Business, Top Story

BC Alum Spencer Powers Creates New Marketplace For Homeless, Disabled Artists

At least for a moment, Spencer Powers, BC ’07, was in an unfamiliar situation.

Powers returned to the Boston College campus on Tuesday night to speak with students in the BC Venture Competition club, as well as the participants of its social entrepreneurship “seed” competition. At the front of a room in Fulton Hall, Powers gave feedback on student proposals, and shared his own thoughts to those interested in service-oriented business ventures.

Powers is the 30-year-old co-founder of ArtLifting, an online marketplace that sells artwork from homeless and disabled individuals in therapeutic programs. He had no prior entrepreneurship experience as a BC student, but his passion for service drove him to help create his own startup. A graduate of BC High and BC, Powers has taken many of the University’s values to heart, and works to incorporate them on a daily basis while managing his new company in Boston.

“The mission of the Jesuits has always resonated with me,” Powers said. “It has always been a part of our family and my daily life.”

Powers and his sister Liz co-founded the low-profit limited liability company in Dec. 2013, and the venture has quickly grown to support 50 artists in seven major U.S. cities across the country. Before the idea took off, Liz Powers wanted to make an impact through her work. After graduating from Harvard and completing a senior thesis on the benefits of art therapy, Liz decided to work at homeless and disabled shelters for eight years and developed close relationships with the program directors and artists. She created and ran art groups in women’s shelters in Boston, and was amazed by the talent she encountered. As a social worker and artist herself, Liz combined the two interests and created “City Heart,” an annual art show that brought together eight homeless shelters in the city. Spencer Powers joined his sister by coordinating some of the business logistics of the event.

“We started working together on the annual art show, and it became clear that these groups of people need to continue to share their work not just on one day, but year-round,” Powers said.

In May 2013, the brother-sister duo set out to build something bigger, a program that would eventually help many more homeless and disabled individuals not only in the city, but across the country. Throughout the summer, they set out to make their idea a reality. The goal was to build a business that would have a strong social mission, but also be financially sustainable and not need to rely on outside donations to operate.

By September, a plan was in motion. The siblings met at a pub in Harvard Square to go over the business model, and immediately began working to create ArtLifting. Liz contacted local artists at therapeutic centers to obtain their paintings, and put images of their works online. Spencer began building the website and some of the smaller tasks of creating a company—like filing for legal status. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the website launched with a total of four artists collaborating in the venture.

“When we launched, we thought people would find us online and explore our artwork and buy it,” Powers said. “One thing we quickly found out was that it is really hard to get people to realize you exist online.”

With a significant amount of competition from other artwork sites online, ArtLifting initially struggled to get exposure. After the Boston Globe ran an article about the startup, however, many people visited the website and began taking an interest in the artwork. By the end of their first month live, the four artists sold a total of $11,000 worth of artwork. Additionally, three marginalized artists made over $1,000 in that first month—providing enough personal income for some to fund their own homes.

In recent years, art has become an increasingly popular method of therapy, particularly for those facing economic or physical hardships. Many therapeutic initiatives are instituted at homeless shelters and disability programs as an opportunity for these individuals to share their artwork, and potentially earn an income.

“There are a lot of people who suffer from disadvantages who have the opportunity to create beautiful artwork,” Powers said. “The purpose of creating the artwork is for the therapy. It is peaceful. It is creative. It is tangible.”

After the startup’s successful first month, a number of homeless and disability shelters found out about ArtLifting online and reached out to the Powers siblings. Miami was the first city outside of Boston that partnered with ArtLifting, and a number of others followed, including New Jersey, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin.

While the company was growing, the team worked out of Liz’s apartment or wherever they could find space. In the spring of 2014, ArtLifting was accepted to the prestigious startup accelerator, MassChallenge, which provided free office space. Currently, ArtLifting is splitting time between MassChallenge and Harvard’s Launch Lab, and the team is not sure where it will be headquartered in the next few months.

“We’re very fortunate there is a kind of entrepreneurial ecosystem built for young startups and that makes it easy to work from anywhere,” Powers said.

Looking to the future, Powers wants ArtLifting to become the go-to online marketplace for art. The company has grown tenfold in just one year and aims to continue to expand globally and help an increased number of artists earn their own income. Powers is currently working part-time on ArtLifting while he dedicates his days as a Management student at MIT, but he spends much of his spare time investigating licensing opportunities for artwork and reaching out to large brands and corporations selling products that could be decorated with artwork from ArtLifting.

“While art therapy doesn’t exist solely for artists to sell their work, having that opportunity can help people,” Powers said. “Companies like Toms Shoes have grown to be very successful while also embracing a social mission, and we would love to become that for art.”


Featured Images Courtesy of ArtLifting

April 9, 2015