Like other independent professionals, artists have a keen memory of past financial crises. For New York City-based painter and printmaker Julio Valdez, the repeated economic shocks of the early 1990's, 1997, 2001 and 2008, compelled him to ask some tough questions. "How did we get into this? There's no war. There's no famine. You work hard, and something happens. Again and again. It has nothing to do with you."
Valdez understood that an artist pursuing a traditional career—shows in galleries, commissions, teaching—would always be the first to suffer "when the economy has a little sneeze," as he put it. There were two problems.
First, Valdez noticed, talented young artists struggled to get a foothold in the market, not learning essential business wisdom from older colleagues or partnering to reduce expenses. "Why can't artists join a practice like lawyers, doctors or accountants?" he asked himself.
Secondly, artists often confused the idealism of creating art with the essentials of running a business. "Art has no compromise—with anything, anybody, any process. But once the art is done, it is a business. You have to do your taxes. You have to know how much you spend on rent, supplies and materials. There's always a cost involved."
In 2013 Valdez launched the Julio Valdez Studio Project Space to address both concerns. The JVS Project Space is a real studio and gallery on East 106th Street in New York City. It's also a virtual home for Valdez's most innovative ideas:
Printmaker Pepe Coronado has known Valdez for many years. They both grew up in the Dominican Republic and share the same artistic philosophy and passion for the craft of printing. But Coronado also rents studio space from Valdez. These are former factory spaces in East Harlem, New York, which are not ideal for residences, but with some renovation, can be the perfect solution for artists looking for a place in the city to do their work.
"I take spaces that are not being utilized, that are being closed down," said Valdez. "I fix them up. Pay for the floors, the electricity, the Wi-Fi—all the basic things. I give it to the artists at one flat price that covers everything. It makes it easier for people."
Lease arrangements are more flexible than if an artist had to negotiate directly with a commercial landlord. "Some artists might only need a studio for a six-month project, or three months to work on a commission, or they have an exhibition coming up and they need a space to prepare. If the show goes well they keep it," said Coronado. "If not, they can go."
To finance the East Harlem studios, Valdez turned to a group that would understand their value intuitively—artists themselves. Printmaker Nancy McNamara, who has worked and exhibited with Valdez, was an early investor. "Julio presented his idea to me. I looked at the figures and said, 'It'll make money, but it's also affordable." The appeal for McNamara, however, goes beyond utility. "He's providing safe working space and a community for artists. If you're going to make an investment, invest in what you believe in."
Not all the artists that Valdez works with live in the neighborhood, or even in New York City. They live in the suburbs, other states, or even in other countries. But they're interested in breaking into the New York market and want advice, exposure and connections. "You can become an Associate," said Valdez, "and join a firm that's already working."
Kathy Beynette, who creates her art in a studio in Alexandria, Virginia, is one of the beneficiaries of this program. She exhibited at the Julio Valdez Studio gallery and has been part of his group of artists at the Affordable Art Fair. But just as important for her is Valdez's mentoring of Associate Artists. "My work is extremely labor intensive, with layers and meticulous detail. It takes a lot of time. As a business person, Julio knows that's not efficient, not the easiest way to make a living. He's tried to lure me over to the printmaking side where I could make more than one image at a time. I'm not giving up on that yet—but that's how involved he becomes and how willing to teach."
Artist-in-Residence and Emerging Artist Program
Michele Brody describes herself as a mixed-media environmental installation artist. She's now well known for Reflections In Tea, a social-action project that bridges cultural boundaries through the contemplative art of sharing tea. But her early experiences with showing at galleries were disappointing, turning her towards non-traditional venues like art and community centers.
Still, she felt that there was a place for her in the commercial art market. When she met Valdez through colleagues, he encouraged her to apply for his studio's Emerging Artist Program and to explore printmaking and two-dimensional creations. Her work was accepted which led to an exhibition at the JVS Project Space, a wall at the Affordable Art Fair, and becoming a JVS Artist-in-Residence. But even more than the exposure that came with the opportunity, what Brody values about the relationship is the example that Valdez sets for his colleagues. "I've learned from him the importance of controlling your business—the need to take charge of the direction you're going to make this career more sustainable."
Whether it's keeping artists in his East Harlem neighborhood as it gentrifies, helping colleagues navigate the gallery world, or convincing them that they are a business, Valdez lives his message.
"When I was in school there was a big disconnect between what you study, what your passion is, and how to turn that into something that can sustain you, where you can make a living doing what you love," he related. "Too many people settle for fear. For me, though, being an artist is knowing how to adapt. You face your fear and go through it. I call myself an artrepreneur, and I feel like there are no limits."
Published here on Forbes.com
March 28, 2018