North Adams, MA

Contact Name
Blair Benjamin
Project Dates
2007 - Present
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2011
Tags
Business Planning, Workforce Development
The program was conceived in 2007 to explore the potential of an "asset-building" approach to helping low-income artists achieve success as micro-entrepreneurs and home-owners. At that time, the broader asset-building field (which had been maturing since the early 1990s) had already demonstrated great promise and was entering a period of increased experimentation. The Assets for Artists program was propelled by that energy nationally, as well as by the energy in our local community surrounding the Berkshire Creative Economy Report and the formation of Berkshire Creative. A small Massachusetts Cultural Council planning grant helped support partnership-building and consulting services to turn the initial ideas into concrete plans.
Project Goals
What were the project goals?
Our goals for the Assets for Artists program are to help low-income artists succeed as microentreprenuers and build assets and income through business growth and the acquisition of affordable space.
Have they changed over time?
These have not changed from the outset. Our main objectives have remained fairly constant as well: (1) Provide support for artists to acquire working capital and the small business management skills necessary to make effective business investments, knowing that such capital and training can be difficult to obtain for low-income self-employed artists; and (2) Help financially stable low-income artists obtain the capital and knowledge necessary to succeed as homebuyers and enjoy the benefits that so often come to artists who own live-work space and can bring their sweat equity and creativity to nurturing that asset.
Who are the project partners and stakeholders?
Assets for Artists is a broad and expanding partnership. For the Berkshire County pilot phase, our main partners and stakeholders have been MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Massachusetts Department of Housing & Community Development, Berkshire Creative, MCLA's Berkshire Cultural Resource Center, and the City of Pittsfield, as well as the statewide Midas Collaborative (a leader in asset-building services) and Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network, as well as alliances with New York-based ArtHome and Washington, DC-based Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) to connect with the broader asset-building and artist-services fields. In 2011, our project's expansion into other parts of the state has been made possible through new partnerships with such organizations as the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston, Artmorpheus, Cultural Organization of Lowell and the City of Lowell, and the New Bedford Economic Development Council.
Project Specifics
How was the project implemented? What were the steps taken?
Our specific strategy to achieve the objectives outlined above focuses on offering individual development accounts (matched savings accounts) and related training and networking to low-income artists in Massachusetts. Participants are required to meet savings goals and attend financial training workshops, focused on budgeting, strategies for saving, and the responsible use of credit and various financial tools. Our participants have been able to access from $1,500 to $4,000 of matching funds while also building their own savings. We have had to build relationships with funding sources that can provide this specialized form of capital for low-income households, and adapt the traditional methods of operating a matched savings account program to the particular needs of artists. Over time, we have refined the amounts and sources and restrictions for the matching funds made available to our artists, and have also refined the outreach and training strategies based on what we have learned, but the core services remain our focus.
Have they been refined over time?
We also link our participants to the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center through our 2-day business trainings (totaling 8 hours) facilitated by SBDC staff, who have worked closely with us over the past 3 years to build capacity to better meet the business needs of artists.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles?
The first major obstacle was how to build an administrative structure for managing matched savings accounts. We were fortunate enough to partner with the statewide Midas Collaborative to provide that structure and serve as the back-end of the program, so that we didn't have to create our own structure from scratch. Our second major obstacle was how to convince artists that this bizarre-sounding grant opportunity was legitimate and worthy of their time to participate. Although artists are hungry for funds, they're also uncomfortable with things that sound too bureaucratic, or too distracting from their work, or anything that sounds like it might push them to make a kind of art that feels like selling out. Again, partnership was critical to overcoming that obstacle.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
We've relied heavily on the trusting relationships that artists have with our partners to convince artists of the legitimacy of our program, and we've benefitted from strong word-of-mouth generated by artists who enrolled in earlier rounds.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
My top suggestions for others interested in this kind of project would be to seek an appropriate range of partners so as not to re-invent the wheel, build personal relationships with the participating artists so they quickly establish complete trust in the program, and really listen to what challenges the artists in their community are facing and what they need in terms of capital and training.
Project Impact
How has this project contributed to creative community building?
This kind of project has an impact that takes a while to germinate and is felt artist-by-artist. In the early stages, it provides confidence and motivation through the training and the act of building savings. After several years now, we are beginning to see a number of artists who are investing their funds. A potter used his capital to attend the New York International Gift Fair and re-vamp his website and is now being featured in Anthropologie catalog and winning numerous new gallery accounts. Another has used the funds to help open a storefront design studio in downtown North Adams. Those are the kind of impacts we expected and hoped to see. The program won't produce results like that in every case, but there are measurable impacts, and we're pursuing a long-range control group evaluation methodology to better understand the impacts compared to the normal career arc that any artist might pass through.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
In the early stages, it provides confidence and motivation through the training and the act of building savings. After several years now, we are beginning to see a number of artists who are investing their funds.
Were there unexpected impacts?
What was less expected is the extent to which participants are reporting an increased willingness to take smart business and creative risks, and feel less anxiety about the future, simply because they know they've built up some savings and have learned that they are indeed capable of saving, not just to receive the match but after graduating from the program as well. That change in outlook could have a more profound impact over the long term than the shorter-term acquisition of certain business skills and a modest amount of capital.
CCX Workshop Handout