Marketing Mondays: Defining "Success"

I had lunch at the Empire Diner in Chelsea recently with Stephanie Sachs, a New York-born artist now living in Hawaii. She was in town to visit the galleries and museums.

There are not a lot of gallery opportunities on Maui, says Stephanie—save for the tourist venues with the whale paintings—so she has found an alternative way to show and sell her work. Once a week she sets up her paintings in a designated exhibition area of the lobby of a five-star hotel on the toniest part of the island. She shares this space with several other artists. "We are are responsible for carting our displays, for sales, for shipping and for customer service. The hotel takes a percentage that is less than a gallery."


Stephanie Sachs, Yes It's Plaid, oil on wood, 20 x 16 inches

Stephanie's clients are sophisticated travelers, not unfamiliar with galleries and museums. She doesn't hear the dreaded "How long did it take to make this?" but a range of questions about the work itself. Sales are brisk.

Annual gross: "The high five figures."

The art world paradigm makes no room for this kind of success. The classic route is to make art, find a gallery to represent you, get into the Whitney Biennial, onto the cover of Art in America, have a sellout show every couple of years in New York, have your dealer take you to the art fairs and get you into museum shows and collections, see your work go for big buckaroos at auction, which allows your primary dealer to ramp up your prices, and enjoy life at the top. (The reality for the other 99.999% is, of course, a soul-sucking job that leaves little time for artmaking in a studio that costs 10 times more than you can really afford. And in this economic climate even life at the top has sunk like a soufflé.)

So Stephanie's entrepreneurial model is looking pretty good. And did I mention she lives in Maui?

Here's another example: A few years ago the Boston Globe Sunday magazine did a lifestyle feature on two artists, a wife and husband, both painters, who live in a farmhouse close to the tip of Cape Cod. They integrate artmaking with raising two kids in a back-to-the-land lifestyle that includes growing their own vegetables, preserving their harvest, and cooking gourmet meals from their own produce. They paint in a barn-turned studio—she downstairs, he upstairs in the loft— and in the summer they open the studio every morning to visitors, many of whom are return collectors. (I visited; it's idyllic.)

These folks are not likely to make it onto the cover of Art in America or into a major show at MoMA. But then, how many of us will? (AiA publishes 10 issues a year. That's 10 artists who might be so recognized. In a decade, 100. In a century, 1000 artists. Hell, that many artists get churned out each year from, say, three or four art schools. As for the MoMA solo, you do the math--and if you're a woman, you can probably count on the fingers of one hand.)

So the post today is to get us all to think about the definition of "success."

Is the art-world paragidm the only viable option?
. If you're making art you love in your studio and selling it in your summer gallery on Cape Cod or Ogunquit or Santa Fe—and enjoying it— isn’t that success?
. If you’re selling to relatively well-off collectors on vacation in Maui, who happily call to commission more work, isn’t that success?
. If you teach all year and show every couple of years in a co-op gallery, get reviewed by the local press occasionally, and have a rich full art life and a personal life, isn’t that success?

I admit that these are not the opportunities I've spent my career in pursuit of. But sometimes I do wonder, when I'm closing in on the 15th or 16th hour of another long work day, if I've been missing something.

Consider this an open forum.


Tina Mammoser said...

This seems a common theme lately, at least the general idea of alternative approaches outside the gallery system. As an online self-rep artist who moved to the gallery system who is now suffering lack of gallery activity (they're closing or just not selling) I'm reconsidering my approaches from a decade ago.

The biggest barrier is hinted at by you - an attitude that these are not the opportunities we had in mind. How do we let go of that ideal vision, admitting MoMA or the Tate aren't reality? But maybe the alternative is sufficient? Maybe there's even potential for more than we need but we don't see it? I'm fighting with my own ideals at the moment on what to do.

One thing I would add, there is another option that I've taken up in the past year due to all this change. The easy side job that takes up little time but pays well. Mine is one day a week (but at home, so I can actually do the work anytime) earning me the equivalent of my entire art income from last tax year. This approach allows me incredible freedom for my 5 days/wk in the studio. Though it's still hard to not feel guilty, like I'm cheating somehow.

nathaniel said...

