DIY Printing stays true to its name & ethos while supporting the local arts community in Cincinnati
Artists as a species tend to exhibit a certain kind of do-it-yourself-ness. Generally dissatisfied with the world as it is presented to them, they follow their own paths and figure out a way to make it work for them.
DIY Printing stays true to its name, from its humble origins in the back of someone’s closet to the hybrid for-profit/nonprofit model it is today, forging its own path to financial sustainability while still supporting the community of artists it was designed for.
Aaron Kent, founder and owner of DIY Printing, graduated with a BFA in sculpture from the Art Academy of Cincinnati. It was his dream to sell sculpture for a living, but he realized that if he wanted to sell artwork, he had to make something that people wanted to buy. “There is a fine line in fine art,” he says. “You have to find that niche between what you’re doing and what people want. I never wanted to compromise my artwork.”
His solution came about as something of an accident, as the best solutions so often do. Kent found that the things that continually motivate an art student throughout their years in school – being surrounded by fellow artists in a creative environment with regular peer input, access to studio space and equipment, professional critiques, a general sense of living and breathing art 24/7 before real life gets in the way – were gone after graduation. “Once school is done, as a fine artist you’re done; [your access to] all these great studios is done. [It’s basically like], ‘Good luck with that, but you’re done now.'”
He and a group of other artists decided to get together once a week to keep their practice and motivation up. They worked on various projects together and people came and left, and in the meantime Kent started investing in screenprinting equipment, which was another major focus of his in school outside of sculpture. “I knew sculpture was not going to sell very well,” he says. “Prints are one of those things you can do an edition of and sell those at a lower price than sculpture,” so he decided to make and sell his artwork as prints, totally DIY-style, instead.
Kent slowly built a screenprinting studio one table and piece of equipment at a time, but when the space he was using shut down he had to make a decision to either go forward or sell the equipment.
He decided to go forward, and DIY Printing officially opened its doors in 2010. “We literally started in the back of a closet somewhere,” he laughs. “That’s how it goes – you start with nothing and just keep going from there.”
When DIY opened, Kent envisioned it as an artists’ co-op and tried running it the way other co-ops are run – charging the artist to become a member, then charging them hourly fees for supplies and materials. He hated operating that way.
“As an artist myself, you’re not helping artists [that way]. You’re taking money out of the pocket of the people you’re trying to help. It didn’t make sense to do that, to nitpick them [for] this fee and that fee. That’s not what we’re about.”
Kent wanted to help artists by supplying a studio where they can come in and print, and just spend money on the materials for their prints instead of the studio taking money from them, so that the artists can make 50 prints at a time instead of just a few with whatever money and materials they had left over.
At the same time, he realized he also needed to have supplies ready at all times. In a co-op, there might not be a steady influx of work, so materials might go stagnant and equipment not regularly maintained. Trying to pay someone to monitor the studio on a daily basis was not exactly cost-effective, so his solution was a purely practical one: Kent decided to print commercially for local businesses, arts organizations, and nonprofits in order to make the money to keep the studio running and available to other artists at all times.
“With the money coming in [I could keep] the co-op open and maintained, so when people come in to use it, it’s already ready to go because we need it for this commercial aspect,” he explains. “This is not just a hobby; it’s a professional-level studio for commercial printing.”
There are membership levels – memberships are sold through the Art Academy of Cincinnati and cost $75 for six months of open studio – but Kent also allows for a “Starving Artist Membership” for those who have just enough money for materials and are legitimate fine artists simply trying to make prints. Donate your time and talent to helping out on the commercial side or at one of their workshops or events, and he’ll call it even.
On the commercial end, DIY Printing does about 75 percent of their business in T-shirts for local businesses and the rest is in paper printing. The fine art prints and posters are Kent’s real passion in screenprinting, but T-shirts are the bread and butter and he appreciates what that business has allowed them to do.
“People are coming in and asking for tees on regular basis, and that’s what keeps us open. That’s what keeps us funded. They don’t realize how much that helps us. The artist in residence doesn’t know that 50 local businesses helped to print his paper. I’m here 24/7 because of those people that allow us to stay open. It’s an honor and I feel very privileged that people allow me to do this kind of stuff.”
Because of those T-shirts, DIY is entirely self-funded and employing artists as well as serving artists in the community.
“[Business people] can’t understand why we would do anything that is nonprofit,” Kent marvels. “[To them] it’s either a business or it’s a nonprofit, and [they wonder] why we would waste our money to help people and not get anything for it.”
But for Kent, it’s not a matter of getting something in return from every person he helps. It’s about having enough income to support fine artists so they can pursue their craft without having to make the investment in all this equipment themselves. It’s about seeing these artists sharing their knowledge and techniques with each other and building a stronger community of local artists in Cincinnati, in effect creating a huge database of knowledge with the studio as its hub. It’s about supporting other local businesses through purchasing supplies. It’s about being able to fund an artist-in-residence program. It’s about him personally being able to work directly with other artists.
Kent also hosts education workshops as well as free demonstrations for organizations like schools and nonprofits that don’t have a lot of funding. DIY also works with several local arts organizations including Contemporary Arts Center, Enjoy the Arts, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Art Academy, often in an exchange of good faith.
When DIY first started Kent’s intent was not to get “buried” in the commercial world and to still do community outreach. He explains, “It builds the community, keeps us going, tells people what we’re about and shows them what’s going on. It allows people to get involved with us. We have all these different aspects of what we’re doing. It’s sort of cool to see it take off and know you had something to do with that!”
People have asked Kent why, since DIY basically functions as a nonprofit, he doesn’t just go ahead and organize as a nonprofit, but he takes pride in being self-reliant and not dependent on outside funding that can just as easily vanish at any time. “At any given moment your funding can get pulled and your whole company is gone just like that. [DIY is completely] independent; we stand on our own feet.”
Even so, all of the money that comes in goes right back into running the business and its programs, and Kent is okay with that. “I’ve got my rent paid. The dogs are fed and we’ve got a place to stay at night.” He feels a sense of satisfaction and almost paternal pride in seeing artists he has worked with putting on shows and selling their work and knowing he played some small little part in it, or even seeing a business hosting a huge event and seeing all of the employees wearing the T-shirts he printed.
“I’ve got two dogs and a great screenprinting studio and I get to work with a lot of artists. I’m connected [to this community] in more ways than I could have imagined. I didn’t realize how much it would [evolve] from where we were in a closet to a great studio space, and it’s all because of people supporting us.”