Friday, January 31, 2014

A Tale of two artists’ driven passions for business success as seen in Company/Comapny MD Magazine

(click image to read Company Magazine)

Artist -noun [c] Creative Entrepreneur
A Tale of two artists’ driven passions for business success

In the world of art galleries, art museums, non-profits, co-ops, and various other art showing venues, the life of an artist isn’t all about making art in the studio – a mythic life of a reclusive non-conformist.  Today’s artist has to be a smart businessman/woman, taking into account all the corporate models followed by successful small business owners and tweak the industry standards to fit their own unique “products”; utilizing all social medias, networking and market evaluations. 





Local San Antonio artists, Cliff Cavin and Russell Stephenson, have individualistic outlooks on how to run their successful art careers.  Cliff Cavin, a regionally recognized mid-career impressionistic painter has logged more than 35 years of being an artist, while Russell Stephenson is a younger emergent contemporary sensation, currently represented by 5 galleries in Texas.  Both know the competitive nature of the art business and constantly strive to be flexible in the ongoing rollercoaster we know as the economic climate of the art business.


Still in high school, Cavin knew he was better at art than anything else.  After graduation he enrolled in the Warren Hunter School of Art, a private two year program under the renowned San Antonio painter, Warren Hunter.   Landing a job as a commercial artist, Cavin spent the next 4 years being a commercial artist, not a studio artist.  With a small stint in the valley working on the sidelines of the art world, Cavin entered into the family trade- United Tile, a business run by his father; only to retire from that same business in 2013 with about 40 years of Project Management in construction.  Now what does that have to do with art? -- Nothing.  That’s the point.  For Cavin, the financial demands of a family warranted the need for a day job that “paid the bills”; meaning economic stability.  His initial emergence in to the art world of San Antonio was not financially stable.  “I sold paintings here and there, but I remember selling my first big painting in 1988 for $3,000 at 37 years old”, he says.

1988 was a turning point for Cavin.  His first trip to New Mexico transformed everything.  “I fell in love with New Mexico, the colors were spectacular; my paintings changed overnight”, Cavin recalls.

Cavin went from being a draftsman to a watercolorist to an oil painter in the mid to late 80’s. “I knew I could make more money from oil paintings”, he confessed. “There were a lot of watercolorists in San Antonio at the time, and it was everywhere. I visited an exhibition of the Cowboy Artists of America and saw that their paintings were going for $50,000 and $60,000 to $100,000, so I decided to change my tactic. I knew I could paint great pictures of the things I was already painting in watercolor.”

With a host of gallery representations including Nanette Richardson Fine Art, San Antonio; Mountain Trails, Santa Fe; Southwest Gallery, Dallas; Bill Zaner Studio & Gallery, Boerne and J.R. Mooney Galleries, San Antonio/Boerne, among several others – Cavin painted what he found inspiring, seeking success by way of “painting what I liked”.  “You don’t have to worry about styles, you just do it. As you grow you will see people always copy other people’s art, that’s part of learning, but eventually you develop your own style…even without knowing you did”, he explains.  

“I found the colors of my surroundings, Texas and New Mexico to be my muse and hoped my audience felt the same; evolving in style and aesthetic along the way.”


With an artistic resume that spotlights exhibitions at the Dallas Heritage Museum, the Briscoe Western Art Museum, the Kerrville Cultural Center, Universidad Autonoma de Coahuila, Mexico; and 14 years with the Alamo Kiwanis Club Western Art Invitational coupled an 8 year history at the National Western Art Foundation Night of Artists: Museum Exhibition, Cavin’s history showcases clients from McAllen to Dallas, from San Antonio to Mexico City. 

“I have a love for painting, for art. I think people are born with it. I love doing it”, he states. “When I have too many commitments, my paintings suffer; it becomes a job not a dream world where you can create. You become directed by your obligations”, he confesses.  However his understanding of whom he is and where he wants to be are completely justified in his mind.  “There are a lot of people better than me {at art}, but I am a lot better than others”, he insists.


That understanding is what has made him successful. Cavin knew if he was in larger galleries, he would not float to the top of the pool, but by being in more intimate galleries, his work would have more opportunity.  “If you start selling in the $100,000 price bracket, you limit yourself to a certain demographic, but if the price of the art is lower, theoretically there are more people who can afford your work”, he concludes.






Russell Stephenson, on the other hand, is beginning to establish his business models and understand the unpredictable demands of the art market.  Born into art, Stephenson was always drawing and coloring; insisting these are “developing aspects of mark making and creativity. “It is a primordial urge…my parents encouraged me and I did it for fun, but with time I got good at it. I never thought of art as a career and business”, he says.  He started selling drawings in the 4th grade to classmates for lunch money.  In the later part of high school he fell deeply in love with art and that was the only thing he wanted to do.


