As a part of the Morning Lazziness series about influential women leaders who attained success with their incredible designs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elli Milan.
Elli Milan is the founder of a virtual online art program that is designed to empower artists to smash the starving artist stereotype and make money from their artwork.
Many thanks for doing this for us; please let our users know about yourself and your business, “Milan Art Institute”?
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest with a very Greek dad who immigrated to the US in his college years. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, but my dad always expected my brother to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer and for me to marry the same. In my teenage years, I found my passion for art, went to art school to pursue a career in fine art, and continued to rebel against my father’s Greek system and marry an artist. We enjoyed a successful career of selling our work right out of college, but after 12 years, it began to feel somewhat empty. We had an itch to do more and affect more people. The economic crash in 2008 opened up a new opportunity to move to a property that offered a 2000 sq. ft. multipurpose building- the space that would eventually become Milan Art Institute.
We opened Milan Art Institute in 2010 with a deeper dream of helping people turn their passion for art into a profession. We wanted to take our years of experience and use it to decode the mystery for artists on how to sell their work consistently.
Today, beginners and professionals come to Milan Art Institute to master skills, learn new techniques, and join an ever-expanding community of artists. Together, my family rallied a team of dedicated and talented people who are committed to the same vision. They are exceptional creatives who are painters, entrepreneurs, writers, poets, web designers, businessmen, photographers, video creators, editors, graphic designers, personalities, managers, musicians, and above all, romantics who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world. The purpose of the Milan Art Institute is to enlighten and educate a worldwide audience about the transformational power of the visual arts and instill belief in artists that their dreams are achievable. My team works hard to deliver this purpose each and every day.
What inspired you to become an artist? Your daughter too works with you, so how is your bond with her?
My dad saw my insatiable desire for coloring as a child and encouraged me always to turn it into a profession. He replaced my coloring crayons for drafting tools, a drafting table, electric erasers, and protractors. Instead of coloring books, he gave me large sheets of graph paper with the hope of inspiring me to turn to a career in architecture rather than fine art. My dad prescribed to the belief that artists starve and live desperate lives of regret, wishing they were architects or graphic designers. I filled my graph paper with colorful buildings out of perspective; I used to draw fish swimming in the reefs under the buildings, too, inspired by my family vacation in Hawaii as a child.
When I was a teenager, a switch flipped in my mind. My right brain opened up, and my skill in art improved dramatically. To my father’s surprise, I gave him a large painting I created of two women with flowers all around them and the moon reflecting in the water below them as a 41st birthday present. When I gave it to my dad, I saw him cry. He was shocked by my abilities and creativity; my macho Greek father was touched emotionally. This made me feel incredibly empowered and determined to spend the rest of my life gripping people’s hearts with my art. This was the day I decided I wanted to be an artist.
At the time, I, of course, didn’t know I would marry an artist and have 4 children who would all become professional artists as well. I didn’t have a bigger vision for my life of being a family of artists. Today, I get to live out the incredible experience of working with my family, building the school together, and watching them grow and flourish as artists. Getting to work with Dimitra, my oldest daughter who co-owns the school with me, has been a tremendous joy. She is extremely gifted and influential as a teacher of the arts, an artist, and an entrepreneurial visionary.
Do you think paintings speak and may represent your feelings?
Paintings most definitely speak. They behold secrets and mysteries from another realm where emotional impressions and powerful, timeless messages are encrypted into the colors and brush strokes that create images and forms that speak to our soul. Paintings have a way to bypass our intellect and speak straight to our heart. I love the musical composer Schumann’s definition of an artist, “To shine a light on the human heart is the profession of an artist.” Paint has the means to touch us in a way that words cannot. I have personally witnessed hundreds of people cry, laugh, sigh, and exclaim with emotion at the sight of a piece of artwork. I have seen art heal a broken heart and inspire a weary soul. It is capable of uplifting and motivating us to be better and contend for a beautiful life. Art is truly a profound language of the heart to transform the world.
I’ve always drawn my inspiration for paintings from a spiritual place. The spirit of God is the source that illuminates what I should paint or gives me an inner need or desire to paint certain imagery. With this inspiration leading the way, I paint what comes to me at the moment, letting the paint speak for me and represent the inner workings of my imagination.
I’m inspired by how paint is applied or how the ink will run and bleed, or how the wet colors glisten on the canvas. I’m inspired by the freedom of being in the moment while creating, just watching what the paint does. I aim to keep my inspiration tank full by constantly experiencing the things that inspire me: being in nature, riding my horse on the trails in the forest, looking at other artwork online and in-person, traveling and being with people from other cultures, working out, listening to new music, experimenting with new art materials, and eating out in unique restaurants where the food is prepared with care and excellence. I do things that I love to inspire my work so that my paintings express that emotion to those viewing it.
