Art and business are supposed to be diametrically opposed. But many artists, including the duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are as much entrepreneurs as they are creative visionaries.
How, though, do you turn art into entrepreneurship? An interview in Working Knowledge, a newsletter from Harvard Business School, looks to two restaurants for insights: Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant widely regarded as the best in the world, and Astrid & GastÃ³n, an upscale Peruvian restaurant in Lima. The experiences of these two businesses, as well as other creative enterprises, suggest a few lessons for anyone whose entrepreneurship is as much art as science.
1. Consider a portfolio strategy
There may be very few buyers for the initial, high-end version of your art. But is there some way you can appeal to more people by creating a less exclusive version, without completely diluting your vision?
GastÃ³n Acurio, the founder of Astrid & GastÃ³n, is trying to bring Peruvian cuisine to the rest of the world. To do that, he's opened 32 restaurants under the auspices of nine different brands. That lets him develop menus and pricing to compete in all sorts of different local markets. Wolfgang Puck has probably taken this to its limits: You can eat at a Wolfgang Puck Express in an airport for less than $20, or dine at Spago in Beverly Hills, where the multi-course tasting menu runs $145.
It's not just restaurateurs who can benefit from this strategy. Painters have long dabbled in printmaking; now giclÃ©es make that even easier. When I was in Provincetown, Mass., recently, I tripped across the work of a local artist who usually sells large, expensive landscape paintings. He had started making smaller landscapes and selling them for $50 each; the salesperson said the artist could paint at least a dozen a day and sell them just as fast. To make things more interesting, the artist's name is not being revealed until 2017.
Big-name clothing designers have long offered couture, bridge, and ready-to-wear lines for customers of varying incomes. Natalie Chanin is a smaller, more entrepreneurial designer who's put her own twist on this. She started her business, Alabama Chanin, selling handmade couture clothing. One of her original cotton jersey jackets could easily set you back $3,500. But she has recently started selling a line that is partly sewn on machine, and there, a jacket might run $400. The truly ambitious can even buy a DIY kit, bringing the cost down a bit more.
2. Sell the experience
Lunch at Noma costs about $500. For that, a diner is expecting to get a lot more than food, and they do. For most, going to Noma is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the restaurant emphasizes the experience part of that. The chef, RenÃ© Redzepi, greets each patron with a big hug. Diners can keep the menus that describe their specific meals, and can also take a kitchen tour. It makes them feel like part of the in-crowd, which is really what they're buying.
Much the same logic applies to visual artists, although it may be a bit tougher to pull off. After all, at a successful museum or gallery show, says Harvard Business School professor Anat Keinan, people use language such as, "It moved me," or "It inspired me." No one falls in love with a gallery show and says, "It was really yellow," says her colleague Michael Norton.
So what is the experience of buying a piece of art? In the case of the artist living on Cape Cod, inexpensive paintings appeal to art buyers' intellectual vanity. Buyers can feel slightly superior because by purchasing pseudo-anonymous pieces, they are making a statement that they don't need to know an artist's identity--they recognize talent when they see it. Art openings are also designed to appeal to a buyer's sense of exclusivity. Events such as "meet the artist," "meet the conductor," or "meet the composer" do the same thing.
3. Sell the idea
Selling grasshoppers as food to Westerners is an uphill battle. What Noma does instead is to sell the idea of local, sustainable cuisine. A related idea is that while we are depleting our natural resources, we still need protein. "So now these ground grasshoppers in miso sauce are not just grasshoppers," says Harvard Business School professor Mukti Khaire. "The ick factor is taken away, and it's this bigger idea."
Almost every grand art project starts with an idea, and there may be more than one way to execute it. In some cases, it may make sense to execute it in multiple ways--some more commercial than others. As Khaire says, "If you think of an airplane as an idea that we can fly, then how you do that is a matter of engineering."