Cydney Camp is a visual artist and the Business Programs Manager at Design Core Detroit. She talked with us about how she came to understand that taking a business-minded approach to her own work could be surprisingly powerful in helping her move forward as an artist.

At Design Core we recently hosted a class called Road to Readiness, which was five-session course designed to help makers better understand their financials, to get them capital ready, to be able to approach a bank or an alternative lender, and to present their best case for securing that funding.

I sat in on a couple sessions. and a few days ago I took the time to sit down and make a really simple expenses-and-income Excel spreadsheet, which was surprisingly a lot of fun. I’m not really good with numbers at all, but I’m detail-oriented, and I like to think about how numbers can tell a story, and that’s the thing that most excites me about them.

The Dreamer

We also just launched Client Services Bootcamp, which is a course designed to help design-based businesses become more competitive and strengthen relationships with clients — really nuts and bolts things like, “This is how invoicing works. This is how you can think through your pricing. This is how you find new clients.” And working a little bit on pitching and being able to tell your story as a designer.

So those two things in combination led to a little light bulb moment around my own practices as a creative. I’m a self-taught artist, and I have created things my entire life. I’ve always sketched. I dabbled in photography, sculpture. I wrote short stories and comics. And I’m a classically trained cellist and I also play guitar. I need to express myself through different things!

Anyway, about a year and a half ago, I was at a live painting event. There were a bunch of artists in this big loft space painting murals, and one local artist that I really admired was there, and it was cool just to observe his creative process and watch these things unfold real-time, and I thought, hey, I haven’t really been making much art lately. I can do this too. Why aren’t I doing this? That bothered me for a long time.

Soft, Hard

But here’s the light-bulb moment: I realized that part of it was because I hadn’t been seeing the full picture in terms of how I value myself, how the market values me, and how I can be more strategic with the things that I spend money or time on to create art and advance my practice.

I realized that I gave away a lot of work this year. As my sales started to uptick, a few friends and family started to ask to commission works from me, and generally I would say, “don’t worry about it, you can have it for free.”

But after my light-bulb moment, I had to stop for a minute and think, if I’m looking at the value of the stuff that I’m giving away, I should a lot more strategic about that. It was interesting because I’d never thought of it that way. Art is always a labor of love, and I would always say, “You’re my friend, here, take this.” Or, “Sure, I can paint this for you.” But now, I’m really thinking hard: if I do this-size piece, it’s going to take these resources. If I do that-size piece it’ll take those resources. How much of my resources can I give away right now?

Black Female Sexuality

It’s always nice to give work as gifts, but at the end of the day, if I’m not selective, it’s not sustainable. There’s a difference between becoming enamored with how many zeros are on the price tag, and being able to realistically say to others what you’re worth.

What I’ve learned is it’s not just a matter of making more money. If you start from a really grounded place where you understand the value of your time and effort, when an opportunity comes up you’re in a good position to make a decision, and say, “Yes, I can do this,” or “No, I can’t really make this opportunity work right now.”