Running an immersive art studio can feel like a daunting challenge. Whether you’re just starting or you’ve been operating for a few years, the challenges around budgeting and managing finances never really go away. I’ve been running studios and companies for almost 15 years and have put together some immersive art studio budgeting tips and tricks that can work for you regardless of what flavour or type of studio you have.
Before we dive in, a quick note about budgeting. Budgeting at it’s core is to have a plan for how you spend money. This is kind of abstract and not super useful unless you really like accounting. In practice, I find it really comes down to a few big buckets of thinking and strategizing around:
- How am I bringing in money?
- How am I spending money?
- How am I saving money?
I feel like in most cases, people think a lot about #1, a tiny bit about #2, and almost never about #3. Even the thoughts about #2 are usually that it’s a limitation and not a strategy for operating successfully. I can openly say that most of my financial success over a decade has been about balancing all three of these things. I’m always thinking about how I can bring in new money, then I balance that mentally with making really concerted decisions about how I spend money, and then I aggressively try to save money. So with that said, let’s get into one of each strategies in this post.
Don’t Forget About Grants
Type of Strategy: Bringing in Money
Grants, grants, grants. It’s something that feels so far away and obscure, but you likely see artists talking about grants regularly and wondering how you can get a piece of the pie. Grants are an amazing thing to tap into especially because our industry lies right in between arts/culture and technology/research. This gives us a huge advantage when it comes to getting grants because we can access two totally different avenues of grants.
Types of Grants
On the one side are arts grants. These are usually based around creating a piece, an installation, or an experience of some form. They could be public pieces or pieces you’re developing for certain festivals. They could even be pieces you’re developing that you aren’t going to immediately make public (for example submitting it for further residencies/galleries). The arts grants are all about the arts side of things which include:
- creating a piece of art work
- creating a live performance for an art work
- recording a live performance of an art work (think music videos)
- presenting a piece of art work at a festival/gallery/etc
The other side of grants are technology research grants. These usually involve creating a novel workflow, pipeline, piece of technology, system, or similar and then thinking about how it can be used to develop further business. The key with these is about making something novel that doesn’t totally exist already. So you wouldn’t get a research grant likely for dropping a bunch of nodes in TouchDesigner to create a cool video effect and submitting that to the technology grant. Now if you were to take that cool video effect, make a unique photobooth installation that was powered by that, maybe involving either a unique process for doing background subtraction or making a process for easy and scalable deployments, those could potentially work! Another example is if you make something like an auto-calibration system for some sensor or projector, that could also work.
I hope you’re starting to see that so much of our industry’s work falls right in between both of these areas.
Grant Requirements and Givers
In both cases, different grants have different requirements, so you’ll really want to read up about all the grants available to you and decide which make sense. Some grants require that you haven’t started working on the project yet, some grants require that you’ve already started and are in the middle of the process, and some are even ok if you’ve already finished and are applying to get funding for everything you’ve done.
It’s important to know that grants can come from all different kinds of institutions. The common ones are local/city/regional government bodies, state/provincial government bodies, federal government bodies, non-profit art institutions, public/private educational institutions, and more. Many of them will prefer certain types of organizations/artists that they like to work with but there’s almost always somewhere you can find for you.
Also pro tip: there are tons of educational grants if you’re comfortable and willing to share your workflows and processes with your local community. This can take the form of free workshops, publications, sessions in schools, presentations, or any number of similar educational activities.
Where to Find Grants?
Open up Google or DuckDuckGo and try any of the following searches (replace (my location) with your city, province, or country name):
- (my location) arts funding
- (my location) arts grants
- (my location) technology grants
- (my location) research grants
- (my location) research funding
- (my location) grant database
I tried a few of these just now and already had wayyyy more funding options than I could deal with! So then it becomes a case of figuring out what fits you best and spending some time to put together an application. There are also companies (especially on the technology/research side of things) that will act as your representatives to do the application for you and then they take a percentage of the grant money when you get the grant. Those are also an option, just make sure you budget correctly around losing a certain percentage of the grant as a fee.
Do I Need One or Lots? Now or Later?
Type of Strategy: Spending Money
Wholesale or Bulk
Another great thing is to think about bulk. The economies of scale are that if you buy lots of something, you can buy it for cheaper than if you buy 1 of something. In a lot of areas, buying lots of something is referred to as “bulk purchases” or “wholesale.” Costco is a great example of a wholesale model brought to consumers. If you need toilet paper, you can get it cheaper at Costco then the local drug store, but you’ll need to buy 30 rolls at once. You would actually be surprised at how much you could save buying things wholesale. There are tons of things I buy wholesale, often either in sets of 10 or in 1 year supplies:
- nutritional supplements
- USB drives/disposable media for projects
- Compressed air cans
- Charging cables (i.e. Lightning Cables, small USB-C charging cables, etc)
- Anything to do with microcontrollers and small sensors
- General office supplies (pens, printer paper, pencils, highlighters, staples, all the boring stuff you want in your office)
- General cables (i.e. CAT6e, IEC power cables, high-throughput USB-C cables, etc)
- Acoustic foam
- LED lighting strips I like
- Batteries (AA, AAA, 9V, the small watch batteries)
- Art supplies (if you’re using paints, acrylic sheets, papers, brushes, etc etc, tons of art supplies can EASILY be bought wholesale)
The list really could go on if I just walked around my office and looked at things, I’d find all different kinds of things I know I’m going to be using for a while to come, and I find I can almost always find somewhere online to get these things with wholesale or bulk pricing. Digikey is a great example of an online electronic store that can provide lots of things with wholesale pricing options. Monoprice is another option. And you can even go to Aliexpress and Alibaba to get tons of things in bulk.
