Shortly into the COVID-19 lockdowns, the publisher of a couple of prominent art magazines started hearing from readers: “They were scared,” says Eric Rhoads, founder of Fine Art Connoisseur and PleinAir magazines. “Everyone thought their world was going to come crashing down. I felt like I needed to help them somehow feel things were going to be OK.”
But he was scared: His company, Streamline Publishing, had received more than $250,000 in refund requests from people who had planned to attend his plein air art convention that spring and were afraid they’d be unable to go. Just as refund checks were going out, advertising contracts started being cancelled. Within a week, the magazines saw a 50% drop in business.
“Not only was I trying to figure out what to do for my readers, I was facing the potential end of my business,” Rhoads says. But he soon received an e-mail from the chairman of his board, Keith Cunningham, author of The Road Less Stupid. Cunningham wrote that board members needed to pivot, and fast.
Rhoads decided to make 10% cuts across the board. “We all took a salary reduction, and we laid off 10% of the staff,” he says. “Though difficult, we knew if we didn’t do something fast, we would be risking deeper layoffs.”
Live events were the company cash cow, producing most of its profit. No virtual art events had yet been announced, but Rhoads raised the idea in an executive meeting and got full support.
Yet he still had not addressed how to soothe the fears of his artist and art-collector readers. He asked himself what he’d wanted as a child when he was frightened: “I realized I’d wanted reassurance from my parents. So I decided to give my readers that reassurance.” But how?
“I needed to be there for them every day, and I needed to signal that I was upbeat and feeling OK about things.” So Rhoads chose to go live at noon seven days a week on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. That first week, he told viewers, “I’ll be here for you as long as the lockdowns go on.”
Rhoads says, “I really had to push myself to come up with ideas to keep people interested and entertained every day. I started adding advice for artists, and eventually I started having guest artists, teaching people their techniques.”
His YouTube channel, Streamline Art Video, grew to 65,000 subscribers, and after a few months, his average live audience was several thousand people and replays were averaging 10,500 views each day. Some artists drew even larger audiences: “We had some daily broadcasts reach 150,000 people in a day.” For learning about art, these are impressive numbers.
“The best part was, the strategy was working,” says Rhoads. “People told me it was just what they needed, it had given them something to do and lifted their spirits. People told me they discovered how to paint for the first time. Others said they had given up painting, but this inspired them to come back to it.”
Rhoads showed up seven days a week for seven months. “As things loosen up, I’ll have to return to my live events and other responsibilities, so it’s getting harder. But I feel like I really helped people. And frankly, it helped me personally, and helped my business.”
And how did Rhoads’ business strategy work? The first virtual convention saved his company, bringing in enough to keep going. Ultimately Rhoads did two virtual events in 2020, Plein Air Live for landscape painters and Realism Live for portrait/figure painters. “We were able to hire back most of the people we laid off,” he says. “And we brought salaries back to normal and paid back what people missed. It was a big win.”
Sales of the company’s art instruction videos also grew. “It’s a good thing, because we normally would release new ones every month, but we couldn’t because artists couldn’t get to our studios to shoot.” To help people out and stimulate business, Streamline did deep discounting of the company’s full-length videos throughout the lockdowns.
After initial advertising declines, Streamline managed to increase magazine distribution almost 400% and kept advertising levels strong; one issue, in fact, broke all advertising records in the 15-year history of the magazines.
With his daily online presence, Rhoads made lots of new friends, and even ended up with a fan club. “People have told us we made a big difference and helped them remain sane. Some were alone, and this gave them a daily purpose. I’ll never regret it. Survival was critical — not just our survival, the survival of the people we support.
“Even though I’d rather not have gone through this, it made us stronger and more creative.”
Today, along with artist retreats, conventions, trips for artists and collectors, and more, Streamline has added two new virtual conventions — Pastel Live for pastel painters; and Watercolor Live for watercolor artists.
Asked what he’d do differently if he had to do it again, Rhoads says, “I’m not sure I’d change a thing. Helping people through this difficult time and giving them some hope was worth the effort. Painting changes lives, and it’s my hope we changed a few along the way.”