Carmen Herrera at her home in
on her 94th birthday. Photograph from The Guardian online by Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu New York
In a recent interview in The Guardian, the 95-year-old Cuban-born, New York City-based abstractionist Carmen Herrera–"discovered” at the age of 89–was asked what advice she would give her 20-year old self.
This is her answer: "Don't hurry up, just take your 20s as long as you can. But the 20s is not an easy time. A lot of things are coming to you that you're not ready to absorb. You have to get old and wrinkled and grey-haired before you know what they're talking about."
I don't know about the "old and wrinkled and grey-haired," but since I teach a course to art school seniors about to embark on their art careers, I often give to them the advice I wish someone had given me. Here's what I would tell my 20-year-old self:
. It is possible to have a career as an artist
When I went to art school there was no such expectation. If you can't imagine it, it will take a huge stroke of luck to have a career in which you support yourself from the sale of your art. I supported myself for 20 years in publishing before I had the courage to make the leap to full-time artmaking. I'd urge my 20-year-old self to do it sooner (but not too soon; wait until after you're vested in your workplace's pension system).
. "It" doesn't just "happen"
That was the art school fallacy foisted on tender students. Partly because the times were less career oriented than they are now--and quite probably because the professors themselves didn't have a clue--there was never any information offered about the business of art, only the idea that selling your art made you a "sellout." (Easy for them to say, from their tenured perches.) So here's what I would tell my 20-year-old self from the vantage point I have now: It's fine to think of art as a career. And a career doesn't appear out of nowhere. It has to be cultivated for galleries to notice you, for sales to take place. What you do outside the studio–presenting yourself well, promoting your work, finding or creating opportunities to show and sell, networking, sharing resources and information with well-chosen peers–is as important as the serious work you do in the studio.
. The dealer is your business partner
A professor actually told me, "The dealer is your enemy." I should have sued his sorry ass for that advice! Instead, following his "wisdom" I spent a decade distrusting, disrespecting and dismissing the very people whose galleries I wanted to show in. Talk about a conflicted situation. Now I know better. I would tell my 20-year-old self that artists and dealers are two sides of the same coin. Yes, keep records. Yes, question decisions that don't sit right with you. But know that the average dealer is plowing gallery income back into the gallery and making about as much money as you are. We're in this together.
. Relatedly, there is no mystery to the art world
Well, there are many art worlds--the international art world, with its high stakes; the New York art world, with its high stakes (and high rents); regional art worlds with international programs; regional and local art worlds that remain small by design or default--but there's no mystery. They all function in this same basic way: artists make art, dealers sell it, collectors acquire it, critics write about it, curators organize it into shows typically with broader parameters than a gallery might. Down the road, auction houses resell it. Don't be intimidated. It starts with you, the artist. Yes, there are politics. Think of it like high school, with the same odious hierarchies and personalities but greater possibilities for navigation. More on demystifying here.
. It doesn't get easier--but it gets better
You're always going to work too hard, but after a certain point you'll find that you don't have to keep sending out packages and entering juried shows. Instead, opportunities present themselves to you. At first you'll think it's your lucky day. Then you'll be amazed at your string of lucky days. Then you'll realize you've reached a higher level in your career. You're going to work just as hard–maybe harder–because you won't want to turn down the opportunities you've spent a career chasing after. The good news is that you will have developed the chops to handle it.
What advice would you give to your 20-year old self?
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