Art and Business Work Together for Allison Anderson McKee

May 24, 2010 — After winning a 2008 University of Virginia art contest, Allison Anderson McKee decided to start a business to sell her art. With help from the McIntire School of Commerce's master's degree program, she tackled the many challenges of starting a small business, and has generated regular painting commissions. In the process, she also landed a job at one of the world's leading business consulting firms, where she expects to be a stronger employee thanks to her unusual path.

In the fall of her fourth year, McKee, a studio art and American studies major, applied for a job with Bain and Company, a leading global business consulting firm. When she didn't make the final round of interviews, she followed up with her interviewer, who noted that amid the economic downturn, Bain wasn't willing to take a risk on new hires without strong business training or experience.   

With encouragement from her interviewer – Melissa Manczak Burke, a 2001 graduate of U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science – McKee opted to gain those skills through McIntire's M.S. in Commerce program, in tandem with starting a business to sell her art.

The business idea was born after Anderson won the U.Va. Alumni Association's 2008 student art contest with a painting of Pavilion IX, and her best friend's mother, a Darden graduate, pointed out the significant market for U.Va.-related art.

Having done dozens of landscapes inspired by the Academical Village, McKee founded Allison Anderson Art to sell her art, including drink coaster sets featuring six of her paintings of Grounds.  

After researching how and where to have them made, she contracted with a manufacturer in China to produce 2,000 sets, the minimum order.

Selling the coasters at $15 a set generates little profit, she said, but serves as advertising that has led to a number of commissions for paintings. She has sold more than half the coaster sets over the past year, and hopes to clear out the rest with a surge of sales around graduation.

"The best part is it's a great way to connect with folks who love U.Va." she said.

Her time for painting would likely have fallen by the wayside in the rush of other life commitments, she said, had not the stream of coaster-related compliments and commissions pushed her to keep painting regularly.

Her business also made McKee a better student at McIntire, where it functioned as her own personal case study, she said. During every class, McKee considered how lessons might apply to her art business.

"It definitely made me more engaged as a student," she said.

Marketing lessons often were most applicable, and her favorite class was professor Carrie Heilman's brand management class, McKee said. In it she came to appreciate the importance of managing her "brand" as an artist.

"Just as Nike would like you to see their swoosh logo and immediately think of athleticism," Heilman said, "an artist would like people to look at their art and immediately identify them as the artist."

Looking at the Allison Anderson website, it's clear that McKee has absorbed important lessons on "target market identification, the delivery of a relevant and consistent brand message and product line management," Heilman said. "I am really proud of Alli."

McKee's studio art adviser, professor Megan Marlatt, agrees. "Her Allison Anderson Art business combines the best of what she learned in the studio department with what she has learned in the Commerce School."

Armed with the new skills, McKee applied again to Bain. This time around, she was offered a position in their San Francisco office, starting this fall.

McKee plans to keep learning and building skills at Bain. "My favorite thing in the world is learning," she said. Consulting offers "a great opportunity to continue learning, about different industries and business problems."

Consulting will draw on the problem-solving and analytical skills she learned from her American studies major and the McIntire M.S. in Commerce program, and her artistic creativity will be an asset during client presentations, she predicted.

She expects she will have to take a break from painting when she starts her new job, but after she finds a regular rhythm to the new life, she hopes to be able to reintegrate art into her schedule. "I may be exhausted at Bain, but I can use my painting to unwind and continue the creative process, which should make me a better employee – less stressed out and more creative."

— By Brevy Cannon