From the March 2016 issue of The Rotarian
When Liz Powers went to Harvard University, she saw the huge homeless population in the Boston area and volunteered to help. “Lots of them said to me, ‘Liz, I’m incredibly lonely.’ Bringing them together didn’t seem like rocket science,” says Powers, 28. An artist, she received a post-graduation fellowship from Harvard to create art groups in women’s shelters, giving people a creative outlet and a way to socialize. Today the former global grant scholar is co-founder and “chief happiness spreader” of ArtLifting, a corporation that gives homeless and disabled artists the opportunity to earn income through the sales of their work.
THE ROTARIAN: How did ArtLifting come about?
POWERS: In 2011 and 2012, I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, on a Rotary global grant scholarship, where I earned a master’s in interdisciplinary creative practices. I had my first exposure to for-profit social enterprises and began thinking about how I could create scalable, sustainable impact.
When I came back to the United States, I ran an annual art show for homeless artists, and I realized, “This is just one day a year, and it’s just in Boston. How can I help artists across the country every day?”
My brother and I started ArtLifting in 2013. We each put in $2,000, and that has turned into six figures of revenue. Our goal is to help homeless and disabled artists sell their work. Because I had done these art groups and seen all this amazing artwork ending up in shelter closets, it was a no-brainer: The supply was already there; it was just a matter of enabling customers to see it.
TR: How does ArtLifting affect the lives of these artists?
POWERS: So many of them are used to people focusing on the negative, saying, “You don’t have housing,” or “You’re in a wheelchair.” At ArtLifting, we say, “Wow, you created this,” and then watch their confidence rise. Five of our artists have gained housing largely because of the domino effect of that confidence. Not only do they have the revenue from selling their art, but they also have the energy to go do housing applications or get a side job.
One of our clients had been a steelworker. His company shut down during the recession. His wife got cancer, and they used their savings to pay her medical bills, and then they separated and he ended up homeless. His story sounds depressing, but he sees it as a blessing in many ways, because for the first time, he has an opportunity to sell his art. He has housing now, and he’s even had a show at a gallery.
TR: Why did you decide to make ArtLifting a for-profit enterprise?
POWERS: ArtLifting is filed as a public benefit corporation. What that means is we’re for-profit, but we also have a legally binding social mission. That gave us the freedom to launch and scale much more quickly than a nonprofit would. But the biggest reason [not to be a nonprofit] came from our artists. They want to be treated with dignity. It made a lot of sense to create a for-profit business that works just like a for-profit art gallery, so they can be treated as professionals. They don’t want a handout.