September 24, 2018
After 30 years in business, Michael Mikula has learned a few things about what it takes to be his own boss.
Keep on learning. Hire good help. Balance business tasks with creative work as you’re planning your schedule. These themes emerged recently when we asked a handful of CIA’s many successful alumni what it takes to thrive as a self-employed artist or in running a creative company. Glass artist Michael Mikula ’87 was one of them.
Tell us about your career.
After working at American Crafts Gallery near Shaker Square for my first year out of CIA, I jumped at the opportunity to join the studio of my mentors, glass professor Brent Kee Young and his business partner and former student, Mark Sudduth. As a junior member of their studio, I continued to learn a great deal as I helped them move to their current location, where I immediately began making my works and showing at juried art fairs around the country. In the intervening years, I’ve established my own studio and exhibited at over 450 art fairs and scores of gallery and invitational exhibitions, including the Smithsonian Craft Show and the Sculptural Object and Functional Art Exposition (SOFA) Chicago.
I refer to myself as a designer craftsman, making mostly speculative works in glass and a growing number of commissioned works. This June, I marked 30 years in business.
In December of 2017, I moved my studio to Perkins Avenue in midtown Cleveland where recent CIA graduate S. Jordon Fine has joined as a studio associate to continue developing her own studio practice. I have the fourth glass studio in the midtown Cleveland neighborhood, including Brent Young, Mark Sudduth, Scott Goss and Robert Coby at Benchmark Studio, Kari Russell-Pool and Marc Petrovic, and Sue Berry’s Superior Glass.
Do you have employees?
Over the course of a typical year, I hire five to ten individuals on a contract basis or as casual labor to assist in the production of my glass. Some end up helping for years at a time, some just a day or two. Most are CIA undergrads or recent graduates. I’m sure I learn as much or more from them as they do from me, but I open myself to their questions about the realities of being self-employed. I’ve learned a lot about social media from them.
Is this like what you expected to be doing when you were in college?
It’s hard to remember what my expectations were in 1987, but I’d say my current work life is close to what was expected. I was not interested in teaching or working for others, and was eager to get started making and selling my own designs, and so I did. I had to lobby [CIA] President Joe McCullough to let me spend my Traveling Scholarship funds on startup costs. He eventually relented after counseling me to use it for travel. Twenty-five years later, he would stop by the studio for random visits and was genuinely happy to see we graduates doing our thing. That is true for all of the faculty and staff I’ve encountered and befriended while at CIA.
What is your typical day like?
A typical day in the studio (or on the road) can be made up of some combination of the whole gamut of necessary tasks from designing through production of one of a kind works, coordinating and overseeing tasks for assistants, repairing and installing equipment in my new location, procuring material, melting glass, booking exhibitions and planning related travel details, office work such as tending to sales tax issues from 20 states, writing or revising artist statements, getting finished works documented and posted to my website and social media, communicating with patrons about upcoming events and pending commissions, applying for exhibitions and grants, building and maintaining my art fair display, loading or unloading the van or traveling to shows. The list seems endless and non-stop. There are days when I wish I did not have to be responsible for every single decision.
What are the challenges and benefits of being your own boss?
I’ve always liked the flexibility that can come with being self-employed, deciding on a whim to change course for the day or week and being self-determined. If I’m tired after an exhibition, I’ll take some extra time off. If I’m feeling motivated, I’ll put in 120 hours in a week. On the other hand, having enough work ready to present and sell at 12 to 18 exhibitions per year is a tall order, meaning I’ve missed more than a few get-togethers with family and friends.
It is difficult to keep a balance between work and non-work hours. The scales are definitely weighted in favor of work.
The financial challenges can also be many: cash flow, managing debts during periods of slow sales, managing funds when I’m bucks up, trying to put money aside for “retirement,” whatever that is. I’m certain that I am years behind colleagues that have gone into the 9-to-five world. I’m hoping that as I mature and my works become more sought-after, I can make up the deficit on the back end of my working life.
Any earned wisdom for young creatives?
Success takes both talent and drive, or in other words, ideas and tenacity. I believe it requires the ability to keep the bigger picture in mind and a head for business, but I’ve achieved a modest level of success with neither of those assets. It takes patience and trusting your instincts. It takes good communication skills and keeping an eye open for opportunities. It takes some level of risk and putting oneself out there for scrutiny. It takes being adaptable and open minded. Those really successful artists I’ve known have married or partnered well. They have a "support team” of advisors and helpers. It’s nearly impossible to go it alone.
I believe art schools do not adequately prepare their graduates for the business side of being an artist, including CIA. This should be part of the curriculum from day one. I advise my young assistants to seek out financial advisors ASAP and develop a plan for setting aside and managing their money and life plan, whether they be self-employed or employed by others. It’s important to be on top of that aspect of ones working life.
And buy real estate as soon as you can. I’ve known more than a few who will have security in their later years, thanks to owning their home and studio.