May 27, 2018
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Crafting markets for creative entrepreneurs

By Wendy Rose, Special to the BDN

The creative economy as a distinct economic sector has been poked, prodded, researched and increasingly touted as “the answer” to growing Maine’s economy. Since 2004, it has been examined by at least three statewide conferences along with commissions and local committees, studies with colorful data tables, and local initiatives, all trying to define and understand just what this sector is and what it can do.

A study done in July 2004 by the Center for Business and Economic Research at USM, “The Creative Economy in Maine,” indicates that more than 68,000 Maine workers are engaged in the creative economy, which is a significant number of jobs by any standard. Creative endeavors can include design firms and technology innovators, as well as potters, glass blowers and artists.

For many entrepreneurs who are engaged in this work, the statistics and recognition as “a sector” are beneficial; even more critical, however, is finding customers, increasing sales and making money. Superbly hand-crafted, beautiful objects sitting on an artisan’s studio shelf constitutes a hobby. That same object displayed in the Center for Maine Craft’s stunning salesroom is an economic venture.

The Center for Maine Craft outlet and other recent innovations for expanding markets for creative entrepreneurs are paying off. Linked with “buy local” and “small business Saturday” promotions, products are making their way to customers that care about where they spend their dollars. Craft shows, farmers markets and other sales venues give each customer the opportunity to use their precious dollars to generate more economic activity in their own communities and to support their local entrepreneurs.

A key player in the effort to link artisans with customers is the Maine Crafts Association, whose mission is to offer more opportunities for the craft artist to sell creations in the broader marketplace.

Their flagship store, The Center for Maine Craft at the West Gardiner Service Plaza on I-95/295, has offered a showcase for artisans from across the state since November 2008. Each year, sales have grown, earning artists more than $500,000 as a result. Building on the success of the original store, the MCA has created seasonal stores at the Bangor Mall along with a sales outlet at The Maine Mall in Portland.

Lynn Thompson, interim director of MCA, said the group plans to press for more opportunities for artists by having booths at major trade shows such as the New York Gifts Show.

“We want to go national and help more artists to reach larger markets. All of these efforts help whole communities to grow their creative sector,” she comments.

Another modest example of creative marketing is the Holiday Pottery Shop in Hallowell, sponsored by Central Maine Clay Artists. This 12-member group is in its fourth year of renting a “pop-up store” to feature its products. Open for just December each year, the store “appears” in an available rental space, shows off the hand-crafted works by its members, and generates Christmas sales that help each artisan to make it through the slower winter months with a financial cushion.

Last season, the store had more than $9,000 in sales, generating enough extra money to fund the start-up of this season. Mary Kay Spencer, a member of this group, said, “I’ve seen much more interest in buying local — it’s very encouraging. It is so rewarding to hear customers say they have saved up to buy something special for their friend and to have them find that item at our store.”

For those artisans who are ready to take the plunge and move their products into the broader marketplace, there are many opportunities. Joining a group such as The Maine Crafts Association, United Maine Crafters, Maine Fiberarts, 5 Rivers Arts Alliance or Kennebec Valley Art Association, for instance, is a great start. Membership in these organizations provides access to some of the best-attended shows, fairs and other selling opportunities.

Getting help with the business side of your work through training or workshops takes the mystery out of doing the financials or marketing. As Mary Kay advises, “Invest in yourself. Be patient. Take the time to show people your work and be proud of it. Don’t be afraid of the business world. Believe in yourself.”

Wendy Rose is senior microenterprise coordinator for Women, Work, and Community based in Augusta and serving clients in Kennebec and Somerset counties.

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