Being a Professional Artist Means Business
As a successful professional artist and photographer—and, not entirely coincidentally, a business person—I am aware that sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Sensible investment is after all the cornerstone of business life, and this is no different for a business as an artist than for any other kind of business. Although, as one art dealer I’ve worked with said, “Artists work twice as hard as anyone else, because they have the work of being an artist, and the entirely separate work of making a living as an artist.”
In the light of spending money to make money, I am not entirely opposed to upfront pay-for-play business models in the arts, such as paying fees to enter contests, paying to join an exhibit, or paying to be included in a directory of artists or photographers. There’s a slippery slope here, and I do advise casting a skeptical eye on these kinds of opportunities, particularly if they are regarded strictly as business opportunities. Which they are often not, of course: as an artist, one’s work is tightly bound up with one’s sense of self-worth, and any chance to have one’s work displayed or reproduced is an appeal to vanity, often over the common sense of the pocket book. (Pocket book discipline might be more rigorously applied in the context of a non-arts-based business, although a high percentage of new businesses of all sorts do fail, perhaps in part for lack of thrift.)
However, what I have little patience with is pay-for-play business models masquerading as something completely different, where the real intent is to take advantage of artists. This brings me to the subject of Vida, also called Shopvida, on the web at www.shopvida.com.
If you have almost any kind of presence as an artist or photographer on the Internet, you’ve likely received an initial email from Vida. The first email I received, from Erica who is a self-described “manager of artist relationships” at VIDA, went as follows:
I am writing today regarding your artwork, with the hope that you will consider collaborating with us. I am writing from VIDA, a Google Ventures backed company that brings artists and makers together from around the world to create original, inspiring apparel in a socially conscious way. We are looking for artists with amazing technical skill and truly original work. We came across your artwork, and we’d love to work with you to translate your art into fashion.
By way of introduction, my name is Erica, and I manage Artist Relations here at VIDA. We specialize in converting 2D art into beautiful, quality apparel and accessories. Also, each of our artists receives a portion of net revenues shared back for each of their designs sold.
As part of our artists recruitment team, I would be thrilled if you would join us as a VIDA artist by submitting your artwork to …. In the meantime, if you have any questions at all, please reply to this email directly. I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.
We would be deeply honored to have the opportunity to work with you.
Much the same tale is told on the ShopVida website:
VIDA’S STORY IS THAT OF THE RICH, INTERCONNECTED WORLD WE LIVE IN — THE STORY OF CONTEMPORARY LIFE AND MINDFUL, GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP.
WE ARE A GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP OF CO-CREATORS, FROM A DESIGNER IN PARIS, TO A PRODUCER IN KARACHI, AND A CONSUMER IN SAN FRANCISCO.
We handle production and business, so [our artists] can pursue their passion and make a living.
ONE MAKER AT A TIME
LITERACY FOR LIFE
We provide literacy programs to our makers. They learn to read, write, and do basic math and build a better life for generations to come. [capitalization in the original]
So not only was Vida honored to have me, by joining I could make some money, support mindful global citizenship, and also literacy programs. Who was I to say no to this appeal to my artistic vanity and my desire to do good—with the potential to benefit my pocketbook. Surely, a potent brew of benefits. I hemmed and I hawed, and I decided to give this a shot. After all, no payment was requested upfront.
Putting up a shop on Vida is relatively easy and also quite a bit of fun. You use low resolution Jpeg imagery to design items in a number of clothing categories (also bags and pillows).
You can see the Vida collection that I designed at http://shopvida.com/collections/harold-davis, partly shown above. [Author’s note: I’ve requested Vida take down my store and purge my images, but as of publication date this link is still live.] Once the low resolution store front is in place, you need to upload high resolution versions of the image files, but this isn’t anything that anyone reasonably capable with Photoshop can’t handle.
Promoting One’s Vida Store—Part 1
It was clear as soon as my storefront was up on Vida that the next step would be self-promotion. As I was informed at the top of my new online store as soon as it was live, with ten sales I get “Slate” status—which means that ” Harold’s art will be promoted by VIDA.” Presumably, without the ten sales there would be no promotion of Harold’s art by Vida, sigh!
Just to be clear, I have nothing against involving family, friends, and collectors in social media campaigns that benefit me. In fact, Kickstarter is kind of built around this concept, and I have run two successful Kickstarter campaigns (see https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/472058814/botanique-a-hand-made-book-of-art-prints-by-harold and https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/472058814/monochromatic-visions). It is reasonable to expect family, friends, and social media involvement in the projects that are important to an artist. It becomes a problem if these channels are the sole support of a project, and largely are making money for a third-party who is not the artist.
The Vida Product
Before deploying my reputational capital on behalf of my Vida collection, I thought it would be a good idea to order an actual product from my shop as a matter of simple quality control. Under Phyllis’s name I bought a “Kiss from a Rose” cashmere silk scarf for $85.00 (it came to over $100 with tax and shipping). As a side note, this sale to myself was the only sale I made via my Vida store.
When the scarf eventually arrived, the reviews were mixed. Delivery took about five weeks, which seemed like a strangely long time. While the scarf seemed expensive to us for what it was, in fairness it was sized quite large. However, in our opinion the fabric didn’t seem as luxurious as the “silk-cashmere” description would seem to imply.
There was no lining. Hemming (on the short side) was adequate, but not particularly elegant or complicated. The long edges of the scarf were not sewn at all, but were simply the selvages of the fabric.
The process by which this was created clearly involved printing on fabric via an inkjet printer. There were some places where the dye didn’t reach the fabric, leaving white spots.
