An interview with Liz Powers ‘10, co-founder of ArtLifting.
Homelessness is not a very happy subject. The reality is that over seven thousand people in Boston – one in a hundred of the city’s population – lack stable housing and live in shelters or on the streets, according to the Boston Public Health Commission’s Annual Homeless Census. And that number is rising. From 2014 to 2015, the homeless population rose by five percent. In that same time, the number of families experiencing homelessness increased by 25%. These, and other sobering statistics, illustrate the depressing realities of the problem. However, there are ways to make a positive difference – just ask Liz Powers.
I first met Liz two weeks ago at the Harvard-Radcliffe Women’s Leadership Conference, where she spoke of pursuing her mission to help homeless individuals. During her undergraduate years, Liz worked at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and founded the LIFT Bike Project, a program that provides transportation for homeless individuals who can’t afford public transportation. Since graduating from Harvard in 2010, her work has focused on empowering marginalized individuals through art. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her company, ArtLifting.
AE: To start, could you talk a little bit about the beginnings of ArtLifting? What was your original vision? Has it changed since then?
LP: I’ve been working with homeless individuals for the last nine years, and my job used to be running art groups in shelters. I was absolutely amazed by the talent that I saw, and thought, what a no-brainer to help sell it! My brother and I started ArtLifting together two years ago with just four thousand dollars of our savings, and an idea. Then, we bootstrapped that to revenue in the six figures, and recently got $1.3 million in investments to help scale our mission a lot faster. Our mission from the beginning was to empower homeless and disabled artists, and that hasn’t changed.
AE: What was ArtLifting’s reach at the beginning? Where did you start, and how has it grown since then?
LP: In the beginning, we started with four artists in Boston. We started working with one local shelter, Common Art, an art therapy program in Boston for homeless and low-income residents. Since then, we’ve expanded to 8 cities across the country, and work with 70 artists through a variety of shelters and disability centers.
AE: What do you think is really unique about ArtLifting? Are there similar programs that do this work?
LP: There are all different programs that sell at the local level, but ArtLifting is the first company that’s doing this at the national level. There are thousands of existing art groups at shelters and disability centers, so our goal is to be the art broker that collaborates with all of these existing art groups, helps market the artists and treats them with the dignity that they deserve.
AE: What are some future plans for ArtLifting? Do you have any projects you’re working on, or any big dreams you’re trying to make a reality in the next couple of years?
LP: We have three sales channels. One is ecommerce; one is corporate sales, and one is licensing. Licensing is one of the big parts of our future – the idea of printing our art on existing big brands. It could be clothing; it could be a cup; it could be journals. I see that as where we’re really innovating. Sixty-five percent of millennial consumers want to buy from a socially conscious brand, but most brands don’t have visible corporate social responsibility right now. We’re going to help them do that by printing our art on their work. And like any ArtLifting sale, the majority of the profit will go straight back to the artist.
AE: Has ArtLifting encountered any significant obstacles or difficulties, and how have you overcome those?
LP: The main obstacle at the beginning was having so many ideas but no cash. It’s very frustrating to have endless ideas for growing your impact, but to not have the resources to implement those! So that was really exciting, to be able to get the investment this summer, to have a higher staff and to be able to have marketing people and corporate salespeople on the team. We feel like we’re on a rocket ship now with huge growth potential.
AE: Recently, I’ve seen that ArtLifting has partnered with the New England Patriots to promote its mission. How did you make that happen?
LP: I was actually lying in bed and, as usual, thinking about ArtLifting in general! At that moment, I thought, why don’t we get celebrities to lift our art? For a start, I tweeted at Matt and Ben, and different celebrities, but it’s hard to get through the millions of tweets. Ben thought about starting with sports teams, because that seemed like such a natural connection and level of support, especially in Boston, where there are so many sports teams. We got connected to the Patriots, and I talked to the head of community relations, brought paintings over, and about eight players took photos lifting the art. They were really psyched to support us!
AE: One last question. Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing service-oriented careers or enterprises?
LP: The number one advice I could give them, is to listen. Oftentimes people would hear about ArtLifting and think of it as a pretty random idea. But truth be told, it came from seven years of listening to clients, hearing that they don’t want more handouts. They want an opportunity and a chance to share their talents. Since I happened to be running art groups in shelters, that seemed like a natural way to share talent. There are endless other opportunities for that in all different fields, and I think the key to approaching problems is to not think that you already have the solution, but instead to hear from people actually facing the problem, and get their advice on what potential solutions could be.
The only lifting that Audrey Effenberger ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) does these days is art.