ArtLifting Empowers Homeless and Disabled Artists With Online Marketplace
A conversation with ArtLifting co-founder Liz Powers
In 2012, Horner’s Syndrome left Scott Benner with debilitating cluster headaches and bouts of confusion. Soon after, Benner lost his job and his home, forcing him to find refuge under bushes. Then, he met Liz Powers, co-founder and “chief happiness spreader” of ArtLifting.
Benner started selling his artwork on ArtLifting’s online marketplace for disabled, homeless, or otherwise disadvantaged artists in 2014, and since then, his original works have gone for as much as $25,000, he’s secured licensing deals with Starbucks and Leesa, and he’s even put on a solo show at Google (which included an inspiring speech that he gave to Google employees). Most importantly, Benner has found housing, and he’s back on his feet, thanks to ArtLifting.
“It’s been amazing to see stories like that happen among many of our artists and just see that confidence boost to a whole other level than I ever could have imagined,” Powers said.
Though Benner has been honing his craft for over 40 years, he had never sold a piece of artwork before connecting with ArtLifting. And that sort of opportunity creation for homeless and disabled artists lies at the crux of Powers’ mission with the company.
“How can I redefine what a job is in order to include more people in the economy?” — Liz Powers
While Powers and her brother started ArtLifting only four years ago, the company already has a presence in 20 states across the country. Much of that success has to do with the fact that Powers has over a decade of experience in case work and a lifetime passion for art.
“I’ve worked with individuals who are either homeless or have disabilities for the last 12 years now. I used to do case work, helping people get jobs and housing, and I had so many clients say, ‘Liz, I don’t want a handout; I want an opportunity,’” Powers said.
But that was “much easier said than done” for her. She might meet with a client for an hour a week for years, and the same, recurring theme would crop up: frustration. Her clients wanted to work, but they couldn’t find a “normal job, a nine-to-five,” according to Powers.
So, she started thinking about how she could create job opportunities for those that were otherwise excluded from those “normal jobs.” As a longtime artist herself, Powers soon switched to art therapy—“running art groups in local shelters in the Boston area”—after doing case work, and that was when, according to her, “the two ideas connected.”
“I saw amazing, salable artwork with no marketplace, so I decided, ‘I’m going to create that marketplace, curate the top art from all of these existing groups and help create a platform.’” — Liz Powers
That winding road led to ArtLifting, which now sells original artwork from almost 150 artists and has a client list that ranges from Staples to Starbucks and MIT to Google. And Powers continues to keep her focus squarely on empowering the artist.
“Liz is an extraordinary founder. She has that rare combination of deep emotional intelligence and shrewd business savvy that we believe is an important predictor of entrepreneurial success,” Adam Huttler, founder and CEO of Exponential Creativity Ventures, said.
From homelessness to domestic abuse, physical disabilities to mental and emotional disabilities, ArtLifting takes each artist’s circumstances into account to create a complete picture of the artwork from process to product.
“The artist’s story certainly matters quite a bit. Obviously, we’re a mission-based organization. Some artists can’t paint with their hands and create art with their wheelchair. So, when looking at that artwork, we take the process into account,” Powers said.
While ArtLifting has to remain economically sustainable in order to continue empowering homeless and disabled artists, Powers has ensured that artists get the biggest percentage of any profits the company makes.
“We’re significantly more generous to the artist than competitors.” — Liz Powers
“When we launched, we said, ‘Well, the norm in the gallery world is 50/50, so let’s do 55% of the profit to the artist, 44% to ArtLifting, and 1% to our art supply fund,” Powers added.
ArtLifting has stuck with that artist-oriented split, making the company part art gallery, part online marketplace, and part socially conscious talent agency.
“We find artists in two different ways. One is inbound, so artists seeing us in the press and just applying on our website. The second is outbound. For example, if we’re working with a corporation and they have an office in ‘X’ city and really want local art, then we’ll reach out to local art groups, curate top works, and then sign on artists,” Powers said.
They’ve taken on so many talented artists, in fact, that they’re now directing their focus toward sales, but Powers expects they’ll be back to seeking out new artists in the coming months.
In its four short years of operation, ArtLifting has already undergone a major evolution in its approach from B2C (business to consumer) to B2B (business to business). Powers started out selling mostly to individuals, but the vast majority of the company’s revenue now comes from corporations, because she realized “you can’t do everything at once.”
“If we try to do everything at once, then we’ll be bad at everything.” — Liz Powers
“We sell in two different ways. One is artwork—including originals, art prints, and wall coverings—in bulk to work places or hotels, and then the second is licensing our work. So, for example, we did a deal with Starbucks with our art on Starbucks gift cards,” Powers said.
Still, there’s a whole section of the website curated for the home with original art going for under $1,000. So, individual consumers have the option to buy artwork from the inclusive online marketplace even though ArtLifting’s two-person curation team is usually asking themselves, “Can you imagine this work on a conference room wall?”
The platform that Powers has provided for artists like Kimberly Williams, AJ Redmond, and Andrew Weatherly has not only allowed them some economic relief, but it’s also given them an outlet for coping with their hardships by offering up the encouragement and visibility that they might not otherwise have had. Fortunately, the more successful ArtLifting is as a company, the better opportunities Williams, Redmond, Weatherly, and other creatives with similar stories will have.
“ArtLifting’s social mission is an important part of why we invested. Part of Exponential Creativity Ventures’ investment thesis is about platforms that provide opportunities for creativity that didn’t exist before, and ArtLifting does that for a particularly compelling, often underserved population. But we wouldn’t have invested if we didn’t also believe in the economic opportunity. ArtLifting is a great example of a business model that harmonizes social impact and financial returns so that they’re not in conflict and in fact reinforce each other,” Huttler said.
As much as ArtLifting might forward a socially conscious and/or humanitarian cause, according to Huttler, “It’s not about ‘corporate social responsibility’ or ‘giving back.’ It’s about understanding that most people want to live in a humane, inclusive, beautiful world.”
“The key for an entrepreneur is figuring out how to make money for contributing toward that collective vision,” he added.