UMass Creative Economy Grant Funds Art-to-Work Incubator

An artist at work on a project
Lowell-area artists may soon have a better understanding of marketing their work, thanks to the new Art-to-Work Incubator program.

By David Perry

Associate Professor of Art Ellen Wetmore knows well the difficulty artists face: It’s hard enough chasing a muse, let alone making a living at it.

Steve Tello knows what makes successful entrepreneurs tick.

They teamed up to create the Art-to-Work Incubator, a program to mentor artists of Greater Lowell in making a business of their art. 

UMass President Marty Meehan announced Art-to-Work as one of 10 faculty projects to receive a grant from the state’s Creative Economy Initiatives Fund. The incubator, one of three winning proposals from UMass Lowell, won $26,650.

The grant comes at a moment when the university’s Art & Design Department shines in a new national survey of return on investment for a bachelor’s degree in art. The survey measures tuition costs, loan averages and 20-year return on investment. UMass Lowell’s program for in-state students topped the list, and its art degree for out-of-state students was No. 2. 

Reaching into the Community

The Art-to-Work Incubator will be free and open to artists working in the community and will not be restricted to students or alumni.

For many artists, the question of how to make a living is a nagging question, Wetmore says. 

The gallery circuit is “not a satisfying way to do things for a lot of people,” says Wetmore. It’s small, exclusive and sometimes hard to get into, she adds, “and even if you do, there’s no guarantee of any financial support for your work. So I decided to expand the toolkit.”

Her idea is teach artists business development strategies and provide funds that can help them market themselves and sell their work.

Merrimack Valley artists and craftspeople participating in the Art-to-Work program will spend a year learning small business self-sufficiency from professionals. They’ll learn about finance and how to write a business plan. They’ll study product prototyping and research retail markets. And they’ll be eligible to earn matching grants to invest in their business. 

Lowell, with its abundance of artists and live/work residences, is a “perfect” place to find working artists looking to expand their business know-how.

“There’s an entrepreneurial spirit here in Lowell,” Wetmore says. 

A standard-bearer of that spirit is Tello, the university’s senior associate vice chancellor of entrepreneurship and economic development. He has worked with local entrepreneurs on numerous fronts, from the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center to the Difference Maker program, and says artists will benefit from an infusion of business skills. In addition, he says, the community will benefit from the artists’ contribution to a vibrant, diverse environment.

“Art is very personal. In some cases, people sell tens of thousands of paintings. And yet, others don’t. What happened in the case of those who do? And how is it different than the rest?” Tello says.

Marketing art “is not part of our training in art school,” says Wetmore. “It is so completely opposite to our training. I plan to take some willing volunteers, and there are so many artists in Lowell that it shouldn’t be too tough to find a group of willing artists who will work together for the better part of a year.”

Tello says the pair will put the finishing touches on the program this summer and begin taking applications for 10 to 15 artists in the fall. The program includes work with mentors, workshops and lectures. The course, which will include time in UMass Lowell classrooms and crafting spaces, begins in November.