Being an artist is a lifelong vocation. How do you want to be recognized when you’re gone? And how can you plan for your art to sustain you while you’re still here?
A career doesn’t last for just a season, or a few years. Creatives should be prepared for the long haul, with its inevitable ups and downs. Throughout my own professional evolution over the past twenty years, I’ve weathered recessions and economic meltdowns, and I’ve also witnessed how the internet has revolutionized the way that artists and others can do business. In this current moment, when a crisis continues to undermine global markets in general, it’s even more vital to think about the big picture.
But first, look at the positive side of the equation. Digital connectivity has given us an expanded notion of what “community” can mean, and it’s also given ordinary individuals the access to unprecedented waves of information. What’s more, it’s made it...
You’re not going to be able to do this on your own.
No matter how much of an artistic genius you are, or how much of a social butterfly, you’re going to need to make a concerted effort to truly make your career go stratospheric. You’re going to need a leg up, literally, from very special people that I like to call “helpers.”
Who and what is a “helper,” exactly? It might be your grad school advisor, a wealthy uncle who bought your first painting, a therapist, or a fellow artist who is a bit further along in her career. No matter how compelling your artwork is, you’re going to need the leverage and support of people like this in order to truly make it.
When I started my gallery back in 2001, I didn’t have much of a network. My first helpers, of course, were the artists themselves, the brilliant individuals who joined my program and allowed me to accompany them on a joint creative journey. After that, I moved on to a new tier of...
If you’re an artist, it’s simple: You want to make art. “If I could spend 95% of my waking life in the studio,” you might think, “I’d be truly happy and fulfilled. It would be a dream come true.”
Let’s ponder that for a minute, though. Is the life of a creative really one of blissful solitude, with all the other stuff of life—parties, dinners, conferences, classes—just distractions along the way? Or could those “distractions” actually be the very opportunities that can unexpectedly push your practice to the next level?
Your career isn’t just the sum of the work you make in the studio, however amazing that work might be. It’s the story you tell about that work—the reasons you felt compelled to create it and share it with the world. It’s also the story you tell about yourself, the brand you build to explain your passions to collectors, curators, and peers.
The internet has made us a swiftly...
Part of your plan should be to plan.
As most MFA graduates can attest to, art school is not a place that prioritizes career planning. Indeed, it saddles some students a with a sad prejudice: They think that simply having a plan in this regard goes against what it means to be an authentic artist.
That’s completely backwards! Indeed, you need to master things like how to market yourself to galleries and collectors; how to secure a studio in a competitive market; and how to meet the gatekeepers and “superconnectors” who will help carry the message of your art to others.
Most of the time when I consult with younger artists, they tell me that they know these other aspects of a career are important, but that they simply don’t have the time. Here’s where it can be helpful to think about outsourcing these integral, but perhaps complex or boring, parts of your practice. It’ll free up your own schedule, maybe just enough to let you soar.
It took me a while...
It’s a mistake to assume that there’s only two ways to approach your career—either as a laid-back, relaxed person who “takes what comes,” or as a gung-ho self-starter who is proactive and determined. What if it were possible to be both, depending on what’s right for you at the moment? What if success was possible even if you allowed yourself a break every now and then, and didn’t feel the need to race toward the future at 100 miles per hour?
What if you were a bit more like David Bowie? I think of the late, great musician and artist often. He was someone who, at the height of his fame, could still step back out of the limelight to take care of his own emotional and psychic needs. Years might pass between albums. When Bowie returned—much to the delight of his curious fans—he would have conjured a brand-new persona that perfectly captured the zeitgeist. If he grew tired of Ziggy Stardust, he became the Thin White Duke. I can think...
Value can be a tricky concept. How can we put a price on intangible things—like our own time, for instance? Between 1999 and 2000, I hit a wall, professionally speaking. I was working low on the totem pole at a gallery, despite having more experience than the owners themselves; indeed, it was my experience that led them to want to hire me. I needed to have a better sense of my own worth in the marketplace.
In much the same way, artists need to take responsibility for their careers. They can do this by valuing themselves, literally—by putting an appropriate price on what they make, and defining its worth to the wider world.
But if art is a passion—if it enables you to do what you love—then shouldn’t you be open to giving it away? Doesn’t putting a price tag on it demean its value, actually?
Ignore that voice in your head that wants you to undervalue yourself for simply following your dreams. Indeed, the act of confidently pricing your...
It took me a great deal of time, and more than a little struggle, to realize that having a creative vision isn’t enough when it comes to launching a successful business.
In 1992, I had just graduated from Bucknell University with a dual Studio Art/Art History degree. My parents weren’t very fond of the choice I’d made. College, they argued, was expensive; couldn’t I have settled on something that was more stable? And yet I couldn’t imagine spending four years of my academic life engaged with a topic that didn’t thrill and inspire me. I was passionate about art, and I spent hours in the library and in class, poring over images from this brave new world. At the same time, I didn’t want to pretend that I lived in a bubble, divorced from financial concerns. I worked all throughout college, from menial gigs to more rewarding ones (some paid, others not) in the art and culture sphere.
These jobs added up to a wealth of invaluable, real-world...
Where does the myth of the ‘starving artist’ come from? In most occupations—whether you’re an accountant, a computer programmer, or a doctor—you want your working life to run smoothly, to be as friction-less and rewarding as possible. And yet the creative fields are often built on an idea of struggle.
That struggle can take many forms. It can begin in school, when a young artist realizes they have to juggle their creative practice with more mundane things, like buying books and paying the bills. Learning to become the best artist you can be is its own full-time job, and yet there are still all the myriad other demands of life to deal with.
What’s more, professionalized art schools—from undergrad through the MFA level—are great at letting an artist hone her craft and explore her vision. They’re less great at imparting business acumen—or even acknowledging that art is, in many ways, a business.
Without a foundation in...
What do you think of when you picture the typical young artist? Perhaps it’s a twentysomething painter, toiling in a small, windowless studio, wondering how she’s going to make her first sales (while dreading the student loan debts she hasn’t even begun to repay). Her day is full of stress, insecurity, and instability—a far cry from the creative bliss she had in mind when setting out to make a living from her art.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When I was younger, before launching my business, I prided myself on ‘going with the flow,’ which often meant reacting to life rather than making a concerted effort to change my own future. ‘Going with the flow’ can too easily become an excuse to remain stuck in a rut, to accept a status quo that isn’t helping you, or your career. I am a firm believer in creating your future in advance. This doesn’t just happen. It requires motivation, dedication, and a willingness to envision...