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 experience. At the same time, I was able to pause and question my own choices and motivations. Who was I listening to the most: Myself, and my own gut instincts and desires? The concerns of my parents? The demands of the broader marketplace?
After graduation, I landed a job at a top-notch New York gallery. This gave me a front row seat to the flesh-and-blood action of the art world, and a chance to take mental notes on what I found there. What was working, and what was not? Why were some dealers and artists thriving, while others were spinning their wheels, risking burnout or bankruptcy?
I later relocated to Philadelphia and took a position with a much scrappier gallery operation. I was working in the arts, which I loved, but my day-to-day reality was dire. Waking up in the morning, I’d look in the mirror and see an enthusiastic, intelligent twentysomething who was earning a whopping $7.50/hour, while drowning in about $50,000 of credit card and student debt. Something had to give.
Occasionally, it was tempting to throw up my hands and blame it on the industry. Could it be that no one made money in the arts, that success was nothing but an elusive dream? Yet that didn’t track with what I witnessed around me. Certain people were indeed on the path to both emotional and financial fulfilment.
Armed with my own experiences and hard-won insights, I turned to the experts. A visit to the bookstore put me on a serendipitous path. I discovered Michael E. Gerber’s classic guide, The E-Myth: Why Most Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. I think all artists should do themselves a favor and make a similar visit to their local bookshop—the old-fashioned kind, not Amazon’s virtual marketplace. Rather than sticking in the familiar areas set aside for Art and Creativity, or Self-Help and Psychology, head to the shelves that might seem anathema to a young artist: the Business section. There’s no need to research the absolute best volume to buy; it’s okay to judge a book by its cover here, to go with your gut and instincts. Give yourself homework—to complete your reading in a week or two—and stick to it.
Of course, experts can be found in many places, not just in books. Unfortunately, art school isn’t always set up to create such relationships between young artists and their elders. While studying, be proactive, and seek out mentors and experiences that can transform your life and career. You might have to look beyond the classroom. To put it quite bluntly: Think about why the teachers you encounter at university are teaching art to begin with. Sure, some might love the environment, and the chance to mold young minds. But so many others are doing it for the paycheck—because their own artistic practices aren’t sustainable or successful in financial terms. Is such a person the right expert or mentor to tie your own star to?
Ultimately, though, so much of success depends on yourself. Be engaged, passionate, and organized. Sketch your vision and write it down. Narrow down a niche speciality that could improve your career, and find a way to sharpen those skills. Don’t settle for mediocrity. In my book, I dive into the life story of motivational speaker and author Jake Ducey, who abandoned his lackluster collegiate business major in favor of world travel and a budding publishing and video empire. Take risks, have faith, and you’ll soon leave the rabbit hole of frustration and despair behind.