What bankers can learn from the masters of the art world

The making and selling of art may not be the world’s oldest profession, but it has been a commercial endeavor for thousands of years. Western artists have been independent business people for about 500 years. What can today’s entrepreneurs in banking and other businesses learn from two of the world’s greatest artists – Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci? Both were internationally successful artists during the Italian Renaissance, each had very different ways of conducting the business of art, and each leave us with relevant business lessons.

Before looking at what can be learned from them, a little context is helpful to understand how they pushed the boundaries of the art business. The Middle Ages art business consisted of craftsmen who excelled in masonry, sculpture, painting and stained glass, and went from town to town looking for clients or commissions. Gothic cathedrals were largely built by master craftsmen, and stonemasons who worked for many years, or a lifetime, on a building project. These people were mostly anonymous. Anonymity did not pay well. These craftspersons were not entrepreneurs, nor were they encouraged to be.

Then came the Renaissance. In the 1400 and 1500s, artists gained more control over contracts and commissions. The Renaissance humanist concept recognizing individuals contributed to artists transitioning from craftsmen to powerful and revered artists. Artists were independent business persons, in charge of studios, marketing, assistants, finances, obtaining commissions and keeping patrons satisfied.

Michelangelo became one the most highly paid artists of the 1500s. His business success was driven by an intense desire to provide for his family and future generations. He was paid astronomical prices for artwork in his 20s, before painting the Sistine Chapel in Rome. His net lifetime income after taxes and expenses was unprecedented. Michelangelo took a great leap forward in creating a business model for entrepreneurial artists. Not everyone followed, but he was a great investor in real estate, kept careful fiscal records of his debts and credits, and was a hard negotiator with patrons, including the popes. Albeit a spendthrift, he died a very rich man. He was the first art superstar with international fame.

Leonardo da Vinci, a contemporary of Michelangelo, only completed 14 paintings in his lifetime. Leonardo was driven by perfectionism and problem solving. His many notebooks and scientific inquiries about nature and the human body earned him a reputation for creativity, experimentation and an endless desire for knowledge. Leonardo, most famous for the Mona Lisa, was also well paid for his art, but was a spender rather than a saver. Although highly sought after by the wealthy elite for artwork and inventions, he died with a very modest sum of money. Leonardo was well regarded as a courtly gentleman who was generous and sociable. A painting attributed to Leonardo recently sold for $450.3 million to a Saudi prince.

Besides their technical genius there are some entrepreneurial practices that contributed to their success. Here are four key lessons from these art entrepreneurs that today’s business leaders can apply.

Financial Management: Michelangelo knew his cost of goods sold: the marble, his tools, paints, assistants, rent for his shop. He kept good records and understood the finance of art. He was essentially the CEO of the largest art company of his time. He minimized labor costs and understood finance from a holistic approach. From his example, today’s entrepreneurs can extract the value of cultivating good relationships with their bankers and paying close attention to the fiscal health of their companies. Entrepreneurs who think of themselves as creatives can look to Michelangelo to see that even one of history’s great artists built a financial management system, could read financial statements, created a cash reserve and tracked business performance.

Collaboration: Collaborative workplaces were as common 500 years ago as they are today. Leonardo was keen to share his drawings with other artists and open his studio to them. He was not threatened by competition and was a mentor. Michelangelo took the opposite approach; he was secretive and did not share with others. By the end of his long career, his style was considered out of date as he would not change the way he painted nor take advice from others. Collaboration in Leonardo’s circle encouraged new approaches and fostered curiosity. New artists, like entrepreneurs, strengthened their skills by learning from others, and sharing challenges and successes. Everyone in business can learn much from peers by acknowledging their strengths and weaknesses. Rather than fearing competition, artists and entrepreneurs can leverage competitiveness to focus their products and services.

Quality Control: The basic concept of quality management isn’t drastically different from 500 years ago. Business leaders must be attentive to the quality of their products and services. Quality encompasses customer service, staffing, materials, workflow process, training and knowledge of customer needs. Michelangelo went to the mountain to hand select the marble and accompany it from the mountain to the studio, to avoid any mishaps that would damage the stone. Leonardo worked on the Mona Lisa and other paintings for years, and set high standards for all aspects of his art from drawings to finished products. Future commissions could be endangered if he didn’t deliver a high-quality product to his patron. A customer-centered approach is as essential to a business owner today as in Leonardo’s time.

Get Outside Your Comfort Zone: Business leaders need to constantly innovate in rapidly changing markets. Sometimes this means reacting to an unforeseen challenge or changing a product or service to adapt to customer needs or wants. Michelangelo, against his will, was commanded by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, not a painter. Previously he had completed a 47-inch diameter painting. The Sistine ceiling is 5,754 square feet. He made mistakes along the way, especially in scaling up to such large dimensions, but he rose to the occasion. Through his discomfort, Michelangelo’s embrace of the challenge led to new innovations.

If Leonardo and Michelangelo could speak to business leaders today, I believe their advice would be straightforward: Do what you love. Success is always rooted in passion. Yet the examples of these two artistic masters shows that all entrepreneurs, even creatives, can derive benefits from following generally accepted business practices and sound financial management.

Gerriann Brower worked at the Minnesota Bankers Association for 17 years and is now retired, pursuing her interests in art history. Her blog is www.italianartfortravelers.com.