Transparency within the industry makes it easier for those who want to become artists to pursue their dreams. Here are some insider business tips from an established mural artist for landing big jobs and brand engagements.

Chicago-based muralist Kate Lewis’ work is illustrative and stylized, characterized by bold, punchy colors, clean lines, and geometric forms. Having exclusively worked as an artist and designer for the last four years, it may at first seem surprising that her background is in business, not art. She credits her education in business, as well as her partnership with manager Allan Weinberger of Bergart, with helping her think differently about large projects and major brand collaborations so that she can continue making art on larger scales with larger budgets.

Most recently, Kate debuted designs for t-shirts and a screenprint created for the Chicago Cubs, with proceeds benefiting the nonprofit organization Girls in the Game and Jameson hired her to design their holiday canister for every bottle in Illinois. In her largest mural to date, Kate was commissioned by The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs to design and paint a monumental 3,600 square foot mural called “The Radiance of Being”,  paying homage to Chicago’s 100-year anniversary to Art Deco architecture. Executed with an all-women team over a period of six weeks during the summer of 2020, the two-story mural boasts a prime location along the city’s famed Riverwalk.

So what does it take to win the bid for such an ambitious undertaking? Kate is eager to share what she’s learned with the hopes to help give other artists a leg up. While the process of pitching and creating large-scale murals can oftentimes feel as overwhelming as exhilarating, she believes that when armed with the right information, artists can increase their chances of being selected for a project, ask for what they are worth, and avoid or overcome any challenges that may arise.

Image courtesy of the artist.
      Image courtesy of the artist.  

You studied and worked in business before transitioning into the arts. In what ways does having that entrepreneurial background and mindset benefit you as an artist?

I guess there are pros and cons to having studied business instead of art, but deep down, I’ve always been an artist. On the pros, business school has programmed in a different that I can have these moments of like “yes, of course instilling messages, beautifying our neighborhoods, and encouraging others to experience the world in a novel way is the ultimate goal and important, but so is having good accounting, marketing, building a strong team, instilling time-saving processes...all in all, creating a well-oiled, sustainable business model so that you can keep doing what you love.”

It’s easier to detach from the emotional investment in my work when I can look at things from a business standpoint. I have a great manager, Allan Weinberger, who has helped me in a lot of ways. He has coached me into recognizing when to not take things personally, to move quickly, and to think bigger than a client’s initial ask.

Working in business made the learning curve of getting my accounting in order and buying proper insurance. Get a separate credit card/debit card, Quickbook, and general liability insurance (which is standard almost everywhere and should cost $350 dollars or so). You absolutely need it, so you might as well get it now.

On the con side, art school is so important for making connections with other like-minded and independent thinkers and hopefully teaching you the techniques and materials you need to express your ideas, as well as create thoughtful conceptualizations. Playing with mediums has been a time-consuming and expensive learning curve that would have moved along faster had I studied the art of making art.

Delving into this a bit further, can you speak about a few of the critical things artists forget to do or don't do enough of with regards to business?

A big hesitation that artists have, myself included, is trusting anyone else with our art. Recently, I was on a panel with powerhouse women and it prompted this thought about how so many of them work in industries that are team-oriented, with everyone playing a very specific role. With visual art, some artists often muscle their way through life solo… but, I know I’m terrible at reading legal documents and managing unexpected issues. I also know I’m really good at color blocking, and can surely prime a wall, but an assistant & prep crew can do a great job too… why not build a team!

If you can find a way to budget properly, hiring a manager or assistants frees up little bits of time, offers a complimenting skill, and helps move things faster or increase the deal size. This does come at a cost, however, and it’s more than financial. You’ll need to train someone to do it right and it does take time.

The time saved can be reinvested in your creative ideation, execution, or just giving yourself more time back to chill. Yea, we need to make art and love it, but we also need to live long badass lives not drawing until your hands fall off.

Let's get down to brass tacks. How do you go about quoting a job?

There was a lot of floundering for a while and it’s always in evolution, but you can think in terms of square footage and/or day rates.  

