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Victoria Corcoran Neal: Raising Money, Raising Artists


Victoria Corcoran Neal, Principal and Founder of Corcoran & Co., has created development and marketing plans that are sustainable, mission-based, and successful for more than 50 non-profit organizations. Before founding Corcoran & Co. in 2006, she served as Development Director for KMFA Classical 89.5 FM and the Texas Advocacy Project, which provides free legal services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She also served as Program Director for the Texas Engineering Foundation. Victoria began her professional career as a private consultant and curator of 20th century and contemporary art, advising major private collectors, corporations, galleries, and more. She graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Southern Methodist University with a Bachelor’s degree in Art History.

Jennifer Chenoweth interviews Victoria about her thoughts about raising money and artists.

J: When a young artist is trying to think about their world, they hear or imagine fears about “selling out” and money. Young people would be wise to learn that there is a trade-off between the opportunity cost of working a day job versus the opportunity cost of running a small business, which is what you are as an independent, unemployed artist.

V: The opportunity cost is one good place for me to start. My son called me last night, he is a 21 year old philosophy major. He had four job interviews yesterday and got none of the jobs. Instead, he decided to go to the San Marcos town square and busk; he played with his guitar case open and made $35. He used the opportunity of not getting the straight world job to go do the thing he loves: play music and write songs – make art – on the fly.  And in doing so, he actually made some money. The opportunity presented itself and he found a way.  I think there are going to be times where the opportunity to make art and make a living from it presents itself and there are going to be times when it doesn’t.

You may have to do something else for money, it could be an office job, a construction job, a landscaping job, but you are probably going to learn something from it. You are going to make relationships. You are going to learn about organizing your time and money. You may learn how to source materials; you had no idea that in ten years you are going to need to know where you can buy a stainless steel sphere in China. But because you had that construction job for three months in the summer, you know how to do that.

It is a constant balancing act of evaluating your circumstances: do I choose to make money now and put those acorns away for the future? Or do I choose to work on some art now because I have a really great opportunity? Something has come up and this is an opportunity I have to take advantage of?  And it’s a judgment call. You are also going to make some wrong judgment calls, so go with it and know that you didn’t waste that opportunity. You learned what a bad judgment call looks like and you don’t need to learn that lesson again.

J: So how do you think about money? How would you advise a young artist to think about the nature of money and how to value themselves?

V: As a 49-year old, mother of a college student, and a small business owner, I am suddenly facing retirement in a much closer way than I am facing my student debt. Money is a tool that is there to be used, it is nothing more, nothing less. It purchases things that you need, from food to shelter. It purchases freedom when you need to walk away from a situation.

We all probably grew up with really challenging relationships to money: how to earn it, why it is so easy for some people to make it, and how difficult it is for others to make it. I have no answers on that. You have to get to a comfort zone, one of what you want money to do for you. If that takes reading a couple books to get your emotional relationship right with money I strongly recommend it, because it can really throw you off if you don’t get it straight.

J: What are some ways that money and art relate?

V: I think that Damien Hirst and the way he figured out how to allow money to work for him is a fascinating example of money and art coexisting.  I always think of the diamond skull piece he did, For the Love of God. Prior to the piece’s conception, his girlfriend was in the jewelry business, so he had exposure to an artist who happened to use precious metals in a very different kind of market place. 20 years later, he knew how to source it and was able to make the diamond skull. Obviously, he had to get some kind of financing to even purchase the materials to make this piece, which he did. And then he ended up being a member of the investment group that bought the skull!  So he paid for the materials to fabricate the piece, and then ended up being a part of the group that bought the piece, which ended up profiting him and he still “owns” the work.  To me, that whole story contributes to the meaning of the artwork:  he took the economic-preciousness of platinum and diamonds and paired them with the existential-preciousness of life — the human skull and teeth. This juxtaposition between what is mortal and what is commercial, what is considered precious now and what is considered precious in mortal terms…  and how to end up both profiting from and still owning the piece.  Genius.

And why shouldn’t you make money? I think to your point earlier, of having to be a poor starving artist that must suffer for their art, is such an old idea, a romantic idea. That was an idea that had a time and a moment. I don’t think that moment exists now, or maybe it’s just on its way out. There are so many mixed up ways you can choose to make a living from art.  I am disappointed to hear that in 2015, art school “factory” so to speak, is still kind of putting that judgy vibe out there about artists, money, and selling out. It just seems so irrelevant. It is totally fear based. Every artist is an entrepreneur and a small business owner, you really do have to adapt to the evolution of placing value. Being collaborative in the new kind of viewpoint is key.

J: From your outside perspective of the art world, what do you think are the big swaths of change?

V: The one thing that is kind of interesting to me is how much everything has changed. When I was still in the art business in the mid 90’s, the technology was not broadly available. From a very practical point of view, the prevalence of the technology that is becoming a norm is huge. We knew it was coming, but we didn’t know how fast and which technologies were going to come quicker than others. The inexpensiveness, the prevalence, and the ambiguity of rising technologies create opportunities – it’s almost overwhelming. I think it is great, but it is also probably terrifying, because who knows where to go? Unpredictability is amazing though; what artists are doing with technology never ceases to amaze me. Technology has changed the interconnectedness of the world, it allows people to work unlimitedly.

