Jason Pettus, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography

How to Start a Cultural Institution for Under $500

Before I started the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, I worked as a self-publishing artist—first, as a photographer back at the University of Missouri, then as a writer of novels, travelogues, and
performance poetry in Chicago. I attended high school during the peak of the early-'80s punk years, so for decades now, I've been a strong adherent of the "do it yourself" (or DIY) ethos. In fact, I've probably put out several tens of thousands of copies now of the 75 or so artistic projects I've created over the years.

Still, at the age of 35, I found myself not even close to being able to make a living from such work, and upon frank inspection of my career, I realized that it would probably never be so. That's when the idea of CCLaP was born. During that period, I made a trip to Germany and spent time with a whole series of fascinating artists, all of whom I found myself wishing I'd have a chance to showcase when I got back home. Given my background, though, I wasn't very interested in taking on the traditional "gatekeeper" role in arts administration–you know, where an elite group of cultured authorities hand-pick who they think will be the Next Big Thing, then spend a ton of money on them in return for keeping the majority of the profits. From day one, I've seen the Center as more of a partner to hardworking artists, with both of us putting in an equal amount of effort towards getting projects distributed and promoted, and each keeping half of the profits in return.

I should point out, however, that "equal work" here actually means "separate but equal," which is another policy that has guided CCLaP since its formation. The Center handles all the crappy little things that self-publishing artists hate the most—things that, if left undone, can keep these artists from being truly successful: responding to daily email; sending out review copies and press releases; setting up Paypal buttons for each project; creating specialty websites; licking stamps; and fundraising for production budgets. When we handle these tasks, we give artists the opportunity to do the most fun part of the "business" side of things, the part that used to be the job of gatekeeper-style groups but now rests more in the direct relationship between artists and audience members: convincing these people to be fans in the first place. This is accomplished through such modern conveniences as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, plus such old-school activities as tours, exhibitions and festivals.

In a world where money is becoming tighter by the day, where traditional nonprofit resources for cultural institutions are disappearing at an alarming rate, and where technology is rapidly eliminating the need for authority figures to tell us what to consume in the first place, it only makes sense that the entire industry of the arts will switch to a 'federation' model. In this model, an author here, a distributor there, and a venue owner over there will team up for an endless series of temporary alliances regarding each artistic project that gets released to the public. This is different from the old paradigm of an artist getting handed a "golden key" by an all-powerful arts-based company.

And so for two years I essentially put my professional life on hold, in order to give myself a "self-taught MBA," which basically entailed reading several hundred books, attending as many expos as I could, and pestering the life out of business bloggers and the local chapter of the Small Business Administration. In 2006 I was ready to put my first business plan together and go seek the $50,000 I needed to start up CCLaP in the way I saw fit (that is, with a physical location, paid employees, and a full roster of products and services from day one). And that's when I discovered that no one in their right mind was willing to loan $50,000 in a recession to a former self-publishing artist with bad credit. A year later, I discovered that no one was willing to loan me even $5,000 for a scaled-down version of the center. So in good DIY fashion, I decided to flip the equation upside-down, and figure out what exactly I could accomplish using only the few hundred dollars I could put together myself. It was this version of CCLaP that
finally opened in summer 2007—the version where I publish electronic books instead of paper ones and hold live events at other people's venues instead of my own; where everyone involved is a volunteer and the audience is mostly generated through such digital goods as a podcast and a copious amount of opinionated book reviews at the CCLaP website.

When it comes to this, I essentially try to take the Center as seriously as if it had a full working budget and paid employees, and try to follow all the advice I learned during my research into small business—among other tips, to be as professional as possible; don't bite off more than you can chew; use a unified design scheme to tie together all the Center's activities; and establish a strong "branding message" in the eyes of your audience (a unique idea or phrase that they automatically think of when thinking of your group). And although that's not nearly as fun as owning some cute brick storefront in Uptown full of merchandise featuring my group's logo, I have to admit that things have been going fairly well for an organization that's spent less than $500 in the last three years.

CCLaP now has eight original books out, including one that has been downloaded more than a thousand times. Another title recently cracked the top 20,000 national bestsellers at the Amazon Kindle store (only two weeks after its release), and the website itself receives around 10,000 unique visitors each month, including a plethora of industry executives and a large chunk of Chicago's artistic community. Our ongoing podcasts are growing more and more popular over at iTunes, and we're hosting a growing amount of live events here in the city. This has developed for CCLaP a reputation for being on the forefront of cutting-edge technology and unusual business experiments (all our ebooks, for example, are released under a Radiohead-style "pay what you want" system, which has garnered more press than everything else the Center does combined). All of this, along with our embrace of cutting-edge artists, has created that exact "branding" mentioned earlier.

It's not an ideal situation by any means, but it's certainly a lot better than me still sitting around in 2010 waiting to raise thousands of nonexistent dollars before doing anything at all. That's ultimately the reason I decided to go the route that I did, because it's better to be out there actually producing things and releasing projects to the public, instead of sitting around doing nothing while you wait for the "proper" channels to click into place. And since I already had this much bigger plan in place before starting the much smaller one, it gives me the chance to make sure that all current steps are also part of an overall larger whole. Profits from the electronic books, for example, are going towards the Center's first paper book, which (taking yet another cue from the music industry )will actually be a fancy "collectors edition" of one of our ebooks, hand-bound on archival paper and with color illustrations on vellum inserts, made in a limited number for a high price and sold just to that author's most hardcore fans. And that will let CCLaP start generating revenue in the thousands for the first time, instead of the hundreds, which will then be used to start up even bigger new projects, and hopefully on and on like this until we eventually reach that fabled full schedule I originally pictured way back in 2004.

Anyway, I hope this inspires you to get out there and start up whatever plans you yourself have been kicking around. As you'll see when you start researching the subject, it's easier than ever to get an artistic project actually up and running these days, even if it's harder than ever to make a big profit from it. It's a new era of the arts we've entered here in the 2000s, where money is low but opportunity is high, where artists and organizations work hand-in-hand to get associated projects out into the hands of the public, and there are plenty of chances for success for those willing to embrace these new realities. For any further questions or comments, I encourage you to stop by the CCLaP website, or please feel free to contact me directly.

Jason Pettus is the owner of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.

Published by CAR_Laura on Mon, 11/08/2010 - 10:02pm
Updated on Sat, 07/02/2011 - 11:23am