Lessons From Brooklyn’s Art World In Purpose And Pivot

Photo: Dezirae Bradley

How many of us dream of turning what we love to do into what we do? What might it look like? How would we market it? If the world changed around us, could we adapt?

On the hunt for role models at turning passions into businesses, I spoke to the three partners of sk.Artspace, a Brooklyn-based art incubator and curator service, whose primary focus is fostering relationships between artists and local businesses about how they have pulled it off-and what others can learn.

Jarryn Mercer, Melissa Sutherland and Symone Wong are best friends since undergrad at Southern Connecticut State University, meeting on the track and field team. “sk” is short for “sidekick,” which Sutherland explains means “close companion.”

Wong and Sutherland are both visual artists, and after a show they did together, they were looking for a place to put on art events. Venues such as bars and clubs were dark and didn’t have the right aesthetic for an art gallery. “We wanted a place where we felt comfortable representing ourselves as artists,” says Wong, “in the way we wanted to be represented.”

So, in 2018, with Mercer, the three signed a lease for a 1,000 square foot newly-renovated commercial space in East New York that had a Brooklyn store front charm and a backyard with the potential for outdoor hosting.

While they had previously together launched a scarves business in grad school, eight years later was an easy choice to start something new. “All three of us have good careers with the resources to do this,” says Mercer. Sutherland, Mercer and Wong are executive assistants in finance and marketing fields.

For the last two years, gallery events, classes and selling art have sparked a flurry of activity, building a community, growing a following-and driving revenue.

Marketing via social

Platforms like Eventbright, Google reviews, social media channels and word of mouth have fueled most of their marketing. Instagram has been particularly effective showing people what they do, and its “Stories” format is used to ask questions that provide insight into choosing future content. Lastly are email campaigns that keep a growing list in touch with news, such as the new shop that sells art.

“We quickly realized the importance of curating content,” says Sutherland. “It was a full time job that we were not prepared for. Investing in our social media manager, Kinna LeBlanc, has been critical to the success of maintaining our presence digitally”

Wong sets most of their engagement benchmarks at 10% across social posts, emails and ticket sales. One insight has been around imagery. “The best traction we get,” says Sutherland, “is when we post images of ourselves versus images of anything else, such as just an event flyer.” The difference is as dramatic as 400%. Sutherland says they plan to use more of themselves to attract more people to the brand. “People are interested in us as individuals-and us as a team. A lot of people in our community may not see three Black women doing something like this.”

Photo: Sk.Artspace

A pivot to services

With gatherings now limited, they’re transitioning into an art incubator. Now sk.Artspace offers curating services for businesses and residential clients. For businesses or homes that want to add art, sk.Artspace can recommend and install.

One additional service is special programs. “We come from a background in programming,” notes Mercer. “We want to provide programming for businesses who want to be intentional about diversity, celebrating people of color voices and supporting talented artists.” This could be, for example, an artist talk during Black History Month or an art show now, during Women’s History Month. While the business model is different, the shift is consistent with the mission of helping spotlight and support emerging artists.

Transitioning the marketing plan

The move into business-to-business (B2B) services requires an updated business plan, new pricing, and changes in promotion. It will mean building a list of companies to target, reaching into their networks and adding Linkedin into the media mix.

Market research was a starting point. While a search uncovered other curation companies for residential and offices, they didn’t find any other Black-owned businesses and certainly no one like the three of them. Research also revealed pricing standards, which helped set fair and competitive rates. They also utilized modern digital presentation tools such as Xtensio for sales collateral to provide easy-to-digest pricing packages.

Content needs also change. To attract prospects and convert leads, they’ll need more client case stories as well as feedback and reviews.

Several lessons from the first chapter can be incorporated for the next. “We learned to be more face-forward for the brand,” says Sutherland, versus behind the scenes getting the work done. “We need more high-quality images of ourselves, and figure out how to merge ourselves with the story of sk.”

Other applications from experience are in the tactical execution. Sutherland believes high-quality visuals will continue to make a big difference in the performance of their marketing, perhaps even more when attracting businesses for curation or programming.

While selling art directly will continue, the future is in “capsule collections”-limited time packages of art from an artist or group of artists, intentionally and carefully created and presented for sale.

I asked if the 10% would remain the engagement benchmark across marketing and sales channels. Wong thought about it for only a second: “I think we can do better.”

Slight updates for Women’s History Month. Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.

Marketing + content leader. Partner at Prophet. host: Rising & Cidiot podcasts. Author of career guidebook and memoir: bronzeseekssilver.com

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