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Artist starts service representing his peers

Yaakov Bar Am is a busy man.

The 48-year-old Verizon analyst is also a well-known woodworker, a custom furniture maker and owner of two online businesses, Kaplan's Books and Furniture, and Furniture By Yaakov.

He's also an Orthodox Jew and the father of four girls and a 4-month-old son.

But, the Pikesville area resident has recently taken on a new challenge, which could be his biggest yet.

With the help of a Mount Washington woman, he has started the Maryland Artisan Guild, which represents artists by showcasing their work at art shows, posting samples of their work online and doing many of their administrative chores.

"Since we are artists too, we understand that you'd rather be creating," states the guild's website, "That's why we handle all the tasks you don't have time to do. We will bring your work to shows, assist you with Internet and social media exposure, provide you with an e-commerce platform and look for ways to publicize your work to maximize your sales."

MAG, as the service is known, started in August and is the only model of its kind in the Baltimore region, Bar Am said.

He said he represents nine clients from Bethesda to Lancaster, Pa., and charges modest fees, including a 20 percent cut of sales at shows and 10 percent of online sales. He and the client split the cost of him being in a show, he said.

The goal of the Maryland Artisan Guild is to relieve professional artists of some of their business burdens — especially in a tough economy — so that they can focus on their art, Bar Am said.

He has high hopes for the service, if only as a way of helping struggling artists survive.

"MAG isn't going to be a cash cow," Bar Am said. "I'm going to make a little money."

And, he sees an indirect benefit, figuring, "As MAG does better, Furniture By Yaakov will do better, too."

But he sees MAG more as an altruistic service.

"Things are so bad in the economy (that) we need to buy local," he said. "I want to bring more art into the world."

That's the way Mount Washington's Vera Sturm sees it, too.

"Any business needs to make money but I don't think that's the spirit of MAG, " said Sturm, 40. The former mental health therapist met Bar Am through a mutual friend, and now is his assistant.

Sturm, a Catholic from Portugal, also substitutes for Bar Am at art shows, especially on Saturdays, when Bar Am can't work because of his religious beliefs.

Sturm, who is not an artist, earns a percentage of art sales at shows, and gets a finder's fee for each client she recruits.

She said she plans to talk about the Maryland Artisan Guild to students at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

She also plans to go to art stores in Hampden, Federal Hill, Fells Point and other communities in the region to try to convince them to sell MAG clients' artwork.

"It's to help others, that's how I look at it," she said.

Kevin Bedgood is grateful for any help he can get. A professional wood turner, who specializes in making wooden bowls on a lathe, Bedgood, of Lancaster, Pa., used to make his living exclusively as an artist.

But in the economic downturn, Bedgood, 47, now has a job as district manager for a chain of men's clothing stores and has little time to market his artwork.

He met Bar Am about three years ago at a meeting of the Baltimore Area Turners club. They stayed friends on Facebook and when Bar Am started the Maryland Artisan Guild, Bedgood became a client.

"It works very well for me," said Bedgood, who sells bowls for as much as $3,000. "Starving artists are not starving because of their art. They are starving artists because of their sales skills."

Bar Am, who is an accomplished woodworker in his own right, sells his furniture for thousands of dollars. In his house is a highboy made of maple that sells for $1,800. He calls it a "Chai boy," a pun on the Jewish word for "life."

Bar Am is doing his part to breathe life into the local art world. He worries about the future of independent artists, saying some tell him they once made as much as $10,000 a weekend at shows and fairs.

"I think those days are disappearing," he said. "One day, God willing, things are going to get better."

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