Every artist is different, but I charge $20/sq ft with a project minimum. A minimum is important because managing the design process, picking colors, loading supplies, hiring an assistant… at a certain point, there needs to be a floor. With the same logic, for larger projects, you can cut a price break, especially if it’s a public project.

One-off design jobs are custom priced, and Allan has been a big proponent of using a day rate in these cases. He’ll say “how many days is this going to take you?” That rate has wavered anywhere between $600-$1,200. As an artist just starting out I used to be so self-conscious about my worth that I couldn’t in a million years imagine quoting that to somebody, but you have to and that’s what they expect too! Sometimes we marginalize ourselves by underquoting, or undersell the industry. At the end of the day, a $5,000 project can quickly turn into $2,000 after expenses and you’ll need to do 35 of those to make $70,000…. So, don’t be afraid to ask for more money.

After every job, try to understand your effective day rate, which is a simple formula: Revenue minus all expenses/number of days, which should include both designing mocks & installing on-site. Every job has an effective day rate and you can measure your success and get better at quoting once you understand this number, which is different for everyone.

What should an artist looking to partner or collaborate with an established brand include in their pitch?

I created a little slide deck for myself by plugging and chugging some images and copy into a premade template. That’s been a huge turning point.

The order is like:

  • Introduction: Hey I’m Kate, what’s up, here’s what I love to do and why it’s important to you as a business
  • Installation Process: Educate them, comfort them, guide them
  • Timeline: Chronological order what timelines in the design and execution phase will look like, and when contracts and deposits are handled so there’s a single slide they (and you) can look back at to manage due dates, check-in points, etc.
  • Requirements: Many folks require insurance.  You should have it and tell clients about it to showcase your professionalism and experience. If they didn’t think about insurance, then it will put you at a competitive advantage and honestly, you need it!
  • Budgeting & Financials: Be transparent, be very clear, and don’t be afraid to walk away if the financials are not making the deal possible. It’s okay to walk from a deal.
  • Examples: Don’t tell them, show them! Include project sizes, locations, dates & clients (if allowed).

Here are some slide examples:

Screen Shot 2021-06-14 at 4.27.29 PM.png

Screen Shot 2021-06-14 at 4.27.18 PM.png

Having this deck has been invaluable. With minor tweaks, I can send it to everyone who inquires and they know I’m not just making up numbers. Organizing all of this info in one concise format will even help you set up a replicable process so you are not bopping around wondering what’s next. This will help you pitch faster, because time kills all deals. You’ll lose it because someone is faster or because priorities change.  

How do you boost your chances of landing the projects you want? How about upselling your clients - do you have tips for negotiating?

Conversations & introductions - talking with people about what they want, working hard, and being patient. It’s also critically important to have a way for them to contact you.

When in a position where you must negotiate, try to negotiate with anything except money. Allan is wonderful at finding ways to add value when a client is trying to negotiate and they look for things that are easy for the artist, but valuable for the client. He keeps screaming “Sell them the sandwich and give the pickle”... I still don’t fully get it, but I believe him. If budgeting is tight, we’ll always try to add more value before we reduce the price. If it’s a coffee shop, use the mural concept to design their coffee cups. If it’s a clothing brand, offer to design tote bags for the opening month. Create pins or postcards for them to hand out to customers. There’s always a way to get creative and clients are typically open to it.

At this point, most of our projects tend to have a creative component of some sort beyond just the mural. Learn more about their business and their goals and offer something greater and holistic. You don’t always need to give them exactly what they ask for either. Feel free to present other ideas.

We'd love to hear more about any upcoming projects or goals in 2021 and beyond that you'd like to share.

It’s awesome that mural season is picking back up in the Midwest, although I’m specifically looking for larger walls throughout the United States, especially outside of Chicago. I’m working on projects in Ohio, Michigan & Florida but would love to visit more towns, so hit me up!

You can follow along with Kate @kate.lynn.lewis on Instagram and see more of her work on her website, which is where you can also sign up for her free postcard series.

Photo Credit: Steve Green, Chicago Cubs
      Photo Credit: Steve Green, Chicago Cubs  


Alicia Puig has been a contributing writer for Create! Magazine since 2017. Find more of her work: