makes a lasting impression on the rest of their lives. There is even value in rejections when we tell artists that a piece of work was under consideration but the customer decided to go in another direction. Not everything will be sold, but it is part of the process and they know there is a path to success.
In 2020, we saw a wave of companies add the title of chief diversity officer, and while the inclusion of individuals living with disabilities is growing, it still isn’t as common in the corporate mindset as we’d like. We’re excited to see that grow as more buyers realize the discipline, dedication, and innovation that artists with disabilities demonstrate.
For Mia Brown, an artist we represent who lives with cerebral palsy, each brushstroke is physically tolling as she executes movements with a brush attached to a helmet. The creative act for many of our artists, like Mia, takes a high level of discipline and commitment, which needs to be recognized and celebrated. Understanding this presents an elevated experience for the viewer, which lets them connect in new ways to the work and the artist who created it.
Your Impact - ArtLifting | ArtLifting founder Liz Powers talks about starting her social enterprise, which promotes and sells the work of artists with disabilities.