Inside Gener8tor’s Fellowship.art Program, Which Brings Startup Accelerator Model to Visual Arts

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

You could make the case that the lines that separate an artist from an entrepreneur are virtually nonexistent.

Just like startup founders or other business owners, artists are passion-driven individuals. They are making a product and seeking to sell it in a marketplace. They’re creating something tangible, pushing the boundaries, and often assuming great risks in doing so.

In their own right, many artists are makers, marketers, and managers of their art.

This premise is a centerpiece of Gener8tor’s recently launched program, Fellowship.art, which in essence applies the startup accelerator model—which typically provides funding, mentorship, and business connections during a short-term training session—to the visual arts world. The program, which launched with its first cohort in October in Milwaukee, is predicated on the idea that artists are entrepreneurs, and like in the traditional business or startup worlds, these creative beings need the appropriate tools and mentorships to survive and thrive.

“We’ve recognized early on that creatives, artists, and musicians are in fact a classic entrepreneur that can benefit from the same type of resources and capital that startup founders do,” says program director Clare da Silva.

Gener8tor launched in 2012 with programs in Milwaukee and Madison, WI, that invest in early-stage startups, help them hone their business models, and connect them with industry leaders and other potential investors. In recent months, the Wisconsin-based organization has expanded its programs to cities across the Midwest and beyond. This year, Gener8tor also made its first forays into the arts with the rollouts of Fellowship.art and Backline in Milwaukee and gBETA Musictech in Los Angeles. But whereas Backline and gBETA Musictech revolve around the music industry, Fellowship.art is exclusively geared toward visual artists.

The new Gener8tor venture follows a structure similar to its other accelerator programs: a cohort of four artists participate in a 12-week program during which they receive one-on-one support, mentoring, and coaching to help them navigate and succeed in the art world. The focus is on building a local arts scene, so of the four artist slots, three are reserved for Milwaukeeans and one is slated for a recipient located outside the area.

The program is one of the few fellowship programs in Milwaukee for local visual artists. (The Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowships for Individual Artists is another notable one.) But Gener8tor isn’t the only organization that offers startup accelerator-like programs for the arts. Others located around the country include Theatre Accelerator, Zoo Labs, Creative Capital, and the Center for Cultural Innovation.

In addition to the training, each Fellowship.art artist receives a grant of up to $15,000 through the program, which is based out of the new creative arts hub in Milwaukee, No Studios. As part of the program, free use of studio space at the recently opened wellness and entrepreneurial hub Sherman Phoenix is also available to select artists for up to a year. A second cohort of Fellowship.art artists will be selected in 2019, with future classes depending on funding, da Silva says.

“We could be doing more to support creatives and innovators from the ground up,” da Silva says. “We see a lot of similarities between what [Gener8tor has] been able to accomplish on the startup side, and [what] we think [we] can transfer and offer to support creatives, visual artists, and musicians.”

Wisconsin impact

Given Gener8tor’s origins in the Wisconsin startup world, it’s apropos that its transition to art is next on the agenda.

The parallels between the state’s startup and arts scenes are striking: Like with startups, Wisconsin’s reputation for investing in art isn’t stellar.

Wisconsin spends less per capita on the arts than most other states, ranking 48th out of the 50 states in per capita government expenditures, according to 2018 data from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. Similarly, Wisconsin consistently pulls in a bottom-of-the-barrel grade for startup activity from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the state’s early-stage companies take in meager amounts of venture capital when compared to other parts of the country—although there have been efforts by state legislators and private investors to reverse those trends.

Nevertheless, this symmetry between the arts and startups didn’t go unnoticed by Gener8tor, which has tweaked its organizational focus to expand beyond just tech ventures, da Silva says.

“We now say we’re a platform to support a community’s best and brightest,” she says.

Aside from entrepreneurship and creativity, programs like Fellowship.art have the potential to keep local artists working within their communities, rather than leaving the state for outside opportunities, says Anne Katz, executive director of the advocacy group Arts Wisconsin.

“I think it’s great,” Katz says. “It’s really wonderful when we see people actually understanding that investing in the arts is the way forward for Wisconsin. And there’s a lot of different ways to do it, and investing in the future of creative people is one important way.”

Fellowship.art is financed by Milwaukee groups like the Brico Fund, as well as through support from local donors such as Mary Jo and Don Layden, Jr.

Creative license

As program staff characterize it, Fellowship.art’s key differentiators are its entrepreneurial bent and the creative freedom it affords to artists in the program.

Unlike some fellowships, artists participating in Fellowship.art aren’t restricted by many stipulations that dictate how the grant money must be used, da Silva says. Some art fellowships may require artists to produce a new work, but Fellowship.art artists set their own goals, which could center on creating new art or strategizing their next professional move.

And so far in the first session, most of the participants have chosen to focus on the business development side of their work, da Silva says. Funds can be spent by artists on expanding their network of contacts, creating financial models for their business, or investigating market strategies and commercial collaborations, among other uses. During the program, artists are also expected to travel to a new city to meet with other industry professionals and extend their network further.

And if an artist wants free reign to paint during the 12 weeks, they can do that too, da Silva says, as long as it adheres to the program’s objective of advancing the artist’s practice and professional brand.

“We want there to be a lot of flexibility and autonomy around how they spend the money and time, and we want to meet them where they are and help them with those goals,” da Silva says.

Ariana Vaeth, a Milwaukee-based figurative painter in Fellowship.art’s inaugural class, has been using Gener8tor’s mentorship program to help decipher her next career move. A recent graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) who was also awarded the Nohl fellowship, Vaeth has spent a chunk of her time in the accelerator program applying to residencies, drawing up a long-term career plan, and tapping program staff’s expertise to help refine her writing.

The strategic guidance has been valuable and insightful, Vaeth says. And, of course, the free studio space in the Sherman Phoenix hub is an added bonus, she says.

As an artist, “you’re always very grateful to have a large space that you can just work in and not have to worry about the finances of it,” Vaeth (pictured above) notes.

Providing that entrepreneurial and professional development support is where Gener8tor aims to separate itself from other art fellowships. For artists who’ve found success, but are unsure of how to capitalize on it, da Silva sees the accelerator as a vehicle for those individuals to build professional momentum.

And for artists earlier in their careers, like Vaeth, Fellowship.art can help provide some of those fundamental business skills that art school doesn’t traditionally cover, says program associate Monica Miller.

Through Fellowship.art, artists can tackle difficult questions like “How do you maintain a sustainable creative life?” Miller says. “And how do we make choosing an artist’s path something that people can do and pursue as a career choice, specifically in Milwaukee?”

Fellowship.art studio. Photo by Melanie Lawder.

[Top photo of Vaeth by Melanie Lawder.]