The Benefit of Your Wisdom

Slice of life: This and other unpleasant truths at eageageag

I teach a course to last-semester painting majors on how to find (or create) a place for themselves in the art world. It’s the course I didn’t have when I was in art school. If you graduated from art school before 2000, it’s the course you didn’t have either. But as the art world has gotten larger and more complex, art schools and colleges have rightfully decided to address the issue of how their students will build and sustain a career in art. God knows, especially now.

Experience and some professional success make experts of us all, so now I teach what it took me 30 years to learn. The course is not about “success” per se because you can be famous for your art and still not be able to pay your bills--or vice versa. Rather it’s about how to navigate an uphill terrain that has plenty of roads but few maps, where superhighways cross paths with barely marked trails, where there are high tolls, many forks in the road and more than a few dead ends.

Recently there have been some good posts offering advice to emerging artists:
. Dawoud Bey's Advice to a Young Artist
. Franklin Einspruch's Unsolicited Advice
. Deanna Wood’s “Helpful Posts” (on sidebar) at Artist Emerging
. Jackie Battenfield's The Artist's Guide website (precursor to a book that will be out shortly)
. And, as always, Edward Winkleman’s inside views and valuable counsel

My post today is a question:

What advice would you offer an art student who’s about to make the leap?


Donna Dodson said...

I wish I had moved to NYC and never looked back when I got out of college so I'll offer that advice up front. In hindsight, I have no regrets about being an artist because of the way I felt about it when I found it. I think you pick up and learn what you need to learn along the way. I appreciate colleges trying to prepare students for the real world after they graduate but how much info will they retain? I think you have to be ready for a life lesson to learn it so perhaps alot of stuff will go in one ear and out the other. Maybe younger artists will have an easier time wrapping their minds around the market than we, older artists since it's their world they are stepping into and sometimes youth works in your favor.

Stephanie Clayton said...

Take some business & money management courses. I wish this had been a requirement when I was in art school.
By all means, get to a big city where opportunities abound. Spend time meeting others in the art world. Travel. Don't isolate yourself.

Unknown said...

I find Side Street Projects' "What Do Curators Want" podcast series very informative:

Also check out Mat Gleason, editor of Coagula Art Journal, on YouTube:

Art Whirled

Neanderthals Destroyed Atlantis said...

Thanks for posting my comic Joanne.

Pamela Farrell said...

When I graduated with my fine arts degree in 1990, no one talked about the business of art; those who actively marketed their work were considered "sellouts," commercial artists, or hacks. The zeitgeist then: postmodernism, Marxist theory, political art, conceptual art, Fluxus, performance based, with many of the faculty railing against the 80s art stars.

Aside from gaining knowledge and understanding about financial, legal, and business end of things, I would stress that students be able to write and talk intelligently about the work, and to be able to present oneself in a professional manner. Know how to write a proposal, fill out a grant application, present a slide show of your work in a gallery talk.

The other issue I would want to impress upon students on the brink, so to say, is to develop a vision for what being a successful artist looks like to you. For some, this may be nothing less than superstardom; for others it may mean paying the bills and supporting a family; and still other visions could include critical acclaim within a specific niche, or an academic career, or living and working in a tourist area selling watercolors of the area, or being a portraitist, or, or or... The point being that goals and objectives are as important to success in the art world as in any other profession.

Anonymous said...

What I have learned the most is that your career (much like your art) is up to you. No one is going to make it for you. No one takes care of you. If you don't like the way galleries are treating you, open your own (maybe just temporarity). If you don't like the press, write your own (like your blog). Don't be passive.


Kesha Bruce said...

I started to write an answer, but it got so long that I turned it into a blog post, but I'll just post a summary:

This is what I wish someone would have told me:

1. Do NOT move to New York. That's a sucker move. You'll spend all your time working to pay your rent instead of making art.

2. Instead, move to a small to medium sized city where cost of living is low.

3. Use every spare minute you have outside of your "day job" to work your ass off in the studio.

4. Use all the money that you're saving by NOT living in New York to travel to see art in other places: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, Berlin, wherever. Maybe go check out a few art fairs on the cheap to see what's what.

