By Jasmine Wu, news correspondent
Buying art no longer has to be an investment of the wealthy. Instead, it can mean giving back to the community, and perhaps even helping someone find a home.
ArtLifting is a social enterprise dedicated to helping sell art crafted by individuals who are homeless or disabled, giving them 55 percent of profits. Although most sales are online, the business has recently reopened their pop-up shop for the month of January. Now housed in the Galleria Mall in Cambridge, ArtLifting showcases work ranging from original paintings and prints to iPhone cases and tote bags.
Anthony Baldassari, 64, is one of nearly 70 artists involved with ArtLifting. He was paralyzed on his left side after a failed medical procedure and sells art in an effort to fulfill a promise to pay off his daughter’s college loans. Baldassari says that his depression, agoraphobia, herniated discs and chronic back and leg pain makes it difficult for him to get out of bed in the morning. Through a fellow artist, he discovered ArtLifting and sent in a DVD asking which paintings they liked.
“They said all of them,” Baldassari said. “I was stunned and got very emotional inside.”
Baldassari says he now looks back at his paralysis as a gift, allowing him to support himself.
“[I can now] do the one thing I always dreamed of: to paint,” Baldassari said.
Five of ArtLifting’s artists experiencing homelessness found new homes in their first year of operation, Liz Powers, ArtLifting cofounder, said.
“[The goal is to create a company that will] support itself financially, improve the artists’ lives and educate the public about art therapy,” Powers said. “[It is important to] reinvent how we view social enterprises … where we’re not giving handouts but instead giving opportunities to create jobs.”
The venture first began as an annual art sale but had grown into an online marketplace after customers kept asking for more frequent events, Powers said. They had started with four local Boston artists and are now approaching 70 artists throughout eight cities. Instead of relying on charity or donations, ArtLifting has received $1.3 million in seed funding. They made more than $150,000 in sales in 2013, their first year of operation.
This income-generating activity is key to what makes ArtLifting a successful social enterprise, Nina Angeles, assistant director of Northeastern University’s Social Enterprise Institute, said. With this money, the artist is empowered to have more than just a shelter to go to as a short-term option.
Scott Benner, 58, had been homeless for about a year and was staying at a shelter in Quincy when he signed a contract with ArtLifting. The steel supply company he had been working for closed in 2009, and in 2012 he was diagnosed with Horner’s syndrome, which causes headaches, confusion and exhaustion. His wife was diagnosed with cancer five months later.
Selling art changed his life, he said. Besides providing him with income, it motivates him to persevere in life.
“It gave me a sense that I was part of something and could lead the way back,” Benner said. “When you’ve lost everything and have your possessions in a backpack, it can be very easy to just quit.”
Instead of quitting, Benner has created more than 50 pieces of his signature, fine black line abstracts and was able to find housing.
“For the first time in my life, I’m doing something that I have a passion for, using my own hands,” he said. “I feel like I have control over my destiny now.”
Photo by Robert Smith