What are your plans for the future, how do you plan to grow this company?
Milan Art Institute is constantly expanding thanks to our creative team always dreaming up our next big thing. We have many exciting projects currently in the works, one being creating and establishing our own paint. We are in the process of developing a line of paint that challenges the status quo of standard oil colors and will expand artists’ ability to mix a full range of colors. The properties of these new colors will be as intense, saturated, and luminous as we can get.
Another exciting project we are working on is creating our own art platform from scratch for artists and collectors. It will be centered around our social media and community, with social learning and social art patronage. This platform will aid in creating a relationship between artists and patrons. The artist will know their place in culture and significance in shifting culture forward by elevating beauty and painting themes that uplift and bring hope and life. The patron will also know their significance and purpose through art collecting and that their support of artists also shapes culture and brings our world into a better, new day.
The function of the platform will be engaging and innovative, with live portals into artists’ studios, auctions, and reality show style learning of art concepts and art marketing. There will be incentives and gamification for users in the community, and they will be rewarded for positive, encouraging critiques and support. The patrons will have the ability to invest in art in a transparent way – even reselling their acquisitions – and for the first time ever, artists will receive a percentage of the investment increase when their art is resold. Phase one of the platform is due to release at the beginning of September.
How do you help the artists turn their passion for art into a profession? How do you encourage them?
I wake up each day with a goal to help more individuals find purpose. Through Milan Art Institute, I have assisted thousands of people to walk in their destiny and live out their dream of being a professional artist by teaching them that art is their vehicle, but their purpose in life is found in knowing what their superpower is. They learn this superpower by identifying their worst pain. My greatest personal success was overcoming my deepest pain, and it’s a lesson I carry with me and instill in others every chance I get.
As a young woman, I didn’t believe I had worth or value. I spent my twenties and thirties overcoming this and allowing greatness to flourish inside of me, learning that I was valuable and my life had significance. I was worthy of a great life! My superpower has been to help others to know their value and worth because once you know your purpose and why you are here, your life becomes incredibly enriched and fulfilling, and your ability to affect the world for the better is unstoppable. It’s this idea that is the backbone of how I encourage Milan Art Institute students to never give up. They are exactly where they’re meant to be.
I hope to reach more artists who will discover their superpower and share it with the world. When I opened the school in 2010, I learned that alone, I could only affect and influence a few thousand people in my lifetime, but through teaching and mentoring artists, there is a multiplication factor allowing me to potentially affect millions. Sharing my knowledge, mistakes, and victories with others allows more and more individuals to live their dream alongside me, taking their passion for art and making it a profession.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first opened the school in 2010, I had no clue how to run an art school or how to be organized. Thankfully, our first students were patient with me and loved what they were learning enough to give me a pass when it came to a smooth-running operation. I am most proficient at seeing the big picture and often fall short in the details. My daughter Dafni used to help me clean and organize the studio when we first started school. She noticed that I kept buying scissors because I could never seem to find them and had accumulated countless scissors in the process, yet when I needed them, I could never get my hands on a pair. One day she asked me, “Why don’t you buy a cart and label the drawer scissors and put all your scissors in there?” She was only 10 years old, but her wisdom brought me a revelation! What a thought! Rolling carts with labels for the supplies!
This was the beginning of realizing I had some deficiencies, and there were many around me that could make up for my losses. I began seeing a team form where we complement each other in our abilities and aptitudes.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
It’s true that a great idea is not enough. I believe a good idea must be backed by a true vision first. A vision is differentiated from simply a good idea because it is the purpose and sense of destiny that will drive the vision and be the source of necessary passion. I think that purpose and vision come to us from an exterior power source, a muse, or a moment of inspiration. For me, the vision has always come from a spiritual place and happens in a moment, almost like a download, where I can see the blueprints unroll and the plan laid out. It is rare, singular, and very precious to me when it happens. This given vision is what drives me to work hard and believe in the outcome. If I were merely working for my “good ideas,” I worry that I would run out of energy and lose belief in the project. My doubts would tell me, “This is stupid, see? It’s not even working.” I would find it easy to quit when things don’t go my way. Because of vision, when I face adversity, I push through until I begin to see fruitful results. Its vision gives us perseverance. Without perseverance and consistent hard work, we won’t get too far with our ideas.
According to you, what qualities make a person a good and professional artist?
