Seth Minkin

Starting this week, we are going to be doing a short series on careers at the outskirts of the innovation economy. We will be featuring creative entrepreneurs who have found their own unique, niche jobs in Boston’s growing tech community. This week, we talk to Seth Minkin, the artist-in-residence at BzzAgent/dunnhumby.

Seth B. Minkin met Dave Balter (umm…co-founder/president/chief executive/partner of BzzAgent, dunnhumby Ventures, Boston Seed, Smarterer, among others) on the campus of Skidmore College in the early 90s. Rolling in the same circles, they quickly realized they had some common interests even though Minkin was majoring in art and Balter was majoring in psychology.

Years later, Balter re-connected with Minkin in San Francisco, and asked the artist to create a couple of pieces of art for the space that Balter’s then-new company BzzAgent was going to be moving to on Summer Street.

So Minkin created a couple of unique pieces for Balter. One was a beehive, which Minkin described as “kind of funky and loose.” The other, which Minkin thought was “kind of profound,” was a big bee made up of thousands of little bees, representing lots of people working together toward one common goal.

“People loved it,” Minkin said, “and those two paintings started something in that they were very polarizing, they got people in the space thinking that the company was cool and hip.”

After some time in Chicago and occasional work for Balter, Minkin moved back to Boston  in 2007 — he’s originally from Hull — and worked on Bento Box for BzzAgent, which was a blog that had an “inside-out perspective” of what was happening at the company with lots of interactive pieces of Minkin’s artwork.

Eventually, Minkin became the company’s artist-in-residence, setting up a studio space in the back of the office. “People got used to having me around,” he said, “and they started to noticed more and more art around the office.”

Early on, Minkin would travel with Balter around the country for BzzAgent networking events. While Balter would try to win new customers and businesses, Minkin would set up shop in the back of conference rooms to paint hundreds of individualized “Randy Bees” for attendees.

At first, the folks at the events, normally very serious affairs, would just look at him and try to figure out what he was doing there. But after Balter’s pitch and some cocktails, people would be excited about having a unique piece of art — tiny bees with minuscule “dirty” bits added to them — and would even request personalized bees.

As Minkin said, “At first, people would be like, who is this random dude in the back of the room painting. But it ended up being a real icebreaker, especially because of the tongue-in-cheek sexuality.”

The best thing about working at the dunnhumby offices (dunnhumby acquired BzzAgent in 2011) is the structure of the office, Minkin said. Having an office to go each and every day is not the standard practice for an artist. However, being surrounded by startups working to create businesses is a inspirational and infectious he explained.

The massive dunnhumby office at 500 Harrison in the South End is covered with Minkin’s work, large and small. There are massive elephants and various other animals that cover entire walls, interpretive maps of the U.S. and New York City’s streets, and smaller paintings of various Buddha figures and even Colonial Sanders.

So why does Balter have Minkin squatting in his office hanging paintings all over the place?

“He’s here because we wanted to continue to remind ourselves that creativity is in everything we do,” Balter said. “Often, businesses focus on their processes and getting stuff done, but nothing is possible without the creative element.  Having an artist-in-residence helps balance the business and creative spirits.”

“Plus, Minkin is a hoot,” he added, “and damn it, his art is awesome.”

As Minkin said, “Having art in the office, it gets your head out that cubicle farm, helps to overcome the, ‘I’m trapped in this weird box mentality.'”

“It’s certainly worth rent,” he said. “So it’s kind of a wash, which is why I’ve been squatting there for so long and why it works so well. It’s worth it to them for that…and I get parking, which is very sexy.”

Working in the startup world has also allowed Minkin to connect with some impressive tech industry leaders who have commissioned him to do work, including Jeff Taylor of Monster.com and marketing guru Seth Godin.

Working on a smaller version of Minkin’s “Sumo Wrestler” for Godin was a really cool moment for the artist, especially getting to work with and for someone else who is, as Minkin said, “a creative mind and established to the point of being a big deal.”

“It made me feel like a big deal, which I got over really quickly.”

The hardest part of being an artist-in-residence for a startup is keeping some of his “street cred,” Minkin explained. He has often had to turn down jobs that were a little too outside the scope of his portfolio.

“You have to be smart to protect your brand,” he said. “What part of big rhinoceros paintings and classic Harleys tells you that I’m going to be great at making a painting of your twin daughters in front of the Eiffel Tower? How do you connect those dots?”

“It’s hard with art because you don’t know where the next dollar is going to come from.”

However, with a recent gallery show at 500 Harrison, pieces that can fetch $40,000, and a fall gallery show at the Liberty Hotel on October 7, being tech’s artist-in-residence has been good for the career thus far.

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