The following interview took place in 2016.
For Liz Powers, art can be transformational — it not only allows people to express themselves, but for artists struggling with homelessness, sharing their unique creations can also put them on a path to an improved life. To help more artists do just that, she founded ArtLifting with her brother, Spencer Powers, in 2013.
As a registered Benefit Corporation, ArtLifting provides homeless artists with a digital marketplace to sell their work. The artists earn 55 percent of each sale, and one percent goes to a fund that provides art therapy groups with supplies. ArtLifting uses the rest of its revenue to advance its mission of validating homeless artists and empowering them to find financial stability.
We recently talked with Liz about how much ArtLifting has grown, who is purchasing their art and the company’s plans for the future
"For the artists, it's not only a validation of their work, but it’s also an empowering feeling to know they’ve helped themselves."
You started the organization with four artists. How many are there now, and how do you select them?
We’ve expanded nationwide to 11 cities and 80 artists and now work with art groups in shelters and social service agencies to identify artists. We purposefully work with artists who have support networks around them, including art therapists and caseworkers.
All of the artwork is curated with a two-step process. First, art directors at shelters often send us recommendations of salable work. Second, we have a committee with backgrounds in galleries, curation and art history who select what work is a good fit for ArtLifting. Because there is an application process to work with ArtLifting, it’s a meaningful experience if they are selected.
ArtLifting has dramatically changed the lives of many artists who were homeless and/or living with disabilities. Can you tell us one of your favorite stories?
It’s hard to choose, but one of my favorite stories is how an artist named Scott Brenner went from homelessness to stable housing. Scott worked his whole career as a steelworker and lost his job during the recession. After that bad fortune, a family member was diagnosed with cancer and Scott used his life savings to pay for the treatment. He couldn’t keep up with the medical bills and ultimately ended up homeless. We were connected with Scott through a shelter employee and discovered he’s been creating art since 1974. He brought me 100 pieces of artwork and said, “Here’s my life’s work.” It was amazing. Up until this point, he had never sold a piece in his life. He’s now one of our best-selling artists and has even exhibited on Newbury Street, the most exclusive gallery road in Boston. Scott’s life has dramatically changed since joining ArtLifting: He is no longer homeless, is happily creating art and selling his works to customers across the country.
You sell to both individuals and corporations. Can you describe your primary market?
Most of our customers are between the ages of 24 and 34. They are socially conscious and smart with where they put their money. They personally identify with our mission — that homelessness is an ongoing issue. So they’re a different type of consumer — they love the art, and they also love knowing that their purchase benefits an artist in need.
ArtLifting combines a social mission with entrepreneurship. Can you talk about the benefits of remaining for-profit and what some have called the “intersection of profit and purpose”?
Before we began ArtLifting, I had worked in nonprofits for eight years. I saw how long it took to apply for government grants and obtain the resources that we so desperately needed. I realized that we could create more immediate change through a company that had sustained growth. We earn income and our artists benefit as well when their art sells; for them, it’s not only a validation of their work, but it’s also an empowering feeling to know they’ve helped themselves. As a for-profit B-Corp, we can create a financially sustainable company rooted in our mission and with the means to increase our impact.
Your company raised $1.3 million in 2015. How did you finance ArtLifting before the investment, and what are your future plans?
My brother and I started ArtLifting with $4,000 of our savings. We bootstrapped that initial investment to revenue in the six figures. Five artists even gained housing. We financed ArtLifting for the first year and a half simply through revenue generation. During that time, I worked as a Dorm Mom to a Harvard dorm. Since the job gave me free room and board, I could go without a salary while we built ArtLifting. Like many startups, we decided to raise investment in order to scale nationally. We raised $1.3 million from investors across the country, including TOMS Shoes Founder Blake Mycoskie and “The Lean Startup” author Eric Ries. Our ultimate goal is to keep growing nationally and exponentially grow our revenue this year.