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 globalized, hyperconnected society. And certainly, it offers myriad tools to keep in touch, to self-promote, and to market one’s work. But it would be a mistake to view it as a permanent substitute for all other forms of human interaction and community-building.
Let me tell you a story that I think about often. Back in 2016 I was promoting a book, and decided to lead a workshop to promote it in Philadelphia. I had room to host about 50 people, and that list filled up quickly. Five of those attendees were people I knew personally; the rest were complete strangers who were simply curious and eager to learn. It was a dynamic evening, a four-hour-long workshop that engaged the packed-to-capacity room.
Things didn’t end there, at the end of the night, when everyone said their goodbyes and went their separate ways (some guests had traveled in from New Jersey; one even flew all the way from Georgia). Fast-forward a few years, and the web of connection, collaboration, and inspiration—all traced back to that single workshop—is truly astounding.
After the workshop, I created a Facebook group so artists could stay in touch after that night. Many of the artists started connecting in this group and outside of it. Some of them ended up purchasing each other’s work. Others started businesses together, or engaged in collaborative projects. I personally sold artworks through my advisory business made by artists whom I met for the first time that evening.
There’s a vital importance to putting yourself out there, to being in a room with other people. Even in these anxious days—when public health requires a new mindfulness, and certainly new habits for the future—artist must put themselves out there. They need to tell their stories in person, not simply from behind a phone or computer screen.
This isn’t always easy. Many artists are introverts. Networking requires a proactive approach, a way to get over a fear of strangers and of potentially uncomfortable situations. “Going out more” isn’t a solution, if that simply means you’re going to stand in the corner at an art opening, with people you already know.
Instead, gamify the experience. Commit yourself to having one or two conversations with people you don’t know. Engage with someone at an opening who is admiring your own work, or that of an artist who also resonates with you. Ask him or her what they find appealing or intriguing about the piece, and use that as a casual bridge to discuss your own practice.
At first, this can seem stilted or pushy. But it shouldn’t. If you believe in your own art, that confidence and enthusiasm will translate into the way you engage with others, even total strangers. Why not challenge yourself, and see if you can conjure a magical situation for yourself? What do you really have to lose?
Here’s a rule of thumb: If there’s even a 50% chance that attending a social event might help your art career, go for it. At the most, you’ll have wasted a few hours of an evening. (On the upside, you might get a free glass of wine out of the bargain.) Most likely, though, following your intuition will open up doors and help spark new connections that you could never have anticipated.
This can be hard to explain—and, yes, it can all seem a bit magical. I remember, years ago, wavering as to whether I should attend an event in Philadelphia. I was in my California office at the time, and making it to the event wouldn’t be easy. A last-minute plane ticket cost around $700, and I didn’t have much other business to take care of on the East Coast at the moment.
Against all logic, I decided to go for it. My gut instinct suggested that something good, even great, would come out of the experience.
Guess what? I ended up reconnecting with old peers and meeting plenty of new connections at the Philadelphia event, including one individual who later sat on a committee that oversaw a project I was working on. His positive input tipped the scales in my favor, and that might never have happened without the chance to engage and connect at the event.
In my book, The Modern Artist’s Way, I interview Patrick Hardy, the Chief Creative Officer for Tierney Communications, one of Philadelphia’s most acclaimed firms. Now, he’s a natural person, a connector and a networker—but that wasn’t always the case. Hardy learned to make magic for himself by setting mini-goals. One of these was to attend the C2-MTL conference in Montreal, an unconventional span of days that purposefully pushes creatives out of their comfort zones. It was a life changer, Hardy says, “to immerse myself in collaborative and unusual situations.”
As an artist, your natural instinct might be to keep your head down, to work hard in solitude and expect the world to come to your doorstep. That’s not how it works. Trust your intuition. That’s where the magic happens.