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 to learn this lesson myself. When I started my own gallery back in 2001, I was my own girl Friday. From bookkeeping to accounting to general business oversight, I did it all. Later, I discovered how the right help can make all the difference.
Think outside the box. For instance, many successful artists I’ve known sing the praises of a well-placed trade: a painting in exchange for tax filing, for instance, or an editioned print in exchange for basic web design.
Interns, also, are a fantastic resource. Every year thousands of creative and enthusiastic young people graduate from top-notch art and business programs, eager to work and learn. I personally spent four summers working 40 unpaid hours a week for artists and institutions, helping keep records along with more mundane tasks (like coffee and dry-cleaning runs).
Did I regret all that time I spent without drawing a paycheck? Certainly not. The artists and art institutions I worked for certainly benefited from my labor, but I also received countless intangibles: experiences, connections, networking introductions, and glowing letters of recommendation that helped me land my first incredible paying job in New York.
There are also excellent resources out there for creatives who need quick, temporary help with all manner of things that are adjacent to their artistic process. The start-up Fiverr.com, for instance, is a goldmine that I’ve returned to often. In a pinch, I’ve used it to find a talented designer to polish a stunning PowerPoint presentation at the last minute—all for only $25. Time is money!
Once you’ve wrestled back some of the time you used to squander on certain career obligations, you can sit down and sketch out a clear path to success. Start by estimating how many hours you have to dedicate fully to your artistic practice—after making allowances for family and other jobs (don’t forget to leave some time to sleep, of course).
Let’s say that figure ends up being 25 hours a week, 25 hours that you then have to divvy up in a mindful way. (Don’t just say, “I’ll spend 25 hours making art and thinking about art.”) For instance, dedicate 15 of those hours to actually pursuing your painting, sculpture, or photography practice in the studio. Then, earmark 5 hours for professional development: updating social media, sending out packages to galleries or critics, online marketing, tweaking your portfolio.
What about the 5 hours left over? Those can go toward professional networking. Keep a calendar of openings, events, and talks where you’re liable to run into like-minded people who can give your career a leg up. Bring your business card, talk up your own genius (humbly, of course), and gather names for your mailing list. Socializing might not seem like “work,” but it’s often the difference between anonymity and fame. As the painter Clinton King (husband of art market darling Julie Curtiss) put it in a recent interview: “That’s how you do it: You meet people and you make good work.”
As an artist, it’s important to take inspiration from your artistic heroes—as well as from successful business people. (This shouldn’t feel like sacrilege!). In my book, I consider the example of Tariq Johnson, an entrepreneur and former financial advisor who launched a juice-bar franchise in California and Florida. What can a juice-bar owner teach a painter, you wonder? It’s all about clarity of objectives and careful, diligent planning. Never forget: A plan can be what separates failed ambition from a thriving, joyful career.