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Artists Try Entrepreneurship, Collectives to Create Opportunities in Costa Rica

By Juliana Rincon
Global Press Institute

As in many countries, artists in Costa Rica say they can’t find work in their fields. For recent university graduates in the arts, low wages and a lack of social programs have inspired the creation of new artistic endeavors and collectives that aim to help young artists here pursue their passion for the arts. Still, experts say more needs to be done to create decent work for artists.

SAN JOSÉ, COSTA RICA – Fashion designer Manuel Veranes, 26, sits on top of his cutting table beside a pile of jumbled fabric. He shakes the water droplets off his clothes from the rain outside and begins to eat his lunch, a vegetarian Salvadoran “pupusa” bought from a nearby stall in downtown San José, Costa Rica’s capital.

With boxes, black plastic bags, sewing machines and furniture stacked on one side, the makeshift studio sits on the second floor above a trendy new bar in downtown San José. Veranes shares the space with Marilyn Castellón, a 29-year-old furniture and interior designer and his partner in Casa Tripartito***, an artistic collective.

(Photo: Angeles DelRio )

Castellón works on her laptop a few feet to the right, a 3-D model on her screen of a showroom she is designing. To the left is one of Veranes’ sewing students, focused on making something from red spandex and faux leather.

Veranes says that Casa Tripartito***’s current makeshift office also serves as his temporary home. He and and Castellón used to live and work together in the collective’s previous house and workshop. While they look for a new space, the owners of the bar below have loaned them this floor.

Both Veranes and Castellón are part of the growing Costa Rican design movement. In recent years, independent design stores have emerged around the city, providing locals and visitors a way to buy locally designed and made products that show a more urban side to crafts.

Last year also marked the first design exposition and conference for artists and designers to show and sell their work as well as take part in a conference and workshops. Called Diseño 10, it was organized by the Museum of Modern Art and Design, the Ministry of Culture and Youth, and the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce. Veranes and Castellón both participated.

Casa Tripartito***’s success has been marked by monthly events in which Veranes and Castellón showcase their work, interviews and half-page articles in La Nación, a national newspaper, and sales and contracts they receive individually and together.

They are proving that it is possible to making livings as artists here.

Veranes says he was a bioenergetics therapist studying fashion design on the side when he jumped at the chance to be in a fashion show in 2005. He quickly whipped up a collection, and his career and life as a fashion designer blossomed from there.

Veranes says it was a time marked by saying, “Yes,” to any opportunity that came his way.

“I met everyone and did everything,” he says.

That year, he and two other fashion designers formed a collective called Tripartito*** to design attractive and functional clothing.

Castellón says she also got into the business by taking a risk and pouring herself into her art. She quit her job as an event planner for an advertising agency and dove into a full-time furniture and space design project called Machine. She used her savings to buy materials and equipment and learned as she went.

“If I hadn’t done it this way, I wouldn’t have done it at all,” she says.

The Tripartito*** collective eventually expanded toward design and production of costumes for dance, advertising, film and theater. Teaming up with Castellón through Machine and La Piel de Naranja, a dance troupe with a production unit, the collective became Casa Tripartito***.

It’s currently just Veranes and Castellón in the collective. They hold their events at bars while they look for a new studio. Driven by collaboration, the events provide exposure for Casa Tripartito*** and any collaborators and business for the bars who host them.

The duo provides an example of a unique path to success in the art industry.

As in many countries, the majority of artists in Costa Rica can’t find work in their fields, and the ones who can rarely find jobs that meet the qualifications of “decent work.” Artists such as Veranes and Castellón say that gaining knowledge in business administration has helped them start their own artistic endeavors. But their success is not the norm for artists here. Challenges include low wages, lack of social security and insufficient education, but there are government schemes and room for improvement if artists unite.

Decent work delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, according to the International Labor Organization. It also provides better prospects for personal development and social integration; freedom for people to express their concerns, to organize and to participate in the decisions that affect their lives; and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.

Only 14 percent of graduates in the arts were able to get a job in their fields, according to a 2005 analysis by La Nación and the Consejo Nacional de Rectores, the national higher education planning office. This only takes university graduates into account and doesn’t include those trained elsewhere or who learned their craft independently.

Jairo Vargas is the Costa Rican representative for the Central American Mesa de Trabajo Para el Trabajo Decente, a think tank of leaders, experts and representatives on how to promote decent work. He says that there are four characteristics of decent work: employment, social protection, workers’ rights and social dialogue.

Also a graduate of the National Theater Workshop, a state-run theater school under the Ministry of Culture, he says he knows from personal experience how difficult it is to make a living as an artist. Although decent work is an ideal, he says that most artists make do with jobs that meet only some of the standards.

Vargas says that jobs for artists that comply with the national labor laws can be found in schools, cultural centers, at some advertising agencies and in the entertainment industry. But many aren’t full-time jobs that enable them to earn living wages. The Ministry of Culture is another source of employment for artists, but the government has mentioned the need to cut funding and maybe even close it because of the fiscal deficit.

But even artists “lucky” enough to find a job in the arts still face many obstacles to decent work. Hired as independent contractors, many don’t receive social security, health insurance, pension plans, or paid overtime, vacations or sick leave. Salary is another challenge, as there are no set rates in the industry.

Faced with weak or nonexistent job options, Vargas says that artists are forced to start their own businesses. But he says this does not constitute decent work.

“Forced entrepreneurship is not a move towards decent work,” he says.

