Boston-based corporation showcases homeless artists

MBA student and his sister create company offering sales channel and share of profits

By Amy MacMillan Bankson  |  March 2, 2016

Spencer Powers

Spencer Powers, MBA ’16, displays ArtLifting merchandise

Dozens of homeless and disabled artists are selling their art for a profit thanks to a pair of Boston-based siblings.

Spencer Powers, MBA ’16, and his sister, Liz Powers, created the benefit corporation, ArtLifting, after Liz was inspired by working with homeless artists over the past 9 years. The two realized they were onto something when they began to see how encouraged the artists were by earning money and being treated respectfully, Spencer said. In just a year, five formerly homeless artists have gained housing, in part because they sold artwork through ArtLifting, he added.

Today, ArtLifting is working with more than 70 artists in eight cities and the Powers siblings plan to expand. A recent seed round raised $1.3 million and online sales of prints, posters, accessories, and original art pieces are brisk. A pop-up gallery is located at CambridgeSide Galleria in East Cambridge.

Five things to know about ArtLifting:

The company was bootstrapped with little funding

After contemplating the business for several months, the Powers siblings started ArtLifting in December 2013 with just $4,000 of their own savings. Both had full-time jobs, and built the business during nights and weekends. Business was slow at first.

“It was absolutely crickets in terms of our web traffic,” Spencer remembered.

Publicity came in the way of a Boston Globe article that highlighted the new venture. “It’s very hard to get known on the Internet, and that was a surprise,” Spencer said. “We owe all of it to the first four artists who entrusted us to sell their art.” The Powers siblings were able to bootstrap from this $4,000 investment to revenue in the six figures.

Reading business books helped

Before he came to MIT Sloan, Spencer read two books that inspired him: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and Start Something that Matters by Blake Mykoskie. Today, both Mykoskie and Ries are investors in ArtLifting.

Business school helped, too

Both Powers siblings were admitted to MIT Sloan in 2014. Spencer chose to attend, while Liz continued working on the new business full time.

At MIT Sloan, Trust Center Managing Director Bill Aulet’s New Enterprises class motivated Spencer. “The best advice I got was through Bill’s class,” Spencer said. “Going through his class made me realize, ‘Oh, we skipped that step.’ Now, with a more formal understanding of entrepreneurship … I think we are in a much better position.”

Class on negotiation attracted students from across MITLiz Powers and Spencer Powers, co-founders of ArtLifting

Every ArtLifting artist gets a contract

“Artists are treated professionally. Everything they get is something they earned themselves,” Spencer said.

As it expands to new cities, ArtLifting connects with shelters first. Shelter workers and art therapists help ArtLifting identify potential artists, and then the company fosters a relationship with each artist.

The company works with individuals in art programs in both shelters and disability centers. “We are basically here to help artists who have some sort of disadvantage, whether it be homelessness or a physical or mental disability,” Spencer said.

ArtLifting is not a charity

“We are very proud to be a for-profit, benefit corporation,” Liz said. “We work like a normal gallery and split the profit. Fifty-five percent of our profit goes to the artist and the other 45 percent is used to grow ArtLifting and expand our impact.”

“We purposefully built a model so that for every piece of artwork sold, our artists get money and we get money. I think it’s a great trend that’s appearing now … businesses don’t need to be agnostic to have social impact. They can build it into their business model,” Spencer said.