10 Tips for Indigenous Artists to Succeed

Indigenous people are known to be phenomenal artisans, painting beautiful pictures, weaving intricate baskets and crafting stunning traditional and modern adornments. Many want to make a living by sharing their art with the world. However, becoming a successful artist takes a lot of work―and a fair amount of business sense.

Since 1995, First Peoples Fund has guided, supported and worked alongside nearly 2,000 Native artists to help them develop their artistry into a self-sustaining way of life through grants, entrepreneurial support and professional development workshops throughout the U.S.

“To be able to help Native artists be successful and become entrepreneurs is amazing. There is so much talent out there!” says Tosa Two Heart, program manager of community development for First Peoples Fund, a Lakota and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Two Heart also walks the artist’s walk as a graphic fashion designer who creates unique apparel.

Recently, South Dakota-based First Peoples Fund sponsored the third annual REZILIENCE Indigenous Arts Experience (REZARTX) in Albuquerque. For two days prior to the event, its staff facilitated professional development training for business-minded Native artists mostly from New Mexico.

Curved red pepper by Roxanne Best. Check out Best’s work at www.roxtography.com or @roxannebest on Instagram and @roxtography on Facebook. (Photo courtesy Best)

Roxanne Best, a photographer from Okanogan, Wash., who specializes in food and lifestyle photography, attended the event. She is a national trainer for First Peoples Fund who teaches a Native Artists Business Development class. Best credits the organization for getting her art business off the ground. “I didn’t realize how connected I would feel with First Peoples Fund. It’s a ‘where have you been all my life?’ feeling,” says the member of the Confederated Tribe of the Colville Reservation whose culinary photography is currently on display in two art galleries.

Native Business Magazine asked Two Heart and Best to share their best tips on how indigenous artists can create a self-sustaining, profitable business.

1) Attend a FREE professional development workshop for Native artists facilitated by First Peoples Fund. No surprise it’s the top tip from both artists. The organization offers around 25+ workshops every year, all across the U.S.—from Alaska to Oklahoma to Hawaii. They work closely with long-term and new organization partners in each community. “It’s a great foundation for those interested in the professional side of what being a Native entrepreneur looks like,” says Two Heart.

2) Create a business plan. It serves as the blueprint for your business. A road map for the artist’s success that can be revised and updated. Most important, you will need a business plan in order to apply for grants, loans and other funding resources.

3) Know how to use marketing and social media to promote your art. Two Heart says that marketing is a crucial part of running an artistic business. “Social media is primarily how artists are getting their names out there now and building a following and translating those followings into sales,” she shares. It’s challenging to learn the ins and outs of social media. But it can be very effective in getting the word out to a global audience about your art.

4) Seek out community resources. Most states and tribal communities have community development financial institutions (CDFIs). Look to them for affordable, low-cost lending options to start your business and keep it running. CDFIs also offer business-related programs and services.

5) Know your break-even point. Two Heart recommends that before you launch your business, you should know the minimum amount of product you need to sell to cover your costs. Once you meet that break-even number, you can then determine how much profit you will keep or reinvest in your business.

6) Keep in touch with your customers. If someone buys your artwork, send a thank you note or e-mail. Also, let your customers know about any new products or services—or upcoming shows, if you are a performing artist. “The small things really do make a difference,” says Best.

7) Network like crazy. Two Heart suggests, “Find experienced mentors who can guide you in your journey as a professional artist.” She says that learning from others by asking questions is the most important part of being a successful artist.

8) Keep detailed records. Photographer Best emphasizes the importance of keeping organized accounting and bookkeeping records. “Track everything,” she says. “When I print my photos and send them out, sometimes I wish I had kept better track of price points and locations where I sent them.”

9) Don’t stop believing in yourself and your art. It takes a long time to build momentum and a successful business. “Don’t give up!” recommends Best. “Find your community and don’t do it alone.”

10) Keep your values at your core. Remember what your values are, who inspires you and why. “Keeping values at the core of everything you do is so important,” says Two Heart.