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Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career by Elizabeth Hyde Steve

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

I chose to read this because I was drawn to the title. I'm an artist, duh. I didn't know who Jim Henson was. I had heard the name, but couldn't tell you what he did. Now I know that he was a man with a good heart, that also created Sesame Street for poor kids to get access to some education. At first, I wasn't gonna take notes, but as I continue to listen, I feel like I should. I love that Jim made decisions for all the right reasons. He was all about giving back. He didn't care about making money. Beautiful. His story resonates with me. He is someone I want to learn from.

Lesson 1: Selling Out (For creative freedom)

  • Art is a gift.

  • I too, rip myself off, too create work for good people or good reasons.

  • He made money by merchandising. Creating toys based on Sesame Street.

  • He recorded his milestones in a red book.

  • He put his profits back into his art. It is a necessary thing for artists to do. Disney did it as well.

  • How much money does a person need? Once you reach that number, what do you do with the rest?

  • He preferred his characters to be more abstract and "pure". He didn't prefer to give the audience a handle, which meant to help them understand. That was better for people to understand which was better for sales. He sold out a tiny bit to be able to create more of what he wanted to do. Kermit wasn't originally a frog. He was a thing.

  • The market tells us what to do. Sometimes, we have to conform a little, to be able to do what we really want to do. Some contact with the market won't destroy the work completely. Compromise between selling out and doing me, just like any other relationship.

  • It was crucial that is business arm respected the artistic stuff. He hired business people that fit in comfortably with the creative family. Cautious precision with hiring.

  • Mass production, selling a license. Make a work once and profit multiple times.

  • Flow with the river. blaze your own path.

  • Selling out to me, looks like toning down my blackness. I would only do it for the opportunity to do more for my people.

Lesson 2: How many hours have you practiced in service of the gift?

  • Jim Henson didn't earn success over night. It took 40 years to create a marketable Kermit the Frog.

  • If art id a gift. I must sacrifice and work hard! Experiment and play. I don't sacrifice enough. I can find more time through eating better and working out, like 50 cent did/does.

  • Learn to push for the sake of pushing.

  • Take chances and when a chance comes, take it, and rise to the occasion! By working you'll get valuable experience. Don't say no just because, you've never done it before.

  • it is crucial for my art to develop along with an audience.

  • Jim was atypically ambitious at the expense of his family.

  • What drives art? Playful ambition.

  • He had moments of self doubt, but he explored them. Self doubt, leads to self knowing. He always knew that he'd be successful at what he decided to do. I too have that confidence in my work, that I'm supposed to be doing this and that I will make it because I won't give up. Jim was driven to realize his dreams.

  • I must have a duty to make art and not give up on myself.

  • Understand youth culture.

  • Be lucky. 10,000 hours (outliers). How am I unlucky? How can I play with it a little and turn it into a positive for me. The things that look like luck, are the result of work! So work!


Lesson 3: Give someone else a break. Hire someone.

  • Collaboration is important.

  • When should I hire hire someone else to work for me? As soon as I can.

  • Jim's work was beyond just him. He ran his company like a family.

  • Jim held conferences and workshops to find his people. He knew what he was looking for.

  • The ability to have fun while working so that you got along while working.

  • Be yourself, don't be business like or "professional". Good people are worth keeping. Hire people you like working with.

  • Find your people, and reach out to them.

  • Collaboration with other artists, lightens the load for me.

Lesson 4: Make commercials for you. Hijack the Ad.

  • Art alone doesn't usually pay the bills, so what's an artist to do? Get a second job. Henson made commercials. He felt the same way about commercials as i do my day job. It's cool, but not my passion. Not easy on a creative person.

  • Henson was different from the other advertisers because he used them to get his art out there.

  • A person who makes art and also sells art thinks in a very uncommon way. Henson's second (advertising) job, did more than pay the bills. If I want to go from just being an artist with a day job, to an artist who's work pays for itself. Exposure is the key. With enough exposure an artist can find his market, or at least create it.

  • Stop my day job as soon as I can. It good at first, but it can drain your art.

  • Refuse anything that is not me. Always hijack the ad. If I think something is bogus, say so in the art. Make the time to work on my non paid work.

  • Does my day job help or hurt my art. Make it work so that I can continue to make art.

Lesson 5: Groups and Outsiders. Invite the outside in.

  • Re-imagine the nature of boundaries. My worlds is limitless. If I don't see eye to eye with someone, invite them to my side.

  • They thought of good and evil as two different points of view. Melts the distinction between inside or outside. Invite the person in.

  • In order to turn a stranger into a friend. A gift is given.

  • "I try hard not to judge anyone". Positive approach. Life is good. People are good.

  • Henson's Universalism : Refusing to fall into subcategories of human - Henson was able to reach diverse groups of people because he himself refused to be categorized by any one group. As a result, he had an enigmatic personality. What does enigmatic mean?

  • Boundaries he transcended:

    • Hippies & Squares: He contrasted the different view points and attitudes of each age, Jim created a portrait of society as a whole, with the show.

    • Positivism & Realism: Although he was very enthusiastic and tended to ignore obstacles At the same time he was very practical and realistic. He was idealistic and positive, but also very aware of how to really world worked. is realism allowed him to market his idealism, which let him make the world a little better than it was before.

    • Violence & Passivism:

    • High and Low: His work would combine the intellectual and the common. A mix of high and low culture made Sesame Street a classic.

    • Rich and Poor: As a kid he wanted the good life. He wanted things he saw but couldn't afford and vowed to get them. He loved tuxedo night and limos. but he found the moon more enchanting than the celebrity stars. His values were not materialistic. But he did enjoy luxurious things. He enjoyed sharing his wealth and throwing lavish parties.

    • How do I code switch in my art. Who are the enemy Fraggles in my life. How do I see myself from the outside


Lesson 6: Always innovate. On technology and art.

  • Research and Development in the arts.

  • Innovation is expensive. The financial problem with quality is that it's profitless. Experimentation is expensive for artists. These experiments tend to be given as gift, which doesn't make an artist rich. Henson put a lot of money into his shows. Toy sales gave him the ability to innovate with the shows. So in the long run, it does pay off. Quality appreciates with time. Profit wise you wont get ahead, but if you love what you do, this is a good model for you. You thrive here.

  • Making something of quality requires a different business model. Innovation requires patience (which I have plenty of), years with 0 dollars on the books, a separate revenue stream if possible, and investment of ones own money. I care about quality, I do these things naturally.

  • When you blaze a trail with expensive quality, you are unlikely to have much competition. The reason why Disney wasn't copied because his expenses were so great. Not many can keep up with that. Disney's business model was to create off of borrowed money. He experienced bankruptcy before. Henson and Disney strung their funders along to get such big investments. "Notorious for going over budget".

  • Art will always cost more than it makes. The value is in the long term. You earn money because of the quality, later. Always value quality.

  • It's possible to innovate with tools that are very old. Innovation is an itching to surprises yourself. Innovation is experimenting. Using whatever is at hand.

  • To be original, you must play with the familiar. Henson and Steve Jobs both tweaked things that existed already. Copying is the start of any artists style. Singers and song writers all start out singing other peoples songs.

  • My art can speak for me and say what I cant get away with saying.

Lesson 8: Pitch Pitch Pitch. The inevitability of failure.

  • Research and Development in the arts.

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