Forgive the rant - it's not criticism, but thinking about loud. I struggle with this! Thanks for the post.

I'm admittedly torn in trying to answer this question. After reading it (or perhaps in the question itself?), I have trouble wrapping my head around the difference between monetary and artistic success. I believe discourse and dialogue to be an important part of the latter, that large audiences talking about art-as-provocation define what a piece is, and make it the most successful. Although Maui sounds grand, I'm not sure that's a possible end for it. Got any suggestions for alternative money AND interested/slightly larger audiences? For now, I am probably this moving towards this: "If you teach all year and show every couple of years in a co-op gallery, get reviewed by the local press occasionally, and have a rich full art life and a personal life, isn’t that success?" Granted, my art professor salary is not quite enough to support my family (we're struggling) or my art, really (and I'm not entirely sure that the current state of academia leaves enough time for a rich full art and personal life - but I try, I really do, and seem to do better than most academics, and certainly those who work day jobs not related to art), but on the flip, I do better than local co-op galleries and local press. Still, I want to branch our and show more, and probably need to sell more (if I ever want my daughter to go to college). I used to define success as "making enough to support myself and all my projects - both with money and time." I realize now that most artists, even those at the top, work their asses off to find ways of supporting their own projects, which keep getting bigger.
Right now, I try not to worry about "success" as a binary, but to work towards short-term rather than long-term goals, usually orientated towards good work rather than where I show it. With great art and generosity in discussion and networking, I've found I steadily move forward, even if I can't see what's at the end of the trail. Perhaps the trouble is not what the end goal is, but rather, goal orientation itself?

Diana said...

Serendipitous. I'm currently finishing a portfolio class at a tech college where I teach. The focus of the program is to get these guys schooled and learned, and get 'em out there into the job market!
But I've been trying to tell them that the planned path is rarely taken by anyone, at least exactly as planned. If you're going to do what you want to do no matter what, why not accept that and plan for your chosen path on your terms, not on the arbitrary terms of a school, an organization or an institution?
What constitutes success is finding what drives you, and finding a way to make that coincide with your livelihood.
I'm writing this before my first cuppa Joe, so I hope it makes sense!

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Stephanie Sachs said...

Thanks Joanne for your kind words. It was a long process after art school to remove the brainwashing of what "I should be" and move into who I am. It is a grateful blessing everyday to find myself a working artist.
My priorities outside of creating art are about my clients and giving them service and beautiful paintings. I have not thought about museums in ages.

"How long did it take?" is still the number one question! I do not think it matters where you are. Although it is meaningless to us, people are looking for some way to have a conversation. This question can give the artist the opportunity to discuss the process with a potential client.

The art world has a hold on artists because we are taught to let others take care of the clients. We remove ourselves from our base and create a barrier to potentially some of our finest relationships. It was so scary at first but it is wonderful to hear people talk about what they love about your work and receive messages of joy after sending work.

My sales have not slowed in this economy and now I am working on more ways to connect to my clients. Artists can do this where ever they live.

Glenn said...

Thanks for posting this question Joanne... one that I personally welcome because it helps to shake up my own foundation of being an artist. I think it's these outdated myths that success is measured and only comes in the form of gallery representation, making the cover of Art in America or showing at the Whitney Biennial that keeps many artists from actually defining success for themselves.

It takes courage to step back and be honest with oneself in this respect... and to ask the difficult questions. Success for me is continually evolving and being redefined with each and every experience I have as an artist. Success can be associated with selling my work just as much as it can with being rejected from an art residency program. It's all about perspective and how to approach the situation. Ultimately success comes from showing up to do the work, being present with it and sometimes allowing it to lead you where it wants to go... be it your living room wall or the wall of MoMA.

Eva said...

I know I want to say something about "success" here but first thing I want to say is that Stephanie, I really like that painting!

Donna Dodson said...