A really great professional artist will be, above all, passionate, persevering, and devoted. If someone works hard gaining skill, growing creativity, and pushing through their self-limiting beliefs, they can be a successful professional artist. Art is no different than any other career. It requires work, dedication, commitment, overcoming obstacles, and a stubborn, steadfast devotion of love. There is a myth out there that says a successful artist is lucky, talented, and someone has discovered them. This is completely untrue. Talent is overrated, and it is not about who you know and being discovered. These mythologies only perpetuate the “starving artist” fable and misinform culture about the arts. Successful artists are professionals with a strong, consistent work ethic and passion and love for what they do, driven by purpose.
What were the top three mistakes you made starting your business, and what did you learn from them?
I made countless mistakes and still do. Mistakes are part of the learning and refining process as long as we make adjustments and see these small setbacks as opportunities for growth. The biggest mistake I made early on is trying to do everything in my own strength. When I looked to only myself and the energy and passion I possessed, I became discouraged and easily distracted. I learned over time that when I felt weak or tired or overwhelmed, I needed to dig deep and trust God. I found that when I looked to the one who originated the vision, I found everything I needed.
Another mistake I made for many years, especially in my art business, was abdicating control to others. I think most artists dream of having some sort of magical savior agent or representative who will handle all of their business dealings and leave them to just paint. This is a huge deception. When I have done this, I was greatly taken advantage of and guided in the wrong direction. The various agents made decisions that were best for the gallery or themselves at my expense. Once I realized I was more than capable of handling my own business and was actually pretty good at it, everything went much better. My true destiny began to take form, and the amount of people I have been able to help has grown significantly. I have found creativity and joy in building business, and an entrepreneurial spirit has always been in me.
Lastly, a mistake I have made often and hope to continue to learn from is communication. Clear and precise communication is crucial in building a business. Making sure that team members are all on the same page with the same targets and objectives is really important. Finding systems and protocols for solid communication is something we are working on. When a business grows quickly, often these protocols lag behind and get missed, and it can result in disorganization, or even worse, confusion and miscommunications that become bigger problems. I think it is important for leaders to consistently reiterate the vision to the team and adhere to consistent systems for communication and carrying out tasks.
Mistakes are inevitable and really important to experience in order to grow. I have grown a lot more through my mistakes than I have through my successes.
What have been your biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
The 2008 financial crisis will always come to mind as a challenge where I knew I had to persevere, or I’d lose everything I had worked so hard for to become a professional artist. I was experiencing success selling my artwork, and as quickly as the success came, it had suddenly disappeared. My dealer stopped buying work from artists for the time being, and I couldn’t make any sales. My husband and I held out hope and finally decided in 2009 to bring our art to a gallery and try to sell our work independently. We invested close to 20K in Art Expo New York and naively informed our dealer that we would be there. He simply told us, “Good luck.”
Opening day, we realized quickly as gallery owners and designers kept their heads down, passing our booth that we had been blacklisted. One brave gallery owner from the UK told us that our dealer spoke to everyone he could that if they bought directly from us or were seen talking to us, he would never do business with them again.
After three days, we had not made one sale. Money was tight after the crash, and we spent our last pennies on this show. We faced the possibilities of financial devastation and having to get menial jobs we probably weren’t qualified for. The fourth day was our only chance at sales since the 5th day was expecting a blizzard of snow and no patrons.
All day, our booth was full of people admiring our work and saying they would come back to buy art. The show ended at 5 pm, and by 4 pm we still had not sold any work! I was desperate and frustrated. Finally, at exactly 4 pm, a gallery owner named Heim from Heifa, Israel, who was our show neighbor hosting the booth across from us, walked into our booth and said, “I can’t take it! You no sell! They come, they leave, and they come back, and you STILL no sell! You terrible salesman! MOVE! I will sell for you!”
In moments, he walked up to someone looking at a piece of artwork. He talked with them for a few minutes and then came over to me and said, “this piece is $5,000; you take $4,500?” I said, “YES!! Of course!” a second later, he nodded his head and pointed to the bubble wrap. As soon as I finished bubble wrapping that piece, he had another lined up for someone else. In just 45 minutes, he sold over $20,000 in artwork!
My life returned to me at that moment, and I held back my tears of gratitude all the way until I made it to my hotel. The moment the door shut behind me, I threw myself on the bed and bawled into my pillow for a solid 15 minutes. We learned a lot about the system of the establishment art world that week, and we learned a lot about ourselves. It was a turning point in our career.
What helps you stay driven and motivated to keep going in your business?
I feel like I have always had a natural drive within me to succeed and to do my best. My mother instilled in me very early in life to always apply my full effort into anything I do. I have always been goal-driven and achievement-oriented. I am super inspired and motivated by watching students succeed and see their dreams come to fruition. It is a thrill to be part of so many individuals’ journeys from casual hobby painters to full-time professionals. Witnessing the progression from unbelief to hope, to seeing results and believing, is something I don’t think I will ever get tired of. I love being a part of the transformation and seeing people come alive and live out their true destinies.