To be clear, I have nothing against printing on fabric with an inkjet printer, particularly when it is done well. But this isn’t exactly an artisanal process, and it is unlikely to be lifting third-world crafts people out of poverty. I’ve used an inkjet printer to print some of my images on canvas, but that doesn’t make these images “genuine oil paintings” any more than Vida’s inkjet products are legitimate third-world textile art.
Promoting One’s Vida Store—Part 2
As my welcome to Vida email noted, the “important tips that have helped Vida designers achieve success” were:
- Email your friends, fans, and customers
- Spread the word on social media
- Blog about your collection
- Purchase for yourself or loved ones
- (MOST POPULAR) Purchase Artist Wholesale
While I waited to evaluate the product sample, the upselling email fun began…often at the rate of several emails a day.
Emails from Vida
Cameron at Vida wrote me (many times) to say that if I spent $1,000 I could become “a featured designer with a curated collection. We are only offering curated collections to a small group of hand-picked artists. This is a private email.” Having a curated collection would result in having “[a]t least 1 product from your collection featured on the VIDA Shop All Page. Being Featured on the Shop All page will give you significantly more exposure.”
Jennifer wrote me (on several different days) to “personally reach out to send you a final reminder that today is THE VERY LAST DAY to claim your curated collection page on VIDA.”
Lesley suggested I might enjoy the Festival of Art event where “where art lovers and artists can join together in their admiration for the arts,” and where I would receive a 40% discount on purchases of $900 or more.
Alice sent me another invitation to become a featured designer with a curated collection: “We are only offering curated collections to a small group of hand-picked artists for 1 week only. We think your art is beautiful and we would love the opportunity to feature your work. This is a private, invitation-only email.”
This inundation of upselling emails from Vida continued for quite a while without letup. As one my of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, might have said, “So it goes.”
Summing Up My Sense of Vida
Let me try to sum my sense of Vida up. The claim [from an initial email from Erica at Vida] that
Vida is backed by Google Ventures, and artists who get discovered on VIDA are featured everywhere from national television to major press mentions like TechCrunch and the Wall Street Journal….We’d love to work with you to build your artwork into a fashion brand
seems exaggerated—but certainly something that gets my attention as an artist, with its mention of Google and my artwork as a fashion brand, and no more exagerated than the spiel from many another tech startup. This is, however, also a well-crafted appeal to the vanity and optimism of any artist.
The actual business model seems to be more like a blunderbuss than a discovery mechanism for quality art that would work for textile designs. The goal seems to be to see how much product can be moved by the artists to friends and family of the artist. The only mechanism for discovery of great designs is to qualify by selling Vida product to friends and family, and it is far from clear that the promotion that might follow from said sales at Vida would result in any long-term gains in terms of the branding of an artist.
At best, this is a pay-for-play business model on Vida’s part. As I’ve noted, I have no problem with the notion of investing in the business of being an artist, provided this investment is made thoughtfully. I also have no issue with using friends and family as part of one’s social media constellation to jumpstart a career. I do have an issue with the lack of upfront clarity on Vida’s part about this being what a store on Vida will entail.
Pay-for-play can be okay, but then you should say right away, “For exposure you must pay!” Essentially, Vida is analagous to a multi-level marketing scheme, where participants only make money by selling the company product to others.
The Vida Product—Part 2
One other aspect of Vida’s workflow is troubling, and that is the production of the actual products. In point of fact, I have a natural outlet for products based on my work via my workshops and other events. Had we believed the merchandise was of a quality that worked with the quality of my work, and that we wouldn’t be ashamed to present to my audience, we could easily have taken advantage of one of the many offers I was pitched. For example, we could have bought $1,000 worth of products based my designs at a 40% discount, and sold these at retail at my workshops.
The problem here had to do with the quality of the printing, which we didn’t think was high enough to compare with my other work. In addition, a zebra doesn’t change its stripes to a leopard’s spots. The deceptive marketing to artists is one of a piece with the deceptive sense that Vida gives that its products, created using inkjet printing, are related to textile craft and somehow artisanal. There is quite a bit of markup in my $85 scarf, and I don’t think this money is going to a dye printing machine operator in India.
Is Vida a Scam?
Is Vida an out-and-out scam? This depends upon your definition of “scam,” but probably not, in the sense that they do actually make and ship the products they advertise (even if these aren’t of great quality). Nothing illegal is going on as far as I can tell. Like Amway and Herbalife, there are probably folks who have done okay with Vida—but it wouldn’t be for me.
While not an out-and-out scam, as a customer I would be disappointed in the quality of the work, particularly considering the price, and I would likely be disinclined to order more products from this company. (Would I have expressed my disappointment about the product quality to my sister-in-law-the-artist had I bought a Vida item of hers? Probably not.)
Is this a business model that treats artists ethically and morally? In my opinion, I don’t think so. As always, do research, draw your own conclusions, and caveat emptor.
I submitted a draft of this article to Umaimah Mendhro, the founder and CEO of Vida, and to the press email at Shopvida for comment, but as of publication time have received no response.
Have you had an experience good or bad with Vida? I will happily approve for publication relevant comments related to this article.
More about the Business of Art and Photography
Other articles by Harold Davis pertaining to contemporary issues in the business of art and photography: Putting Paid to Purloining Picture Snatchers: Working with Pixsy; What do Harold Davis and Georgia O’Keeffe have in common on Pinterest, and how is Pinterest going to make money, anyway?; and Presentation Matters: Why Book Publishers Should Care About Quality.
About Harold Davis: HAROLD DAVIS is a professional photographer and digital artist whose work is widely collected. He is the author of many bestselling photography books, including Achieving Your Potential As a Photographer, Creating HDR Photos, Photographing Flowers, The Photoshop Darkroom, and The Way of the Digital Photographer.