Village people: View of The Independent Art Fair in New York City earlier this year as reflected in the enormous revolving mirrored cube by Jeppe Hein, Johann Koenig Gallery, Berlin
If you follow this blog, you know that I’m a big believer in taking charge of your own career. Early on, especially, it’s important to create the opportunities that are not immediately visited upon you. Open studios are a good example of taking control. Co-op galleries, too. Want a show? Find a space and put one on—and promote the hell out of it. Enter good juried shows. Apply for grants. Self publish. Start a group for like-minded artists. Organize an event. There’s no point in waiting for opportunity to knock.
But if you look at the artists who have big careers—I mean those big-ass international careers in the bluest of the blue-chip galleries and on the covers of the few art magazines left—you realize they have not have not done it alone. It takes a village to have a big career.
This is something you see when you start looking at resumes. Take the art historian who is writing a major book on a giant of 20th century art (and there are dozens doing so at this very moment). Very likely this art historian’s career was notched up a peg or two because of the association with the artist. But that cuts both ways. An art historian’s role in presenting, describing and explicating an artist’s work will go a lot way toward defining that artist’s career for the ages. Ya wanna be in the art history books? Ya gotta be on an art historian's radar. Read a few high-powered resumes and you’ll see that even the most famous of the famous have been helped along by a village of people--or at least a well-connected art community.
So who else is in this village?
. A supportive and well-connected dealer, first and foremost. She’s the one who shows your work regularly, creates interest in your work and develops a clientele for it. She has cultivated the people who get you reviewed, who get you shown in other galleries and included in museum shows, and acquire your work for museum and corporate collections. Several connected dealers can increase that visibility exponentially, especially if they each have different strengths.
. The art fair as a genre. It’s instant international visibility. Where else might a curator from Berlin see your work if you’re still showing regionally? And guess what happens between dealers, especially those who are in neighboring booths? They talk. In the process, they decide to share “resources.” That would be us. So an artist from Dallas ends up with a solo show in Chicago, and vice versa, along with all the things a second dealer will do for you.
. Museum curators. Curators’ careers rise and fall on the quality of the shows they put on, so they’re always looking. And their visibility increases with the cachet of the institution they’re associated with. The senior curators are looking at the artists with big names, of course. But those lower-rung curators are looking to make their mark (where do you think the big-name curators came from?) so they’re looking to find a rising star, or even mentor someone whom they think has potential. Also in this category: curators at non-profits and academic galleries; the most visible ones can really boost an artist’s career in the early stages. There’s a lot of movement in the curatorial world; if a rising-star curator likes your work, you may see your career trajectory arc along with theirs.
. Good press. A critic who writes about your work may give your career a boost early on; one who follows your career and writes about you regularly allows you to be seen as an artist worth following. Arts editors, staff writers, freelance writers, even listings editors also play a part in how your work is perceived and presented. And like curators, there’s a lot of movement in journalism: freelance to staff position (or vice versa); reporter at one publication to senior editor at another. Artists with those big careers are in a lot of editorial Rolodexes, actual or virtual. By the way, it’s not the critic or feature writer who puts your work on the cover of a magazine; it’s an editor high on the masthead.
. Art bloggers. OK, a blog is not the New York Times, but the interest of a well-regarded blogger does have some power, and the reach of a blog can be astonishingly large. And the beauty of online coverage is that it comes with live links.
. Collectors. Your art hanging in the well-appointed home of a collector who entertains well-connected guests can have far-reaching consequences. If those guests are critics, curators, art historians, other collectors, well you see where this is going: sales, museum collections, corporate commissions. A recent article in The New York Observer pulls back the curtain on a few big collectors and how they and their artists rose to success.
. Mentors. Lucky is the artist who can count on someone for advice, support, a reference or a recommendation. It might be a professor or former professor, a trusted member of your cohort, a curator who sees something in your work, a more established artist with whom you’ve become friends, a dealer with whom you’ve become close. A good word from one of them may lead to an unexpected opportunity. (Have you ever wondered how those non-application grants get given out? Someone farther along the career path recommends you for the honor.)
. The network. This is the conceptual system along whose lines the energy of the village flows. Personal referrals, word of mouth buzz, information sharing all share this energy grid. Plug into it.
Over to you.