About four years ago, Katy Collier joined the Two Bettys cleaning service. Scrubbing stovetops, vacuuming up dust bunnies and otherwise keeping clients' homes clean allows her the time, income and intellectual energy to pursue her printmaking and other artistic endeavors.
"I can employ myself as an artist by having this job," she said as she cleaned a house in south Minneapolis. "The artist part is No. 1."
Most of Two Bettys' 100 or so employees are painters, printmakers, musicians or some other kind of artist. The idea behind the business is that cleaning houses sustains the artists and their art.
Collier said cleaning houses is less taxing than other jobs she's held to supplement the income from selling her works.
"I had a job with a nonprofit, before, where I was working over 40 hours a week, sitting at a desk," she said. "Your emotional and brain-power energy is going to that job and not your own art."
A highly educated graduate of Whittier College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Collier said she's also become a student of the domestic arts.
"I've become a vacuum connoisseur," she said. "I really like Dysons or Kenmores."
Fellow artist Anda Tanaka joined Two Bettys as a cleaner soon after graduating from St. Olaf College. She cleaned half-time for two years and now recruits for the company.
"I have a lot of friends who have been Bettys in the past, or are currently Bettys," she said. "A lot of artist friends. I would probably say that between 70 and 80 percent of our cleaners are still artists, musicians, theater folk."
Tanaka has earned praise not just for her art but also for her cleaning skills, earning a profile in Good Housekeeping.
Two Bettys got started about a decade ago, when founder Anna Tsantir and a partner were looking for work that paid well and fit with their artistic pursuits. Referrals for cleaning gigs steadily rolled in. "And soon we were making double what we were making when we were working our arts nonprofit job, and we had all this time to get back into the studio," she said. Tsantir brought other artists on board. Word spread that Two Bettys was a good part-time gig for artists.
She said her business model is unusual, with 70 percent of revenue going to cleaners. They can make about $20 a hour.
"I love teaching the cleaners about how you can balance this work," Tsantir said. "Because we pay higher, you have the time to maybe start up work in your studio and try to get your art out there, or be involved in more theater."
Tsantir recently changed the business and made the cleaners employees instead of contractors. That means they qualify for Social Security, worker's comp and other benefits that accrue to regular employees. It also means greatly increased costs for Tsantir. But she said a progressive approach that looks at more than the bottom line resonates with many of her clients, as does the focus on using natural cleaning products and supporting artists.
"We get to spread the green word," she said.
And word is spreading about the company. In the past two years or so, Two Bettys' client base has increased 50 percent to about 1,400 clients.
Monica Edwards Larson of Minneapolis was among Two Betty's first customers, signing up shortly after getting a yellow Labrador that sheds serious fur.
"I understand what it's like to supplement your income with other sources," said Edwards Larson, a printmaker and art teacher. "That was another reason to hire Two Bettys, to support all kinds of artists in all different media."
And artists do need support, to be sure.
"Artists make considerably less than people with comparable educational attainment," said Ann Markusen, director of the Arts Economy Initiative and the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
A second source of income, Markusen said, is critical for many artists.
"That kind of work that pays you a payroll job where you're regularly paying Social Security taxes and income taxes, and hopefully you have some benefits from your employer ... that is just a very, very big boost," Markusen said.
And Tsantir of Two Bettys said she's honing her business skills to manage her firm's growth and assure that it can provide artists with just such a boost for years to come.