In many cases, even if things aren’t advertised as wholesale you can still email the company and ask them if they have wholesale or bulk pricing if you buy a bunch of something. Has worked for me in the past, especially on gigs where I was buying 10x video extenders or similar.
WARNING: please don’t buy everything in bulk. Do some reflection and observation of your workspace, environment, habits, etc and really think about what you have already been using regularly and will continue to use. If you just go willy nilly and start buying stuff in the 10s or 100s that you won’t use, you’re both wasting money and creating waste. Terrible combo! So please, buy with care.
Now or Later
Same thought process as above but thinking about how quickly you need something. With the internet, we can buy things from a number of sources. The traditional sources are things that are close to us. These are retailers that buy things from factories or vendors somewhere else in the world, ship them close to you, then you buy it and get next day shipping. But if you don’t need something immediately, you can almost always buy things closer to the source. This means using marketplaces like Alibaba and Aliexpress as examples of ways of communicating and shopping directly from manufacturers and factories that are building products.
You might not be able to do this with specific brand name goods, but if you don’t mind about brand names in some cases and are more concerned about product specs (example LED strips, microcontrollers, DMX converters, cables, etc), buying direct from the source gives you the benefit of cutting out the middle man retailers/importers and bringing the savings back to you. The one downside is that you won’t be getting next day shipping. You’ll often be waiting a few weeks to get your product delivered and might even have to setup some alternative shipping options if you’re receiving a crate of goods. Lots of tutorials online about how to manage these things, but it’s always good to think about whether you need something now or if you can wait a bit and order from the source to get more from your money.
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Savings Accounts Always Wins
Type of Strategy: Saving
In traditional startups there is something called a burn rate. This is essentially the number of dollars you spend (or burn) every month in operation. This is a very helpful number to know and I recommend figuring out/updating your burn rate every 3-6 months so you know how much money is going out of your business every month. This is helpful for 2 reasons. The simple one is knowing how much you need to make each month to balance against how much you’re spending. But more important is to know how much of a savings account you should have and how long that will last. How long you’ll last is called a runway in traditional startups.
I think the single scariest part of running your own studio is the fear that you won’t have a gig for maybe a month or two and you’ll completely go out of business. This fear is usually something newer people in their journey have and veterans usually manage through savings account and actually turn the scenario into opportunities. What do I mean?
An example. If my studio has a burn rate of $5,000 a month between tool subscriptions, salaries, etc and I had $0 in company savings account, I need to make at least $5,000 every month or I’m screwed. That’s terrifying! Now what if I had saved up $15,000 over the last few years and leave it in a high-interest savings account? Well, now all of a sudden a terrifying situation becomes much less terrifying. I would still be trying to make at least $5,000 a month, but if I missed one month by a bit (even $1,000!), there’s no stress at all. I’d pull from the savings account to cover the balance and then use additional revenue from the next few months to refill the savings account.
If I missed 2 months completely, as in I made $0 dollars, it’s still not the end of the world. I know that at my burn rate ($5,000) I can do 0 work for 3 months and still operate at full capacity. Now this doesn’t mean I don’t start to get a bit worried, but it means I’m not operating in full panic. The difference between working with a bit of worry and working in full panic is huge. If I’m working with a bit of worry, I might try to work harder, faster, smarter, make new strategies for getting clients, try new social media posts, etc etc. I can still function as a human with a bit of stress and know that I have time to muster up some work. If I was in a full panic, I’m probably not making good work, good decisions, and frankly I’m probably frustrating to be around!
The Mythical Art Projects
One final example, which I think might really sell a savings account especially to artists. You know how you always hear about companies or artists that work on personal work? Or that they take 2 months off client work to do an internal research project they’re excited about? Have you ever wondered how they do that? Well, let me tell you, there’s no magic here, it’s all about savings. Let’s say your studio operating costs are $5,000 a month and you have $15,000 in your savings account there’s a lot of artistic wiggle room you have.
For some people who feel really confident getting gigs, you could potentially say that you could take a whole month away from client work to work on a personal project or internal art research project, and then in your 2nd month know that you have to drum up a bunch of work (taking into consideration the time it takes clients to pay *eye roll*).
If you had even more runway, let’s say you had $25,000 saved up in the bank from extra money that came in from gigs, your whole studio could take 3 months to build whatever you think is cool, and still have a 2 month runway to come back to client work. You could even do something clever where some of the team work on client work while others do research and then you switch after a few months, thus draining your reserves a bit slower.
There are so many options of what you can do when you know you have some money saved in the bank to cover studio expenses. You could literally all take a 1 month vacation together and have a blast! Possibilities are endless BUT all those possibilities stem from a savings account which removes the fear of financial death from your shoulders.
A lot of things that go into managing a business aren’t hard, they just take a bit of time and commitment to make them get off the ground and start providing benefits. I hope these immersive art studio budgeting tips feel good and actionable. I guarantee if you dive into 2 or 3 of these and take them seriously, you’ll see tangible effects on your studio!