Creating opportunity
Philly’s Artists Are the City’s Newest Business Class
Takara Small | March 17, 2016

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While artists form the crux of any city’s creative class, the enterprises they start contribute to a city’s economy. Perhaps even more important than the tax revenue alone, however, is the fact that artists and their creative enterprises give any city a cool factor that eventually attracts more businesses and residents. Small wonder that many cities strive to be artist-friendly.

Philadelphia, a city known for its high number of creative and talented artists, knows this more than most. The city has launched several art-based entrepreneurial programs in the last year to help residents turn their passion into a sustainable business.

Last year, the city’s public library system (known as the Free Library of Philadelphia) and University of the Arts launched a boot camp for artists. The two-week course includes all the normal hallmarks one would find at any startup program, including demo days and investment grants, but with a twist­ – the participants are all makers, or artists.

Philly-based entrepreneur Lorenzo Buffa is one of the city’s most successful art entrepreneur graduates. He used a $6,000 grant he received after graduating from the above-mentioned bootcamp to start his company, Analog Watch Co.

(The artist and founder is also something of a Kickstarter savant, and has raised thousands of dollars on the popular crowdfunding platform.)

Buffa, whose unconventional path to success includes a stint as a house cleaner fuses his passion for art and business know-how to create designer watches from repurposed material. He believes living and working in Philadelphia is integral to his success.

“It’s close to major cities and airports, while at the same time modest and humble,” he explains. “If you are a tastemaker in this city, your voice won’t be washed out as it would be in say Los Angeles or New York,” he says.

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The city’s small, tight-knit arts community also makes it easy to find support, he adds. “Since many locals know our founding story — college grad turned house cleaner turned design store success — we have a huge group of local champions who love it when an underdog succeeds,” Buffa says. “I’ll always be thankful for the local support.”

Local nonprofit groups are also championing artist groups. Entrepreneur Works, a nonprofit that helps Philly natives start their own businesses, sees artrepreneurs as a growing force to be reckoned with in the city.

“There’s a growing awareness of the role arts and artists in Philadelphia play in the local economy,” says Leslie Benoliel, president and CEO of Entrepreneur Works. “On an individual level, we’ve seen a real increase in artists understanding that they need to view themselves as entrepreneurs.”

The non-profit specializes in helping underserved entrepreneurs by providing business classes and loans that range from $500 to $50,000. The loan program is a new addition, but an important one to the program since artists aren’t often keen to take on more debt, says Benoliel.

“Generally they come out of art school and they’ve worked on their art and not on their business skills — in order to be sustainable you need to have a business plan and talent,” she adds. “They say ‘this is working well on the art side, but I don’t know how to price my product or what to do about a business budget.’ There were always these problems in the art community, but now they’re seeing themselves as part of the local economy and working with city startup groups to make a long-term business out of their passion.”

Buffa couldn’t agree more. “Philly is a great place to be as a creative. As it’s booming, it’s becoming less and less affordable, but compared to most other major cities, this town is still a great place when it comes to cost.”

For her part, Benoliel believes cities where the cost of living is still low will see an influx of art startups. “We think moving forward, the number of art entrepreneurs (and other non-profits like us who cater to artists) will only grow,” she says. “The boom of millennials moving to cities like Philadelphia because of affordability will make it more and more common – and in the long run create more jobs.”