After high school Stevenson applied to the Art Institute of Seattle, Washington and received a full scholarship.  Being a commercially driven art program, he felt his passions were elsewhere. “This was the beginning of commercially designed graphic technology in the early 1990’s”, he says. “I had never worked on a computer art, never experienced a commercial art environment, and I found myself wanting to explore the more traditional art methods and explore a more personal interpretation of the work around me”, he attests.   He left the Art Institute after a year, opening his own art studio and lived the starving artist life for a few years in Amarillo, Texas. 

  After researching art schools that lent themselves to the curriculum he desired, Stephenson arrived at Pacific Northwest College of Art with a duffle bag, suitcase and a portfolio.  He married in 1999 and graduated in 2001.  With a spousal tradeoff of school/job dealings , Stephenson and his wife planned out their life goals, roadmaps, and career potentials; formulating relocations, stability, and security while expecting their first child. “I worked in various galleries doing framing and in construction for extra money”, Stephenson admits.  “I went back to school at UTSA in their Graduate studies for printmaking to get my Master’s Degree so I could teach. I played by the rules, if I wanted to make art as a career I had to get the advanced degree to be able to pave the way to where I wanted to go”, he explains.  After graduation, Stephenson found a job as an Adjunct Professor at the International Academy of Design and Technology teaching the fundamental like Color Theory and Drawing. “As a professor, I have the flexibility to be in the studio, and be serious about what I want to do with the work, I am not dictated by my sales”, he says.


“However I understand I have to be always researching, learning and knowing what galleries would be a good fit for my work…sure I went through the make work, make work, make work and show work stage, you have to in order to get your name out there; but there is also a time when you become more selective of where you exhibit.

With exhibitions at Bihl Haus Gallery in San Antonio to Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum as well as formulating an art collective, the Texas Cannons of Proportions, Stephenson launched himself into the San Antonio art community and within five years not only developed his voice but garnered the attention of gallerist Lisa Ortiz and Ana Montoya. 

However, as an artist making artwork in a era of social media, Stephenson knew the need to address all avenues of online marketing.  “I had to go to where the people are” he quips. “They are on Linkedin™, Facebook©, Instagram©, Pintrest™, so I knew I had to be on there as well. With an internet presence it is real easy to refer people to your artwork, to your gallery, to your images” he says.  “When we look at the new generation of business models with new technology and the need to model our own art businesses out of these models we have to utilize these advances.”

Coupled with this online existence, Stephenson saw a need to educate the public as well as the art collectors on his new type of contemporary work and explain the bridging of traditional impressionism and abstraction with his neo-contemporary landscapes.


Debunking the stereotypes of an artist, Stephenson knows the fundamentals of any business; the follow-ups, the need for punctuality at appointments and meeting, stating your attitude is as good as your work.
With branching out to galleries in  Dallas, Amarillo, Houston as well as San Antonio and Boerne has increased Stephenson’s demand, but has allowed a certain flexibility in making several bodies of work that are individually successful in different cities and markets. He began to learn valuable lessons on demand, rotation of inventory, client relationships, among other necessities. “How much can you do without compromising the work”, he comments as he discusses inventory levels and supply and demand across Texas.

Fighting being pigeon-holed, Stephenson knows his art will change as life changes, as he changes, and understands most of the work will be developed through the process of making it.
“I learn to let go, to let the painting be the teacher”, he says.


Once again Stephenson and his wife set realistic goals for education and career advancement. He says he will start researching his next level of art making and gallery representations, and teaching.
Cavin and Stephenson both are aware of how to promote their artwork, aka business, but with generational concerns --each striving to become a successful business person; whether it is through technological advancements in communication, word of mouth, or branding namesake.
Although the art market is sometimes unforgiving, Cavin has met challenges and has kept his artistic integrity, still painting the beautiful landscapes awarded by Texas and New Mexico, staying true to the initial love of painting and sticking to what he likes.  Stephenson lays out the road ahead --formulating and balancing his career advancement, family life, and studio time in confidence; giving rise to various bodies of artwork that have a proven track record throughout Texas –evolving, experimenting, and creating.

“There is always something I borrow from the last painting and add it to the new discovery”, Stephenson says.

I think that is what makes us all successful, we learn from our own lessons and keep moving forward, financially as well as metaphysically—the life of an artist, I mean business owner and leader.

By: Gabriel Diego Delgado
J.R. Mooney Galleries, Boerne Gallery Director
830-816-5106





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