Portrait of Our Artists

Success is sure to follow when you combine the business and entrepreneurial know-how gained at Wharton with the talent and passion for the arts.

By David McKay Wilson

 

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Eric Berg, W’68, GFA’74. Photo credit: Ryan Donnell.

“A successful artist has to recognize opportunities,” says Eric Berg, W’68, GFA’74. “Or create them.” In the late 1990s, he had an idea for a sculpture of Drexel University’s mascot, Mario the Dragon. He wrote a letter to Drexel’s then-President Constantine Papadakis to pitch it, saying he’d been driving through the campus for 20 years and knew the best spot to install such a monument. After three months, he had no response. He wrote again. This time, he caught Papadakis’ eye. Two days later, Berg laid out the details over lunch. Drexel would pay Berg $5,000 for a model and then choose from three sizes with price tags: $275,000, $350,000 or $425,000. Drexel chose the mid-priced dragon, which stands 10 feet high, stretches 14 feet long and weighs 2 tons. It took Berg 16 months to create the model, six months to cast. Drexel continues to give donors small replicas of the campus icon in bronze and pewter. “You need to be enterprising,” says Berg, recalling his biggest commission. “I wish that could happen every few years.” Berg is among Wharton graduates who underpin careers in creative fields with entrepreneurial skills. Wharton Magazine interviewed four. Each has a deep, personal attachment to the work to which they have dedicated their professional lives. Each is willing to take calculated risks to find their markets. And each cashed in on skills learned at Wharton to make a living.

The Dragon Maker

Berg majored in economics at Wharton and taught elementary school after graduation. It was then that he started carving alabaster and soapstone as a hobby. By 1970, he was teaching stone-carving at a high school and making 16-inch marble carvings of animals that were good enough to earn acceptance into Penn’s graduate art program.

Upon graduation in 1974, it was time to become a sculptor—a sculptor with a Whartonite’s business acumen. At the time, there was a city of Philadelphia program that required 1 percent of redevelopment grants be set aside for public art. Berg asked the Philadelphia Zoo officials to commit their 1 percent to the African Plains exhibit, which was supported with a $570,000 city grant. At the time, fears of swine flu had prevented the zoo from importing an African warthog for the exhibit. He suggested a full-size bronze warthog in its place. He was paid $5,700.

“Though I knew the 1 percent would barely cover my cost, it was an opportunity to place a piece at the Philadelphia Zoo,” he recalls. “It gave me a public presence and a great credential that has paid me back in spades. The bonus is that it has been loved by three generations of Philadelphians.”

Since then, he has done one or two major pieces a year, with many finding a home in the Philadelphia area, such as the Gardener’s Cottage Gates in Rittenhouse Square and a giant panda for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Nationally, Berg has pieces in the Smithsonian National Zoo, Everglades National Park and the California Academy of Natural Science, among many other locations. (To see more of Berg’s work, go to www.bergbronze.com.)

Berg realized early on that making a living at stone-carving would be impossible. His most expensive stone works sold for about $2,500, and he couldn’t sell one every two months. So he turned to bronze sculpture, which can fetch higher prices and be replicated at the foundry. With bronze, he found that he could attract bigger commissions—up to $30,000.

“I’d net $10,000 at a time, and that would carry me for three months until the next job,” he recalls. “I’d dovetail that with selling little bronzes from the studio or in a gallery, and I did OK, making a frugal living.” Replicating his work, however, requires contracts with his clients that allow him to make a limited edition of the sculpture. In sculpture, most of the work involves making a clay original from which a rubber mold is made. From this, a limited number of waxes can be made, each of which can be reworked by the artist and cast in bronze. His client agreements give Berg permission to cast several versions of the piece. Berg prices his sculpture accordingly. If clients do not allow replication, their one-of-akind costs them significantly more.

“If they want one-of-a-kind, then it will cost them $75,000 instead of $40,000,” he says.

