Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dürer and the Art Entrepreneur

Whereas ten percent of the USA labor force is self-employed, among artists that percentage rises to 1/3. This is according to a report from the National Endowment for the Arts. Around the nation there seems to be a rise in seminars and workshops (and even "boot camps") in entrepreneurship for the artist. The internet and digital media are empowering artist-entrepreneurs.

Here at the Burning House, in this smoking crater of an economy, where we were recently turned down even for a job mowing lawns in Las Cruces -- we have in desperation turned to self-employment, teaching acting classes and scene workshops for money. At a recent play rehearsal, I referred to myself as an "actorpreneur." A change of pace from calling myself "unemployed for half a year."

Surely the first artist-entrepreneur, and our patron saint of self-employment, was Albrecht Dürer of Nuremburg (1471 - 1528).

From birth, he seemed to have it made: goldsmithing was the family business, one of the most lucrative trades in which you could work, and a creative one. After learning how to use the burin, however, the young Dürer switched to an apprenticeship with a painter down the street. Besides learning painting, he was skilled at cutting woodblocks for printing images, and his early skills in smithing set him up as an expert engraver.

Like most artists, he accepted patronage, but he also fashioned a new way for artists to earn a living. He was a family man and patronage could be uncertain, so he desired an independent income. With his wife, Agnes, as a shrewd business partner, the Dürers learned their markets and how to price different techniques. Woodcuts were cheap to produce and could produce art of enough quality for popular audiences who liked religious-themed art and would buy it at markets. Engravings cut into copper could reproduce better-quality art, but were also more difficult and expensive to produce, so these works were priced for a wealthier clientele. Paintings were the highest-priced works of all, but Dürer did not consider them cost-effective because of the time involved in producing high-quality works.

The Dürers became quite wealthy, and demonstrated something new in art: the ability to earn substantial income from the public, not just wealthy patrons.

Two blocks from our home, on Spruce Street, there is a t-shirt shop. You can look in the window and see their presses and screens. As one passes by the shop, one might kiss one's fingers and acknowledge Albrecht's memory as a sort of guardian angel of art-entrepreneurs.

[For more on Dürer's life, work, and entrepreneurship, we recommend an excellent chapter about him that appears in Theodore K. Rabb's Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age (1993), to which this blog entry is indebted. Image: Albrecht Dürer's self portrait dated 1500.]

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