How to Make Teaching Art a Full Time Profession
One Fiber Artist’s Story
Contemporary basket artist Jackie Abrams has taught in Australia eight times, given a workshop in New Zealand, volunteered to teach in Ghana six times, and run numerous art workshops across the United States and Canada. Teaching workshops has become Jackie’s primary source of art income but it wasn’t always that way.
Standing in Strength, Copyright Jackie Abrams
For many years (more than 40) Jackie’s primary markets for her fiber arts business were sales through galleries and craft shows. She traveled as far away as Washington, DC and Philadelphia for craft shows, which required hauling pedestals and other materials that were needed for her booth. It was, she told me, “a major thing to do a show in terms of time and money and exertion.” The effort was worth it though due to the way people would come into her booth and respond to her work as well as the sales she made. Jackie had a solid selling price point between $200 and $600. “Pretty much if it was a nice piece I could sell it,” she said.
Unfortunately that all changed in 2008 when the economy changed. “Basket sales are unreliable [now]. Up to 2008 you could count on making a certain amount of money. Then, sales just went down.” The mid-market that was the backbone of her sales (between $200 and $600) disappeared. Jackie was single and suddenly had to earn more income. That’s when “teaching became a real profession,” she said.
Jackie’s journey from full-time basket maker to basket-educator, is uniquely her own. Nevertheless, this fascinating story is full of tips for other working artists looking to make money teaching art and craft classes.
Hidden Memories: The Ravages of Dementia, Copyright Jackie Abrams
9 Ways Jackie Made Teaching into her Main Source of Art Income
1.Became expert in her craft. With a career in contemporary basket arts spanning the decades since 1975 Jackie was already a skilled artist when she returned to teaching basket making techniques in 1993 after raising her daughters. Her work had already been displayed in galleries from Vermont (her home state) throughout the United States and Canada.
2.Remained passionate about education. Jackie had a passion for education and a head-start in terms of knowing how to teach. Before Jackie began making baskets she was a classroom teacher with a Master’s in Education. In terms of fiber arts teaching specifically, Jackie says that she started teaching early on in her career to have a connection, to share what she was doing, and connect with people and other teachers. When sales slowed in 2008 Jackie had already been teaching for many years and was poised to make teaching a much larger part of her business to give her added income and the ability to travel. Even with a significant head start Jackie nevertheless found that her journey had its ups and downs.
3.Offered bonus materials to earn extra income. “My plan was to teach each of the six major [basket making] techniques and make a DVD - two per year - which would be my retirement money,” she said. Jackie ended up making only one. “It was very expensive. It wasn’t pleasant.” And on top of the production experience Jackie still had to market these DVDs. Now, she has a steady dribble of orders for DVDs that fluctuates between selling zero and six in a single month. In months when she goes to a conference she may end up selling a few more.
4.Paid her dues and worked her way up. Jackie started by teaching at basket conferences and worked her way up in terms of teaching jobs. During the past 10 years Jackie has become more selective on which teaching assignments she wants to be involved with. “I took [teaching] jobs that I wouldn’t take now,” she says. In some instances, as with Arrowmount School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee, she still teaches there because she loves Arrowmount. “It is financially barely worth it to go there [but] you know it will be a great week.”
5.Loved meeting people! What Jackie enjoys most about teaching at Arrowmount and other places is meeting people. She was asked recently if she’d like to have a juried show of her students’ work in British Columbia. The answer was a resounding YES! Jackie really loved seeing her student’s work particularly where they went beyond what she had taught them. “What’s exciting is that they take what I have to offer and go crazy with it and take it in another direction.”
6.Knew what to charge based on the going rates. In terms of making a living from teaching art Jackie began by setting her price for workshops and other assignments based on the going rate, which is different for individual fields. “Jewelry workshops can command a higher price than rug making for example and I can ask less than they [jewelry workshops] do.” She learned about these going rates from attending basket conferences and meeting with a lot of people (many of whom are now close friends). Jackie also joined a group of national basket teachers that had an active email group, which meant Jackie could reach out to a community to learn more about going rates. Establishing her network has proven to be very important for her business.
7.Developed her professional network. Jackie’s teaching has given her the opportunity to travel and make many friends, all over the world. She’s woven together a rich tapestry that now includes fellow educators, other fiber artists, customers and mentors. This desire to connect with people and meet other teachers has proven invaluable and according to Jackie “… turned out to be a fabulous community.” It has also proven to be serendipitous.
8.Pursued new teaching opportunities. When Jackie turned 50 she travelled to Australia with a group of friends for a basket gathering. This is where she met one of her two mentors. It was also where Jackie mentioned off-handedly that “if you are ever looking for an American basket maker who teaches let me know.” Jackie got hired and has since been back to teach in Australia seven times.
9.Found two mentors. As I just mentioned, Jackie has two mentors. Steve is the other one. This relationship has helped her get involved with craft development in Africa. Initially Steve started out by visiting her at shows and buying her work. A few years into it, Jackie told me, they realized that they had a common interest in Africa and in Ghana specifically. Steve connected Jackie with a woman who was looking for someone to go to Ghana and work with people making objects out of paper that could be sold for money. While this initial venture wasn’t successful it did lead to another opportunity at a woman’s trust teaching women a craft skill so they could make money. Jackie was hired and did that trip three times.
In Conversation, Copyright Jackie Abrams
Lessons from Jackie’s transition to fiber arts educator
Jackie’s decision to share her passion for basket making has opened up many opportunities for her art business. Expanding a business internationally isn’t easy. And, doing this in the arts is perhaps even harder.
It seems to me that these opportunities have also “taught the teacher”. Her craft development in Africa and time spent with women in Ghana has had the profound effect of simplifying her art forms and distilling them to precisely what she wants to say – letting the work speak for itself. And it does speak, loudly! Her Women Forms and Spirit Women portfolios are elegant in their beauty and simplicity.
Jackie’s students also get to benefit from these experiences. “My newest classes are about simplifying the technique. [It] is about what I want to say, not the technique.”
If there’s one lesson that you can apply from Jackie’s story to your own it may be precisely the sentiment Jackie eloquently expressed: have something to say! When you combine a passion for teaching with something unique to say and hard work it can be a winning recipe for success.
“My favorite story [about craft shows] is the booth was busy and I was talking to someone. I turned away to look at another woman and she was crying [after reading my] few words about what the work meant to me. Those reactions are what I miss.”
In the end having someone respond to your work either as an artist or as a teacher is a powerful motivator for doing what we’ve chosen to do.
You might also be interested in this blog archive, my discussion with award winning freelance photographer and photo-educator David H. Wells: How to build awareness for your work
Jackie has been a fiber artist for over 40 years, using and adapting well-practiced basket-making skills. Her materials include silk and cotton fabrics, archival paper, wire, sand, thread, buttons, encaustic wax, and acrylic paints and mediums. She works intuitively, the colors and textures of the materials informing the vessels she creates. You can read her complete artist statement on her website.
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I am a marketing professional and a fine art photographer. With more than 20 years of experience as a marketer and image maker during the digital technology revolution, I now educate creative professionals how to create their artistic presence in the changing art world.
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