“I didn’t set out to be a monument maker, but I’m leaving landmarks around these cities that will be there for hundreds of years,” he says. “Kids love the bears and turtles and the pig called Philbert in the Reading Terminal Market. You put money in the pig’s mouth, and those coins go to the poor. They’ve raised $150,000 so far, it cost them $25,000 to get it, and it will keep on giving.”

The Fashion Publisher

Caroline Issa, W’99, thrives at the creative nexus of fashion, print journalism, new media and culture. She does so with a keen appreciation of the creative world, and a knack for making money within it. She was working for an international management consultant firm in London in 2002 when she met the founder of a coffee-table fashion magazine called Tank Magazine. It was staffed and owned by creative folks, and Issa realized they needed someone with financial acumen to make it grow.

“I gave up a stable, well-paying job to become a fashion publishing entrepreneur,” says Issa, 35. “It has been an amazing time.”

She’s now the fashion director of Tank Magazine and chief executive officer of the creative agency Tank Form, which produces custom publications (in the past for companies like Levi and Liberty of London), an online magazine and a luxury fashion supplement to the Guardian newspaper five times a year.

The company’s 22 employees work on both the print and online products.

“My art directors, journalists and video editors work on the independent publications and the commercial projects,” she says. “It’s a really important thing to have the idea of commerciality as well. The thing has to sell.”

Her company’s online magazine, Because London, works on an affiliate model with fashion and cosmetics retailers. In addition to sold ad space, the site promotes items mentioned within the editorial material. Readers can click on hyperlinks to purchase them, and Issa’s firm receives a cut of each sale.

“It bridges the gap between editorial and shopping,” she says. “It’s great to create beautiful and inspiring things, but you have to be able to sell them. Creative people can live in a bubble, just being artists, and never sell a thing. But ultimately that situation just doesn’t work out. I’ve been able to succeed by understanding and balancing the business of fashion and the art of commerce.”

The Guardian fashion supplement features video clips accessed with a smartphone app triggered by the image.

“The app scans and recognizes the image and seamlessly links the product or ad to the extra digital content in the form of a video or website,” she says. “There are people who say mobile will kill print. I think mobile will save print. The app connects you to rich digital content. It’s like an adult pop-up book in the digital age.”

The Museum Innovator

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The Irvine Museum

Museums typically invest heavily in a brick-and-mortar building, creating a well-appointed home for exhibitions to attract patrons. James Irvine Swinden, W’76, president of The Irvine Museum in Irvine, CA—dedicated to the preservation and display of California Impressionism—turned that model on its head when the museum opened in 1993 in a rented space on floor 12 of a downtown office tower.

Since then, the museum’s reputation has grown in part due to traveling exhibits across the U.S. and in Europe and by publishing books on the landscape artists whose work gets shown. During the past 20 years, the Irvine has mounted 17 traveling shows—the latest are in Washington state and New Hampshire—and had 60 shows at the museum, which subsequently moved to the ground floor. (See more about a stop on Penn’s campus on P. 15.)

“We have far more outreach and public viewing of the art than most regional museums. It was our emphasis to have the art not stay in the basement of the museum,” he says.

Swinden is passionate about sharing the artwork that celebrates the glories of the California landscapes, yet he did not intend to run a museum when he graduated from Wharton. When attending Loyola Law School, he focused on estate planning and founded a commercial real estate company that rehabbed office buildings. A few years later, he bought a botanical garden in Hawaii, and during the next 18 years developed it into a tourist destination that celebrated Hawaiian culture and protected endangered species.

Swinden’s love of art developed at an early age, however. He was raised surrounded by works from Asia, England and California. Many of the California Impressionist paintings that he grew up with, which capture the grandeur of the state’s landscape, are featured in the museum and in its outreach efforts.

Over the years, Swinden has emerged as the museum’s public voice. He travels with the shows, gives lectures and speaks at show openings. Swinden played a major role in the touring show in 2002 and 2003 that exhibited the California paintings in Paris, Madrid, and Krakow, Poland. With the assistance of a translator, he appeared on Polish television’s version of The Today Show.