Working full time in my studio, showing and selling, generating dialogue around my work, nurturing fans and friends of my artwork and most importantly, making the best work that I can are my goals that determine my definition of success.

Unknown said...

This is a timely post for me. I was deeply considering this issue just last night. What is artistic success? What makes/defines a successful artist? Can I be successful if I do not follow the traditional route within the system? I'm glad to know I am not the only one struggling with this issue and that some artists have discovered their own way.

Joanne Mattera said...

Hi, All--

I am at the tail end of running a painting conference in Massachusetts, so posts and comments from me have been sparse this past week.

I think there are several kinds of success, and which we want probably depends on which we need.

. Critical success--i.e. the great review in a prestigious publication and being held in high esteem by our peers and other art professionals--won't pay the bills but it's manna for the psyche(and ego. Better have another source of incoe, though.

. Financial success will pay the bills but not at the expense of our integrity. This is usually where the "sellout" issue rears its head. Of course one can sell well--sell out a show, even--and not be a sellout because the work comes from a pure place. Who wouldn't welcome that? But we all have stories about artists who crank it out, personal values be damned.

. Personal success may not be connected to either critical or financial success. For some artists just getting the work to a better place is success enough. Agai, that alternative income soure is essential.

Keep the comments coming. I WILL post more reports of recent exhibitions.

Joanne Mattera said...

P.S. Sorry for the typos. I'm still getting used to my netbook (which is convenient but slow).

Eva said...

One thing I've noticed about "success" - the bar gets higher as you move along. Someone told me how artists showing at MOMA bitch that their retrospective is not as well laid out, hasn't received as much press, whatever, as someone else's retrospective... you get the picture. I see it here in my own small community. Right now, at nearly 53, I feel I am just lucky to still be making art, however it comes out. I have the advantage of having kept a diary since 1969, since I was a child. Very few people in that diary kept on making art, whatever their expectations in youth. And if the expectations are really big, it's even harder to stay with it. Have a flexible relationship with "success."

sarah elizabeth said...

I've wanted to be an artist and run a gallery since I was a child. Last year I bought 5,000 sq. ft. building in a gorgeous little town on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, just south of Door County where we get lots of visitors. I am opening a gallery and a handmade design shop where I can sell both my own work, and also the work of other living artists. I would rather make an issue of FiberArts than I would Art in America--but that's just me. Oh yeah and I'm raising two kids as well, with another on the way soon :) It's about creating the life you want. I just LOVE that people are thinking outside the box. There is nothing wrong with making money from art. You don't just have to rely on the same old methods. Kudos!!

Kimberly Kent said...

I was with an artist group in the mid 1980's that showed in the lobbies of hotels and resorts. We designed a show easel that would hold six paintings and had them built so all would match. In time we were offered the vacant retail space to run a co-op gallery - FREE.
We ended us with 4 such galleries in the Kona area, two of which are still open.

Kimberly Kent

Henry Bateman said...

Upon being introduced to the director/curator of a class 'A' gallery and have her say "So you're Henry Bateman!" Is that success? The question is being asked by my bank balance.

Joanne Mattera said...

Tell your bank account to shut up for a spell and enjoy the moment. ;-)
Then follow up.

Barbara Cowlin said...

I'm in the #dekooning twitter book club, being run by Alyson Stanfield. The question of success has always plagued me, too. 30 years out, I still haven't completely shaken the brainwashing I got in art school. Anyway, I ran across a line in the DeKooning book that rang a bell for me.

Here it is: "The hint was that a serious artist did not kid around. A serious artist made art the center of his life, treated it as a calling and sacrificed everything else to it. If he didn't, he was just an amateur." If you replace serious with successful, this pretty much defines it for me.

For me, it means that sticking to a life in the arts despite all odds, in one form or other, is the success. (Not sure one needs to sacrifice everything elso, though). Continuing on past the road blocks, disappointments, financial problems, and everyday despair. Starting over and over again, each time with a renewed determination to keep going at it.

Stephanie Sachs said...