Art went away from being for the upper classes, to a broader merchant class, and then to more of the middle class. That is when art really blew wide open. Almost anybody could choose to express themselves. Maybe you are going to make a living at it; maybe you’re not, but you can choose to express yourself and maybe somebody is going to buy your art.  I think when the economic model of art starts to shift, it will shift how artists are allowed to make artwork, and how they are afforded the opportunity to make work and get it out there.   We’re in the middle of a huge change, so it’s impossible to really see.

J: I mean that is what we are doing with Generous Art. We are trying to participate in what that change might be. We are trying to figure it out.

V: And it makes sense that it would be messy. You can’t just make a paradigm shift. It is not a logical thing. Instincts, that I think have existed throughout all of humanity, now have a brand new voice, a brand new giant platform. I have a ton of faith that it is just nothing but amazing what is going to happen. How it is going to happen? How it is going to get paid for? What is the model for it going to be? I have no idea. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. It is challenging time right now because we are in the middle.

And, this may be one of the most creative periods where some of the best artwork will be made even though it may not be on some sort of straight up platform like back in the day. Looking back you can see a lot of great work in those in-between moments… just making up the rules as they came.

J: In your current realm, where you do your fundraising, how do you gain the confidence to ask for what you need?  If you are an artist– whether you are putting a price next to a label on a wall, or negotiating with a gallery, — what is the appropriate amount to ask for your work? How do you ask? How would you coach a young artist on it?

V: Those who are motivated to give money are not looking for a cash return on an investment. They are looking for something to happen in the world that they themselves can’t do. Only you can do it — or only the organization can do it. Only you can think of an idea in your particular way.  You are willing to think of it and go through the process and walk through those woods, and be willing to get to the other side. That ability is not for everybody – nor is that style of fundraising or that style of being an artist. For a lot of people that way is a really, really, really good way to do it. It requires that you are more of a project-based person. You have an idea of what the end game might be, even if you have not got it all finalized. You’ve got to put a budget and plan together. I kind of liken it to going to your parents and saying: “ok I need to buy a car and I don’t have any money and you guys do. So here is my plan. I would like to borrow $5,000 from you and the car is going to allow me to get the job and the job is going to allow me to get the money and then I am going to pay you back  — and I just know you guys would be willing to do that for me, what do you think? Do we have a deal?”

You can’t just go to someone and say: “I want you to give me the money.”  You don’t have to always have the timeline and budget figured out, but you have to have some idea of where things are headed, and why.  You have to have some kind plan to pitch them, to invite them in and show them that you have thought about it a little bit and maybe what is the benefit for them (being part of the process might be the whole benefit – to be an insider).  I think that way can be a really good approach for a lot of people

J: It does. I am really fascinated by your college aged son who is at Texas State University in Philosophy. What a delicious place, especially right now while the movie, Boyhood, is so relevant. So if you could be his advisor and not his mother, with that set of creative potential, what do you really want for him and his generation?

V: That is the hardest question I think I’ve ever been asked!  So, I’m an art historian. His dad is a journalist and music critic.  So Jack has not had the benefit, nor the burden, of growing up in a household of people who know how to make money in this world. That’s not where our north star is. Our north star is doing good work, being reliable, having a good work ethic, but very much following our hearts. I do see in him, he is in many ways, a pure artist.  He would rather spend his time writing music for his band Whoever and the People making no money and eating ramen noodles.  (So I say “pure artist” in that old paradigm.) I also see him with a very entrepreneurial sense of crowd sourcing and democratizing the way he is making music so that people from all around the world can contribute to song writing to producing to even preforming. In a way that may not be monetarily valuable yet, but he is trying to put it together. His instincts are art oriented, not financially oriented. He gets that he is going to have to put those two together. He is in some ways a really good example of someone that is going to have to figure it out on their own, just like we all did, but with so many new technologies, his generation is on a real frontier.

J: So it sounds like he, coming from a family who values experience over wealth, must have a pretty unique and very well honed creative voice. He can either perceive this, as any young talented person, as a burden, or as a gift. So, that is part of this whole series we are doing with Generous Art, aiding in the professional development of young creatives.

V: I would say that, if I were teaching the class that I used to teach, Professional Practices for Studio Artists, I would advise participants to pick an artist, any artist in any field that you really admire. They are good at their business. They figured out that there is a business side which enables them to do what they do. If you do not like the term “business side,” pick a different word that makes it comfortable for you.  (I was looking at Julianne Moore. I realized she has navigated all of the business ends of her field in order to get key roles. That means acquiring agents and making a lot of smart choices along the way. These things don’t just fall into your lap.)

Any creative that is out there and influencing the discussion or projecting a voice on a local, regional, national, or international scale, they have figured out the inter-workings of their professional spectrum. It is just a fact of life. You have to figure out these business sides of production. Whether it is earning money and ‘getting a seat at the table’, whatever it is to get the best tools, to get the best opportunities out there, it is simply a must-do. You can be dreaming about it all day long, but there has to be a moment when you decide to enter a realm outside your comfort zone.   


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