ArtLifting: The Small Business That Changes Lives Through Art
Published August 2016
Paintings, prints and products featuring the work of artists experiencing homelessness and disabilities.
2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Winner
Liz Powers grew up just 15 minutes away from Harvard, but a world away from the large homeless population. When she began college there, instead of looking the other way, she jumped in to help. “At the age of 18, I started volunteering at a local shelter; cooking pancakes and cleaning up,” said Powers, co-founder of ArtLifting. “The frustrating part was that I was working out back. I didn't get to interact with the guests.”
So, Powers started volunteering as a caseworker for a local non-profit that found jobs and housing for people in shelters, where she’d have face-to-face contact. “Clients kept telling me the same thing over and over during one-on-one meetings: ‘Liz, I’m lonely,’” she said. “It didn’t take rocket science to see that I could solve that problem if I could find a way to bring these people together to socialize.”
She knew that if she started a typical support group, it would be hard to get people to come. If they did come, few would talk. Fifty percent of homeless women are victims of domestic violence, so it takes time to earn their trust. “I thought art would be a perfect way to bring these people together. It’s a creative outlet, and although it may take a week or a month, people will eventually open up,” Powers said. “After I graduated, I was blessed to get a fellowship that paid a year’s salary to design and implement a public service program. Mine was setting up art groups in shelters around Cambridge.”
Just 22 years old, with no experience teaching art classes, much less teaching them in shelters, Powers sought out help from art therapists and other experts. She learned that there were already six existing art groups in Boston, just 15 minutes away from Cambridge by public transportation. “At first, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know these existed. But, then I realized — wait a second, I’m in the field and knew nothing about these. The average person surely wouldn’t know,” Powers said. “There were piles of artwork, created in these classes, just sitting in church basements. Why not put on an art show?”
Sketching Out the Concept
In 2010, Powers took the first step, collaborating on an art show featuring the work of 70 area artists. This event continued to gain momentum every year. It got so big that Powers’ brother, Spencer, stepped in to help with the finances.
“Everything changed when we were able to hold the show at Prudential Mall, which is a very prestigious mall here,” Powers said. “Instead of holding it in a church, where the only people who came knew about the show, being in the mall enabled us to reach a whole new group — shoppers happening by on their way to get a latte or buy a book.” That show got an amazing response. People saw the art, loved it and bought it. “We had so many people asking when the next show would be, it got depressing telling them, ‘not until next year,’” Powers said. “So, my brother and I started brainstorming.”
They identified three problems with their current art show model. “We just sold originals, so artists only made money off of their work one time. Everything was local, when there were artists in shelters all over the country who could benefit. And, it was just one day a year,” Powers said.
The solution to those problems gave birth to ArtLifting, a company, founded by the Powerses, that sells original art, as well as on-demand prints, tote bags, phone cases and other items featuring artists’ work online. It was scalable, sustainable and open for business through an e-commerce store 365 days a year.
The Fine Art of Running a Business
“We spent some time figuring out the model,” Powers said. “We made it a for-profit business so we could scale quickly, and so our artists didn’t feel like ‘charity cases.’ And, honestly, when I did work for a non-profit in the past, I spent more time writing grants and raising funds than I did on impact. We wanted the focus of ArtLifting to be on impact.”
They determined that, for every piece sold, the artist would make 55 percent, the company would make 44 percent and another 1 percent would go into a fund to provide art supplies to shelters. Liz and Spencer invested $4,000 of their own money and set out to make their vision a reality. “We started small, with four local artists and a very basic website,” Powers said. “We started selling on November 29, 2013 — Black Friday that year. In one week, we were on the cover of The Boston Globe business section and had over $10,000 in sales.”
Since that time, ArtLifting has continued to grow, with 72 featured artists from 16 states, a six-figure revenue, seven employees and $1.3 million in investor funding. In addition to e-commerce, the company now sells artwork direct to corporations through its B2B channel and has recently moved into licensing, as well.
But the real measure of success is the difference ArtLifting is making in so many lives. “Five of our first artists have gained housing. But it’s important to understand that it’s not just about the money they earn from ArtLifting. The confidence and self-esteem they gain is equally important,” Powers said. “People who live in shelters hate that society so often focuses on the negative. You don’t have housing. You can’t walk without a wheelchair. We try to flip that negativity on its head and say, ‘You are so talented; you create beautiful art that people love.’ That positive energy translates into ‘You can fill out that housing application,’ ‘You can apply for that side job.’ That’s what makes real change possible.”
Winning a 2016 FedEx Small Business Grant
ArtLifting has long relied on FedEx to ship its original art. When Powers heard about the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest from a colleague, it felt like a natural fit. She was thrilled to learn that ArtLifting was a Top Ten winner, and is ready to put the grant money to very good use.
“We’re going to use the FedEx grant money to do more marketing and outreach,” Powers said. “In the past, we’ve gained most of our business through positive press. Now that we’re scaling, we want to invest in marketing to reach more people and sell more of our artists’ work.”
In the short term, the company is going to build out a sales force to work with companies and individuals who want to buy locally. “Long term, we want to reinvent social enterprise,” Powers said. And that, like the art she sells, is a beautiful thing.