I am driven by the vision I received and growing the business into this vision. We have markers and goals written down with dates on them to help us stay focused and on track for growth. Achieving these goals builds our confidence and belief that we will arrive at the vision. I also think growing the vision and dreaming bigger each year helps keep all of us motivated to work hard and expend our full effort.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Be militant to overcoming pride: Pride is our enemy and holds most artists back. It keeps us from trying new things or being open to suggestions. Pride makes everything all about YOU, but it’s so much bigger than YOU. It’s about them. Pride will keep you from being an incredible artist because you will create artwork from yourself, rather than being a conduit and allowing the muse to flow through you.
- Be generous: The more you give, the more you get. There is no lack in an artist’s life. Be generous with your heart, with your paint, your knowledge, your time. This will keep you from being jealous or competitive. Lavish your art friends with encouragement, and tell them what they did right. When they succeed or sell a painting, celebrate with them. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed. Share opportunities or contacts with other artists- in doing so, you will receive more opportunities and contacts. I remember the first time I taught artist marketing to a group of artists. I was telling them my secrets on how to get into a gallery, or how to contact publishers, or how to create sellable artwork, and at first, I felt worried. I thought I was creating competition for myself, and all these artists would take away my opportunities. I was thinking from a place of poverty instead of abundance. Once I realized it and knew that the more I shared, the more it positioned me to receive, I just let it go. I felt great joy in sharing my knowledge and experience. This was about 3 years before I opened the school. The shift in my heart allowed me the opportunity to have an art school. How could I be trusted with an art school if I was greedy and held back my knowledge just because of fear?
- Do not abdicate control of your business to others: When I was younger, I lacked confidence that I could do the business side of my art career and allowed others to “take care” of me. This was, again, not understanding my value and worth or realizing how powerful I could be. I let my insecurities rule over me and looked to others “who knew better.” I learned the very hard way that giving my art business to others to manage when I didn’t know how to do it myself was a huge mistake. It caused me to be taken advantage of, stolen from, cheated, misdirected, and as a result, my success was slowed. I should have done the marketing pieces myself until I learned and understood the process and then hired someone else to take it on so that I could at least oversee what they were doing and understand the direction my brand was going. After many setbacks, I learned I had to do things myself at first until I learned. For example, I learned how to create and manage my own website, set up eCommerce, and connect emails and shipping. Once I mastered those skills, I could hire it out. Knowing all the intricacies of your art business is crucial, and we should not give control away to others.
- Branding is dominion- you are your brand, not your art: Your art is only an expression of your brand. Always be true to yourself and put your authentic story out there. Don’t try to be someone you are not- instead, embrace the true you with boldness and wholeheartedness. Don’t shrink back. If you put yourself out there and stay true to your brand, you will attract the right audience. Your message will resonate with enough people. Don’t try to contort your brand to fit a mold or be who you think the world wants you to be. Be yourself truly, and you will do your part to change the world.
- Hard work & perseverance, not talent: To be a successful artist, it takes consistent hard work, passion, and perseverance- and that is all. I used to think it took talent and luck or knowing the right people. This is 100% false. It’s a deception to think that you are so talented, and it only takes someone to discover you. Talent is overrated, and no one wants to discover you. That is just for the movies. Like anything else, success in art takes diligence, hard work, putting in the hours every week, painting when you don’t feel like it, knowing your WHY, developing good habits, and honing your skills. It absolutely is not, like the fairy tales make it seem, easy, luck, talent, magic, a gift, being discovered, or genetics. This myth just fuels the starving artist stereotype because it causes the artist to languish in resistance as they wait for their savior to discover them and launch them into fame. Since it doesn’t happen, they are unsuccessful and then claim they are a starving artist, while the artist who works hard consistently and behaves like a professional will achieve great things just to be told they are lucky and talented.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself, “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?
I honestly have not thought this even once. Having a “real” job is so far out of my scope, I don’t even consider it. I have thought about escaping to a beach house in Greece with my little dog to just be an artist and paint, but I know that at this time, that would be a huge violation of my true authentic destiny, and it’s not what I’m meant to do. I know in the end, it would not be fulfilling, and I would let down thousands of artists in our community. This feeling to live more simply only rarely comes when I get discouraged or overwhelmed, and it fades away quickly. I pray all the time that my desires will be aligned with my destiny and purpose. I do this often so that I can trust my desires and know that they will guide me toward the future I am meant to live out.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.