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I went to college on an engineering scholarship, then switched to math. I got my masters in market research, with a focus on the statistics. My mother was a teacher. My father was a CPA. My sister is a CPA, and my other sister is a software developer. Most of my uncles and cousins are engineers and architects.

So what, you might ask, am I doing starting three businesses in the art world? Because I discovered very early on that art was magic, and it became my passion. And I have somehow managed to build a career by combining my genetic predisposition for numbers with a passion for all things creative.

In 1985, I started my first business in New York, THE GUILD. We published directories that connected artists doing commissions with designers and architects. That business ran successfully for 24 years, and helped thousands of artists get commissions around the world.

Along came the Internet in the early 90s, and I became convinced that the world wide web was really invented for the art world — because it had the potential to connect all of these people for a variety of different purposes. In 1995 we created a website for THE GUILD; it was a portal that listed commission opportunities. It allowed designers and architects to post commissions, and artists to respond to the postings. This was in the early days, and none of us knew what we were doing, but I had found the way to combine my love of technology with my love for art.

My second business, Artful Home, was launched in 1998 and was a pioneer ecommerce business that sold artist-made products for the home. We raised a bunch of money (over $50 million) from venture capitalists, in part, because we had developed one of the very early virtual inventory systems. We used the Internet to connect the customer with the artist, track orders and ship dates and the artist shipped directly to the customer. That’s when I learned that EVEN ART PEOPLE CAN HAVE HIGH-POWERED SOFTWARE.

I have spent my entire career marketing the work of artists, essentially trying to help artists make a living through their art. This journey has brought me to where I am today with CODAworx, the hub of the commissioned art economy. CODAworx is a professional network and community that showcases commissioned artwork. We bring together all of the players involved in these works, from the artist to the designer, the architect, the engineer, the lighting designer, the fabricator — all of the resources needed to create amazing site-specific art installations. We also provide digital tools and services to facilitate the commission process.

After a 30-year career in the arts world, I truly believe that something unprecedented is happening, a paradigm shift is taking place. This shift is reshaping what artists are: how they work, train, trade, collaborate, think of themselves, and are thought of.

I see two key changes happening today:

Thirty years ago, when I started in the business of commissioned art, the tools and materials available to artists were paint and paintbrushes, glass, metal, ceramics and wood.

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Today, the possible tools and materials are endless. At CODAworx, we see artists working in light, sound, natural elements, community engagement. But by far, the most important new tool in the artist toolbox is technology. Digital creativity has unleashed a cornucopia of imaginative projects.

Because of these new tools and materials and what they enable artists to create, artists are more important to our society than they ever have been before. Often, their work is fueled by the desire to solve real-world problems, or to raise provocative questions, or to offer a refuge from those real-world problems. This is not art that hangs on the wall, although it can be. Today’s art can also take the form of a dance or a game or even a science experiment.

Such artworks often raise awareness about environmental and social issues, the importance off innovation and creativity, or increasing community engagement and pride. This means a whole new vision of what art is and why it matters.

The second key change in the art world:

Commissioned art, created with new tools and materials, are by their very nature collaborative.

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Technology has taught us the value of collaboration. Reed Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, says, “Collaboration means we do something better when we do it together.”

Our culture has become increasingly interconnected — across geography and across disciplines. At CODAworx, we see artwork collaborations that include participants from a large number of disparate fields, including industrial design, science and engineering, urban design and architecture. In these projects, art has become an instrument to produce ideas. As a result, there is amazing creativity, as one discipline informs the other. The lines are truly blurring with interdisciplinary problem solving.

Some of the most exciting projects are the ones that make use of both sides of the brain, and require the collaborations of artists, scientists, and technologists. It is so confirming to me, because it reinforces my belief that EVEN ART PEOPLE CAN HAVE HIGH-POWERED SOFTWARE, or in many cases, access to the latest in science and technology.

I can’t wait to see what artists come up with tomorrow using the new tools at their disposal and working collaboratively. But I am certain that it will be magic.

Read more from the thought leaders of the creative economy here


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Toni Sikes is a successful serial entrepreneur with 30 years of operational, fundraising and investment banking experience. She currently serves as founder and CEO of CODAworx, a global online community that showcases and celebrates design projects featuring commissioned artwork in interior and architectural spaces. Since 2010 Sikes has been General Partner with Calumet Venture Fund, a venture capital firm investing in early stage technology companies in the Midwest. As the founder of The Guild, a pioneer ecommerce company that brought the work of artists directly to consumers, Sikes raised over $52 million from leading venture capital firms including Benchmark Capital and Technology Crossover Ventures in Silicon Valley, Dolphin Equity Partners in New York, and ePartners (Rupert Murdoch’s venture firm) based in London. Today, The Guild markets artist-created products under the consumer brand of Artful Home, and is the largest retailer of artist-made work in the U.S.

Sikes has authored several books, and is a recognized expert in the area of online marketing of luxury products to consumers. Sikes serves on the boards and advisory board of several technology companies and the Board of Directors of the Craft Emergency Relief Fund, an organization that supplies grants and loans to artists who have suffered disasters. She holds a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Alabama and an M.S. in Market Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. @CODAworx

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