5. Get a savings account and throw as much money as you in there.

Ok, after you've done that for a few years, THEN move to New York.

Nancy Ewart said...

I love all the conflicting advice about whether or not to move to NY. I did move to NY out of high school but it was too difficult for me to survive. I moved to SF which I love but which is not a place that is very supportive of artists, unless you've already made your name in NY or Europe. I wish that I've moved to a less expensive, less competitive place where I could have taught art and still, had the time and energy to make art. Not everybody wants or can be a superstar. So, my advice to emerging artists is to look at themselves and evaluate their ambition, their energy, their drive for success, where they want to live, where they CAN live and whether art all their life or a part - important but not all consuming part - of their life.
I think that the advice to "know thyself" is just as important as marketing, CV building or business skills.

Casey Klahn said...

I endorse Kesha's and Pam Farrell's comments, among others. Be professional. Write well, and have an opinion.

The entrance into the career circle is via professional behavior - it opens doors.

Work hard at your art. Draw 100,000 drawings - even if you will blow glass.

Hitch your wagon to a star and believe in yourself.

Stephanie Sachs said...

Like Pam I graduated from art school with no business classes. (BFA 1988) Unfortunately it was looked down upon to market or make attractive works of art. (Think Anselm Keifer not Jeff Koons.)It took me years to realize these people were teachers of art not artists making a living. Hopefully, things have changed.
After a summer at Skowhegan where they prepped you to move back to NY and use your new found connections, I rebelled and went in the opposite direction. Maui Hawaii turned out to be right for me. There are many art towns, Santa Fe, Ashville NC, Paduka KY, where you can have an art career. For me being a medium size fish in a small pond was my speed and I have supported myself for over 15 years this way.

Here are some practical tips.

When I was in my 20's I drew 5 minute portraits as entertainment at parties. These were Quick sketches not caricatures and they allowed me to develop my skills, make $100+ an hour and have my days to myself.

Get a cheap website. I have spent thousands over the years but you do not have to anymore. Sites like allow you to create easily changeable artist websites in an afternoon.

Get real business cards. Be professional. Anyone can print cards from their computer but they always feel cheap. It is a funny thing but the weight of your business card subconsciously reflects on people's opinion of your business.

Lastly, develop a thick skin. Artists have to take a lot of rejection. Lots of people want to be artists if it was easy everyone would do it.

Anonymous said...

- take care of your teeth.

- befriend a super successful mentor while you are still young. a young person can ingratiate themselves to a hero, it is endearing, they will want to help you. aim high.

you may be rewarded with introductions and inclusion.

Joanne Mattera said...

Anon advises, "Take care of your teeth." I read somewhere that the #1 thing artists spend their grant money on is dental care.

Thanks, all, for such good advice. Keep it coming!

Anonymous said...

It's hard to pare down the advice and approaches I've found useful over the years. Here are the first few that come to mind:

1) Create a significant body of work
2) Research galleries and know a LOT about them before you consider submitting your work for review
3) Have an idea of how much money you need to survive in your present situation, and a plan of how to get it if selling your art fails to cover all expenses
4) Join up with other artists--best if they're artists working in other disciplines--to make a group that meets regularly to support goals.
5) Connect with artists and art professionals outside of your own demographic.
6) Self-discipline and self-confidence.

Anonymous said...

You don't have to move to NY. You can be a successful artist anywhere, if you work work work. Sometimes all it takes is extra dedication and perseverance. And a good knowledge of business--putting your creative thinking into that aspect as well. If it's not your thing, allow people to help you. A good gallery can be a great thing. Enjoy the process--nothing that lasts ever comes fast and easy. Forget about the stereotypes and make your own rules.

Eva said...

Another thing: be as interested in others as you want them to be interested in you. Don't ask for a show at a gallery you don't even know. I remember pitching an artist to a dealer once - I thought she was really good and a good fit for him. He said "Yes, she is good and she came in here once to show me some things but I have never seen her otherwise. She doesn't care about what we are doing." That whole exchange was revealing to me. Now that I have sat at some galleries myself, I completely understand. You can tell when someone is actually interested in your program. The same thing extends to other people's shows and checking them out. Some people think that is kissing ass but it's really about developing relationships and broadening your scope.