“My style is to tell stories,” he says. “I would rather tell what the artists were doing, what they were like and what influenced their lives.”

Swinden’s Wharton education has influenced his management style. When producing its books, Swinden says the museum prints a run of 8,000 copies—almost five times the number that small museums like the Irvine typically produce. Producing that many copies drives down the marginal cost of each book, and has allowed the museum to give away more than 3,000 copies of each book to public educational institutions and libraries.

He also has expectations for his employees that he has brought along from the business world.

“The museum world runs at a different pace than most businesses,” he says. “I know my employees can be extremely frustrated because I expect things to be done a lot faster. But you also lead by example. Anything I ask them to do, I will do myself.”

The Art Consultant

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Julie Mussafer, WG’96. Photo credit: Russ Schleipman.

Julie Mussafer, WG’96, of Weston, MA, entered the art world two years after finishing Wharton. While her undergraduate and graduate degrees were in business, she had studied fine art at Tulane University. Her prior position as director of business development for the retailer Lids had confirmed her love for growing businesses and drove her out on her own.

“I turned to a product I was passionate about, and that led me to opening an art gallery with a strong consulting arm,” she says about her due diligence for starting a business.

Her first thought was to open a traditional gallery in Boston’s established arts district on Newbury Street, but rents were high and Mussafer had an ambitious plan to turn a profit. So she turned to the SoWa district in Boston. In 1998, Mussafer, known as Jules to her friends, opened Jules Place in the Laconia Lofts on Washington Street. Prior to opening this gallery, Mussafer developed a new theory about running a fine art business. She believed she could successfully operate a second-floor destination by offering a tremendous selection of quality art by mid-career artists and offering in-home art consulting services. Over the years, her services have expanded to include residential and corporate consulting, as well as curation, framing and installation.

During residential and corporate consultations, Mussafer brings artwork to clients’ homes and offices, enabling them to see how pieces look on their walls. She also offers advice with respect to the position, framing and relationships to art within a room and strives to maximize the impact of each piece and ultimately of an entire collection. One of the fastest growing new services that she offers is virtual consulting. Through digital photography and Photoshop techniques, Mussafer projects paintings onto the walls of out-of-state clients so they can experience artwork before having it shipped to their homes. Currently, Mussafer does not charge for her consulting services. She believes these consulting services are part of the value-add experience that her clients appreciate and come to rely on.

“When people think of art galleries, they think of a traditional model, in which you hang up paintings and people come by and buy them,” she says. “I did a different spin on that model. As an entrepreneur, you need to look at your market and stay open to develop it in ways that aren’t necessarily textbook.” She finds her clients need help on several levels. Many have neither the time to stroll galleries nor confidence to purchase art of significant value without viewing it in their home. The Internet is an integral part of her business. Julesplace.com highlights more than 80 artists and 5,000 paintings, photographs and sculptures. Most pieces range from $500 to $15,000. The site is updated daily as new work arrives and sells, and a tool allows visitors to quickly view available artwork.

The business, which has the tagline “Art for Living,” now employs four sales associates and a gallery manager. Mussafer estimates that Jules Place works with about 70 clients at any one time and up to 400 clients per year. Her gallery is currently celebrating its 15th year with record sales.

Editor’s note: Read about another Wharton artist, Michael Klein, W ’82,  who says that “art and business are not irreconcilable pursuits,” in the Web Exclusive article, “Illustrating Business.”

  • YOU MORON

    You are a moron. You can’t generalize about people when you don’t know them or their work. This article is written really terribly, with way too much emphasis on money, but I happen to have known Eric Berg since I was born and he is most definitely an artist, in every sense of the word. Also, you should learn that there are spaces after punctuation, idiot.

  • YOU MORON

    Mr. Berg forwarded me his message and your response. This conversation has really turned out to be a pleasure, and seeing your responses has been the highlight of my day. Thank you for the compliments, I really appreciate them.
    I just wanted to say thank you.

    P.S. You forgot another space 🙂

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