Maybe it's a local networking event, a friend of a friend's birthday party, or just a conversation with a cab driver, but the question always comes up: “Chicago Art Leasing? How did you get into that?”
The short answer is that I needed to figure out a Plan B to pay rent once I learned that the company I was working for was going to be closing its doors. The more convoluted answer is that in some unpredictably circuitous way, every chapter of my personal and professional story had been leading up to it. The company has become so much a part of who I am, that in just over two years it's become impossible for me to see myself doing anything else. But if someone had told me back in early 2008 that the next title on my business card would be "Founder/Art Guy," I would have laughed long and loudly.
The factors that contributed to the eventual development of Chicago Art Leasing go as far back as my childhood. My mother was a frustrated amateur artist who eventually became a social worker. My father was a doctor who became a successful pharmaceutical entrepreneur. That juxtaposition set the stage for the difficulties I would wrestle with in finding myself both professionally as well as personally. Most of the time I felt like I lived in a rift between worlds—too creatively inclined for the business school crowd and too business-oriented for the artists. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1998, I vacillated between jobs that were creative (writing, advertising, graphic design) and careers that were more business-focused (sales, finance, pharmaceuticals and management consulting). Whenever I spent too much time in sales projections and spreadsheets, my creative inner demons would rattle their cages, but whenever I spent too much time in the ethereal world of creativity, I would hunger for the solid, factual realm of accounting and data architecture. Without realizing it though, at each step along the way I was finding things that would put me on my ideal path:
At Microsoft, I learned what a successful, aggressive, and dynamic organization looks like. I learned how to be a workhorse and, in spending time with human anomalies—including body-building database programmers and right-wing techno DJs— I learned that people can find ways to reconcile their seemingly diametrically opposed inclinations.
At HotJobs, I learned how to sell. More specifically, I learned how to sell recurring-revenue, subscription-based products and services. I fell in love with that business model and tucked it away.
At a venture firm I got a crash-course MBA and learned how to analyze and critically examine the inner workings of startups. I learned a bit about what makes for successful businesses and a lot about what makes for disasters.
In my first venture, I learned the basics of starting a company. I also learned a lot about managing and motivating myself and others. Most importantly, I learned how to live with the paralyzing, mind-numbing fear of the early days as an entrepreneur.
At a clinical research organization, I learned how to develop proposals and budgets to win large accounts. I got very comfortable with complex Excel algorithms.
In management consulting I learned how to look at existing business with an eye for efficiency. How can processes be streamlined? How can more revenue-generating, productive work be completed with less effort and cost?
And when I learned that the office I was working at would be closing, I found myself doing the one activity that had remained a constant for me. I was working on an oil painting, wishing I could find a way to make a living doing it. I knew I didn't like the idea of being an artist, since I knew it wouldn't satisfy my business side. Starting a gallery wasn't an option either, given the overhead. But I didn't want to go back to Corporate America either. So I started playing with the old HotJobs.com business model and wondering if it could apply to the art industry, and that was when the proverbial light bulb flickered with its synaptic light and I thought, Hey, I should brokerage the leasing of artwork...
Shortly thereafter, Chicago Art Leasing was born: a brokerage focusing on the leasing of works by local artists. Since then, services have expanded to include sales, lease-to-own, and commissioned artworks for clients ranging from individuals to global businesses. By applying my previous experiences, I realized that creating a model that allowed artists to turn their inventory into an annuity stream would be appealing for them, but I wasn't sure that businesses would find a commensurate benefit. One of my first clients, however, happened to be an accounting firm that explained the tax benefits they saw in the solution I provided. My background in finance allowed me to speak their language and come away with a solid pitch to the business community. It's a pitch that's allowed my business to survive and grow despite a near nuclear-winter of a recent economy.
The first leg of the journey has been equal parts liberating and terrifying; in short, the professional equivalent of falling in love. It's an extension of who I am and, for the first time in my experience, the right balance. It's as much, if not more, a work of art than anything I've ever tried to capture on canvas, and it continues to evolve, to grow and to take me with it.
That's the much longer answer for you. I guess you could say that trying to figure out who I am as a person and who I am as a professional is what ultimately put me on the path of "leased" resistance.
Joshua Ginsberg is the owner and founder of Chicago Art Leasing LLC. He currently lives and works in Ravenswood, Chicago. He brings to the art industry a diverse business background, including experience in sales, bid management, technology, clinical research, and management consulting. Ginsberg is currently developing plans for the release of National Art Leasing later this year. Visit the Chicago Art Leasing blog and read about "artrepreneurship."