Kate Beck said...

Know yourself. The world is not at a loss for artists, but it needs to know you if you are to be a part of it. So know yourself first. Do what it takes to nurture that knowledge: be as educated as you can, value your friends and keep them as close as you can. Participate with others on a genuinely humanistic level. Practically, owe the least amount of money that you can, so that financial need doesn't make your goals impossible. But let life happen. There must be room for the looking, the seeing, the feeling first -- as an artist that is your job, and what your work will ultimately be comprised of. It is your mark that matters to the world.

This sounds like advice from an artist who came of age in the 70's -- and it is. I have to believe that even though professional obstacles may seem more difficult to surmount now, the ultimate key is still that of the individual. There is no replacement for heart, or ambition.

Tim McFarlane said...

Discipline yourself and do the work, regardless of what's going on in your life short of death. Even if it's only two hours today and one tomorrow and six the next day, you'll be surprised at how much you can get done in a short amount of time.

Familiarize yourself with the business workings of art. Take advantage of every opportunity to obtain career information. Research arts organizations in your city/town that might provide free or low-cost information/lectures/classes that involve the business of being an artist.

Network with other artists. You never know what or who someone else knows. Conversely, it helps if other people know what you do, also. It might also help to join up with an artist cooperative or other group to create opportunities to show your work and to gain insight on what it takes to mount exhibitions.

If you're ready to approach galleries for representation, do your homework and seek out those that show work that is similar to what you do. For example, if you make primarily abstract works, don't waste your time going after galleries that show mainly realist works. It also helps if you really have an interest in what the gallery is doing.

Joanne Mattera said...

These are such fabulous suggestions that for an upcoming "Marketing Mondays" I'm going to compile all of them into subject groups, and everyone will be credited.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, feel free to add to this post.

Anonymous said...

what I want to know is: is LA a sufficient alternative to NYC, now, in 2008? thoughts?

jooyoung choi said...

In regards to you question...

I would say, that it shouldn't ever be an astonishing leap.

As an artist we begin as children crawling through the jungle of imagery, of ideas, of mediums and materials. We walk through forests and swim through oceans of community, growth, critiques, self-exploration, etc.

Instead of leaping into the art world, why not think of the process as steps. Steps that will walk you slowly, steadily and thoughtfully to a destination.

Start with small shows, talking with artists who are making 50 to 100% of their income off their passion. Develop a website, sell a few pieces, talk with colleagues about the struggles and interesting aspects of selling your own work and even doing commissions.

Just because you are in art school doesn't mean you shouldn't have already started to live your life as an artist, if anything it is the perfect time to.

For myself, I decided to study art at the age of 20, after a year or two of part time community college I found myself studying full time at Massachusetts College of Art. Before I arrived at Massart I had put together my first solo show and had participated in a number of group shows.

Later on, my art work was featured in the Boston Globe Side Kick and a smiling goofy photo of myself in the Somerville Times.

When the letter came in the mail that I had received a grant from the City of Somerville to complete a series of paintings about my adoption experience I couldn't believe it! And all of this has happen before my graduation.

Leaping, in my own opinion is not the wisest idea. Walking, contemplating, and living as an artist is the healthiest way to do it. Educate yourself and never feel that something magical is going to happen to you when you graduate. You are magical right now.

Although I am not christian, I attended a Christmas Evening Service a few years back and the quote that always stuck with me was this: The greatest fear we have, is to shine as brightly as God has made us to.

Whether it be god, your passions, the tao, allah, etc, I truly believe that we don't wake up just one day and take the "leap", it takes time, it takes steps.

Don't just jump in a pool of water and think you'll figure out how to swim, take your time and find the support and mentoriship you need to not drown or develop some irrational fear of water.

Recently, I overheard someone mention, how do I know if I am ready? If she meant, to "leap" to take the risk, to submit to galleries, etc. It's only a leap if there is nothing underneath you to catch you.

Have a community, have friends you trust who make art you believe in, educate yourself and know that you aren't leaping, you are walking forward with the support of your own experiences, the people who have helped you grow and the belief that you needn't fear how brightly you were made to shine.