The Business of Native Arts

Underlying the striking colors, shapes and sounds of Native American art is promise of economic opportunity. The prospect of turning Native art into a viable business is emboldening tribal communities to a new level of self-determination and cultural revitalization. First Peoples Fund (FPF) of Rapid City, S.D., is making that dream a reality for many talented people.

FPF emphasizes cultural values and entrepreneurial qualities in the journey from amateur artisan to professional culture bearer making a living off artwork. FPF accepts artists at any stage of business development and matches them with training, cultural grounding and social networks to expand their business horizons. Northwest Area Foundation has made grants to support this work to build the assets and wealth needed to overcome poverty.

“We help them get their business started to strengthen their income, provide access to market opportunities and strengthen the artist networks,” said Lori Pourier, president of FPF. “When we see individuals with so much potential, desire and compassion, we want to provide as much support as we can.”

Through training, mentoring, coaching and grants, artists like James Star Comes Out navigate three stages of entrepreneurial development. An art-creator for more than 20 years, Star Comes Out entered the program in the first stage: microentrepreneurship. That’s for artists with little business background who sell their wares for supplemental income. He qualified for a $5,000 grant through FPF’s Cultural Capital Fellows program to use his artistic skills in helping tribal communities.

“In a cultural sense, it is my obligation to give to my community and people and to pass on to future generations so they know who they are, as our ancestors have done for us,” said James Star Comes Out. “I believe the foundation(s) of the Lakota culture are values that instill identity and give us the desire to learn whether it is through the arts, language or history.”

During his Fellowship, Star Comes Out created a horse mask and a saddle that he displayed at tribal schools, tribal colleges, conferences, art shows and powwows. While on exhibit in Minneapolis, the artwork caught the attention of the Minnesota Historical Society, which purchased the piece for its private collection. Through participation in business workshops, Star Comes Out has learned about bookkeeping, creating business plans, and operating a business. He has now advanced to the second stage: small business development, in which he learns to run his business as a primary income generator. Once he’s mastered that, he can aim for the third stage: established professional culture bearer. Entrepreneurs who reach the third level not only earn their main income from art, but they also are growing the business to create jobs and prosperity for others.

Northwest Area Foundation’s latest grant of $130,000 to FPF is to expand the artist microenterprise training and coaching into Montana, Idaho and Minnesota.

“Art holds significant cultural and historical significance to Native Americans. It’s very exciting to also turn that into an income-bearing career that can benefit families and tribal communities,” said Kevin Walker, president and CEO of Northwest Area Foundation. “This is another example of the great potential for economic development in Indian Country.”

The positive momentum grows as those who successfully navigate the three-step FPF training give back by mentoring emerging artists. Just as the culture and tradition of art is shared from one generation to the next, the hope of a bright economic future is shared with the community.