To earn money as a freelancer, a person needs an official document from the Treasury Department. But once an artist attains this document, he or she is no longer counted among the unemployed, according to the Treasury Department. The document implies that they are currently self-employed in the arts, regardless of whether they have any clients.

Neither Castellón nor Veranes had formal higher education in business before starting their entrepreneurial endeavors. But they both eventually sought courses.

Veranes says he mostly improvised while setting up of Tripartito*** as well as relied on family and friends for support. But once he knew he wanted to get serious about fashion design, he took courses for entrepreneurs offered by the government.

He says that being successful without experience required discipline, especially in tackling the less exciting parts of the business, namely the administration. But after seeking training, he says he now enjoys all aspects of the business, from marketing and sales, to dealing with clients, to receiving recognition for his work and requests to make outfits, dresses and costumes.

After running her business for about a year, Castellón enrolled in a business management course for creative professionals offered by Pejibaye Consulting. She says it helped her gain a new perspective on her company and clues for how to make it more profitable.

Mauricio Jiménez Calvo, founder of Pejibaye Consulting, says the course aims to give artists and designers the necessary information to turn their business ideas into sound business plans. Jiménez, a musician and composer who also has a master’s degree in international business, says his goal is to bridge the gap between artists and businesspeople.

He started consulting when one of his cousins sought his help in creating a business plan for a design project. Through word of mouth, Jiménez found himself helping creative clients to ground their artistic projects and helping established companies to break out of molds and be more creative in their work. His business grew from there.

In the six-week course Castellón took, artists and designers learn how to materialize their ideas, plan strategies, manage their time, balance finances, sell and market their products, streamline operative processes and discover how performance metrics can improve their business, Jiménez says.

“Starting a company in Costa Rica is a marathon,” Jiménez says. “Getting to the finish line takes work.”

He says starting a company involves more than just the technical aspects of making the product or providing a service. Entrepreneurs also need to manage their businesses – the hurdle he says that many of them stumble on.

As in many parts of the world, about 80 percent of new small and medium enterprises in Costa Rica fail before the first five years, Jiménez says. So what is the successful 20 percent doing right?

Castellón says it’s important for Costa Ricans, or “ticos,” to take risks.

“The tico needs to get rid of the fear to take risks and do things,” Castellón says.

They must also be creative to make their product or service stand out from the competition or fill a niche. Like the forces behind Casa Tripartito***, successful entrepreneurs also collaborate, barter with other companies and exchange services: pictures for a website, video editing for products, or, in Jiménez’s case, a six-week course in exchange for sculptures and a painting from a rising artist. In the end, they are seeing their company as a combination of both a successful product and a smart business plan.

Sometimes it’s also about making sacrifices and having faith.

For example, one of Veranes’ cousins invested half his salary in his vision for six months when he was getting started. And Veranes has kept busy throughout the years to keep this vision afloat – designing clothes for dance companies, making custom clothing for clients, teaching sewing classes, designing his own clothing line, and legally establishing his company and brand.

As far as profits, Veranes says that Tripartito*** makes a lot of money, but he hardly sees any of it. Most of it goes to paying overhead, including rent, food, and his seamstress’ salary and health insurance. In hard times, he goes into “survivor” mode, streamlining expenses and giving up extras.

But Veranes and Castellón may be the exception to the Costa Rican norm, as the majority of artists have not found full-time work in their chosen fields.

Katherine Castro graduated with a dramatic arts degree from the University of Costa Rica in 2003. But although her dream was to pursue acting, she put her “feet back down on the ground” and resumed her initial study of pharmacy.

“I continued studying pharmacy and finished,” she wrote in an e-mail. “And of course it is a well-paid and recognized profession.”

She still occasionally performs on the side and dreams of being able to be a full-time actress who can wait for the right role instead of being forced to take one out of financial need.

“The hardest thing in my situation, as an artist, has been the lack of economical support, not having my family support me in the financial or emotional sense, that people mock or reject my profession; that the government itself and its institutions don’t take us seriously as professionals, that you can’t have access to a loan, credit or social security; in general, that people don’t respect us as professionals and they’d rather take advantage of us, not pay us or pay us a pittance,” she wrote.

Vargas says that if artists formed unions or collectives, they could establish these limits and demand to get paid what they consider their worth. But with employment opportunities for artists scarce, many see each other as competition instead of as allies.

Vargas and Jiménez say that another challenge is to become more visible to the population and to the government. For example, most small and medium enterprises have a low participation in the social security system due to the high cost for new or small companies. But the social security system in Costa Rica has special fees for collectives, through which a group of people can jointly pay health insurance and get lower rates, according to the Social Security Office in San José.

The educational system also must adapt and catch up with the current work environment so that the educational offer matches the employment demand, according to a 2007 study by the Consejo Nacional de Competitividad, a national council that promotes productivity and competition. It advised arts students to push for their programs to include pedagogy and business administration as mandatory courses or the option to take them as electives.

Vargas says that the Costa Rican chapter of the Mesa de Trabajo Para el Trabajo Decente has presented a policy guideline to the government for review to ensure decent work nationally.

In the meantime, artists continue to dream – some closer to realizing these dreams than others.

Castellón says her goal is for people to recognize her brand’s furniture and spaces by sight alone. She wants to hire more personnel and give a fresh spin to her work by applying her new business administration skills.

Veranes has kept busy with his new ready-to-wear collection called Basics, which he launched last month. His next dream is to go to Tokyo in 2013 in order to see and experience the fashion there.

The story was originally published by Global Press Institute. (c) Global Press Institute 2012

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