Thinking about what Joanne said "Financial success will pay the bills but not at the expense of our integrity."
This issue of integrity seems to have changed over the last 100 years. Didn't Sargent hate painting some of those portraits yet they are magnificent. Rubens practically charged by the stroke and pawned most of the work off to assistance. Michelangelo did not want to paint the Sistine Chapel. Today would they be considered sell outs who lack integrity?

Stephanie Clayton said...

I think this is my favorite post so far, Joanne.

This topic really hits home with me. I live and work on a lovely but small Caribbean island with no traditional galleries. Resources and opportunities in the visual arts are virtually non-existent. I am currently unable to move to an "art" place, so here I am making the best of the locale. This includes showing my work at area businesses, accepting commissions, teaching on the side, the usual online networking and marketing...and cramming in as much of the art world I can into frequent stateside trips.

I believe that Stephanie (whose work I admire, by the way) has it sorted out. For her, success has come from having to look outside the box (aka traditional gallery). I mean, come on, we artists think outside the box and problem-solve everyday anyway, by making art. Why be limited when it comes to defining success?

I've recently contemplated my own definition of success and have come to terms with certain realities. This has been challenging, discouraging and at times, downright depressing. However, I'm learning to let go, lighten up and find new, albeit alternative, paths to success.

Again, wonderful post...and excellent comments!

KRCampbellArt said...

Lately I've been thinking I should have stayed in NYC. I moved back to MI for many reasons but it has been so difficult here to get the art out to salable venues, not that it wasn't tough in NY but there were lots of galleries. This post got me thinking about other alternatives that I have been tossing about of late.
I do try to stay focused on the making of the art because it is what I love to do and without it I would feel lost. But sometimes the lack of connecting with others when your art is on display is difficult to continue without.
If I come up with ideas that seem promising I will post back in the hope of helping someone else.
Thanks so much for these Marketing Mondays!

NJ ART 73 said...

Hi Joanne,
I guess the best defintion of success was told to me by a classical musician who when she told her friends that she was moving to the NJ suburbs-one has to find their niche. My work doesn't fit into the world of the Whitney and Moma and it doesnt bother me at all. I would not mind at the end of the trail to be remembered as a quality regional painter of landscape & abstract paintings. I figure that one has to know their limitations & work to go beyond them. I have a good idea of the business end of things and I am slowly moving in that direction. I admit though that is very nice to receive recognition beyond the local shopper that is thrown on ones driveway. The history of art is filled with some very good painters who moved in the right circles and organizations. Yet after they passed on they became forgotten. We have no control over what happens after we depart so I say enjoy the journey because one day you will not be able to pick up a paintbrush. I refer not only to passing away but what could happen as one ages. So for myself the definition of success is to be and paint just paint and keep painting.

claudia said...

Yes, I agree... Just keep painting!

Diane McGregor said...

I've been mulling over this post for a week now -- it is really a significant issue, Joanne, and thank you for addressing it. Coincidentally, I lived in Hawaii for 11 years until I moved to Santa Fe in 2001. It was for my art career that I moved - there are very few venues for an abstract painter in Hawaii. Unless you are painting palm trees and dolphins, it is extremely difficult to earn a living wage there. I notice from her websites that Stephanie paints both abstraction and landscapes. I admire her flexibility and determination.

I miss Hawaii terribly, there is no other place like it in the world. I do love Santa Fe, and my work and career have really blossomed since I moved back to the mainland. Your post has given me pause to reflect on the "success" I have now, compared to the incredible lifestyle I had on the Big Island. Many people look at me in disbelief when I tell them I moved from Hawaii to the mainland for my art. I think for me to get serious about my work, it was absolutely essential to move. But at what price? Is the busy career I have now "worth it?" I think yes, indeed, but your post has made me stop and really think deeply about it. As I said, I'm still pondering this very complex issue....

Larry Lourcey said...

Wow-great post. I'll be sure to check back often.
I guess success really comes down to how happy you are with life. If you are enjoying your life as an artist and are able to survive - then you have success!