Marketing Mondays: How Do You Define "Emerging Artist" And Other Career Levels?

Cartoon by Eric Gelber

Artist Pam Farrell posed this question recently: "How do you define 'emerging artist'?”

A decade ago, emerging signified an artist who was getting some attention—emerging from the pack, as it were, and onto the radar screen of curators, dealers and critics. There were a number of indicators that an artist was emerging: inclusion in good group shows, positive reviews, a well-received solo, maybe sales to a few good collectors, and some word-of-mouth buzz.
By that standard, the newly celebrated Carmen Herrera would be an emerging artist. "After six decades of very private painting, Ms. Herrera sold her first artwork five years ago, at 89," reports Deborah Sontag in a recent New York Times article about the artist. Hmm. Does that make Herrera, after a lifetime at the easel, an emerging artist? Hardly.

Germane to this issue, a parallel, more democratic definition has evolved. Emerging now seems to mean beginning. That's how students and professors use the term at the various institutions where I have taught or visited. By this standard, all newly minted artists (even art students) are emerging. This definition may not appeal to the hierarchic tendencies of the art world, but it does make more sense. And for the 25-year old who emerges bigtime? How about lucky? Or well-connected? Or child of famous parents?
Since we're on the topic, when an emerging artist become just a regular artist? And when does one become a mid-career artist? Is a decade too soon? How about after a couple of decades of pushing that ball up the hill, whether or not recognition is part of the ball? And what of the artists who take time away from showing to earn an income, have a baby, travel: Does the clock reset? Are they re-emerging when they start showing again or can they just be artists?

When does a mid-career artist become a late-career artist? (Here I’m thinking of Oriane Stender’s comment a while back on Ed Winkleman’s blog: "Who knows how long we're going to live? I could be mid-career right now, or even late-career. Or my career could go nowhere until after I'm dead. Would that make me pre-career?") Oriane has her tongue firmly in cheek but she raises interesting issues.

How would you define emerging and mid-career? And if you're on a roll, thrown in late-career as well. Consider this an open thread for the first Marketing Mondays post of the new year.
Special thanks to Eric Gelber for letting me include his cartoon in this post. Visit Eric's blog, eageageag


Hylla Evans said...

Joanne, can you tell me why we need to use these terms? Other than gallerists who want to establish an artist as credible to explain a price structure, who else has a need to know how far an artist has come in her career?
As a collector, I don't care one bit about the back story. It's all about the body of work, the esthetic and the meaning of the art.
There's something very high school about placing a timeline on a career. Why is that relevant?
You know I'm not being difficult here or dismissive of your question. I just want to put it in perspective.

tony said...

You have a good point, Hylla. This compulsion to classify in the art world drives me to distraction & as usual the classification comes not from artists but from those who place themselves between the artist & spectator & seek to impose a viewpoint which is often more attached to notions of money-making & vanity than the work of the artist.

Altoon Sultan said...

I agree with the preceding comments. I've been around the art world for a long time, and "emerging artist" is a recent label, used to commodify young artists. It's all marketing, or making simple the complexity of art making, as is coming up with style labels and forcing work into them.

Neanderthals Destroyed Atlantis said...

Journalists and people writing press releases determine who is an emerging artist. The decision making process, determining what factors go into calling an artist emerging, often have nothing to do with what the artist thinks about their own career and where their art is. I can't imagine being in a conversation with an artist of any age, and hearing them call themselves an emerging artist. If emerging meant nothing more than beginning to earn serious cash for your art, that would be one thing, but there are all of these other factors connected to the term that completely invalidate it in my mind. To call newly minted graduates of MFA programs emerging artists is more than very optimistic, especially considering that a majority of them will stop making art soon after they hit the pavement. Every time I have read the phrase emerging artist in a newspaper or magazine it is ludicrously off base. Emerging doesn't necessarily mean young in these contexts and it doesn't mean that the artist's work has just begun to be really good. So that leaves only one factor standing, ability to earn serious cash. Emerging is a coded term that is supposed to alert collectors and the public that the artist is all set to earn some serious cash. So, lazy writers who have no better way of dealing with the fact that they are writing about an artist who has never been written about before and people who stand to profit from the salability of a particular artist's work benefit from the use of the term emerging artist.

Unknown said...

I've often wondered what others call me! I am older now, had my 'art career' characterized by lots of stops and starts beyond my control. Only 2 small time collectors have ever been interested. Shows go ok as far as sales go. No name recognition at all. Definitely no regular monies coming in. Can't be consistent in showing/selling. Very productive when possible.
Maybe I'm a wannabe? A maybe. I'll settle for being someone that just is. Someone making art.

Joanne Mattera said...

So most of you you don't care what you are called. But here's EAG: "Journalists and people writing press releases determine who is an emerging artist."

I don't particularly like the idea of ceding my identity to someone writing a press release. I'd prefer to have some say in how my work and I are preceived. This is one reason why we write statements and compile resumes. It's one reason why I would call myself a "mid-career" artist.

So instead of railing against the powers that be, how do WE assume better control of our identities? And when does one become a "mid-career" artist, anyway?

Neanderthals Destroyed Atlantis said...

Why quantify our art making process or make a distinct linear structure out of the messy stuff called life? Emerging/mid-career/late-career. We don't decide when we will die. And we don't decide when (and if) the market will pay attention to our work or for how long it will do so. Who benefits from these labels? Why would an artist feel the need to reduce all of the time they have spent making art to a neatly segmented timeline?

Joanne Mattera said...

You say "reduce," Eric. I say "amplify."

Every other profession has some sort of measure of achievment--for instance: writer, senior editor, editor in chief. Or a measure that includes a timeline as well: assistant professor, professor, professor emerita.

I'm less interested in the age of an artist than in the years they've been at it. That tells me something about the degree of dedication.

Every profession has these markers and measures. Why should't our profession have them?

Lori Buff said...

I don't think that artists need these labels as other professions seem to think they do. I know a lot of self taught artist that do fantastic work and are recognized by their peers for their accomplishments. Having an MFA does not make one a great artist, it make one an educated artist. Being older or younger does not make for good art either. Nor does the amount of time someone has been doing something. I have many hobbies that I'm not an expert on despite doing them for may years.
I think if we can remove the tiles viewers will be able to look at the art for what it is not for what they expect.
Good blog question.

tony said...

In response to your point, Joanne, those professions (with perhaps the exception of 'writer') operate within fairly well-designed, recognisable & hierarchic structures whereas the visual artist creates his own 'structure' & functions within that. What one produces may then enter into the world outside of the studio & as such must take whatever comes along but the idea of self-labelling seems rather silly. Can you imagine describing yourself as 'senior painter' or 'painter in chief' ?

And as to the 'mid-career' option I'm not sure that that can even work since it suggests that there is an ultimate point of arrival and one is approximately midway along the path which leads to the ultimate consecration.

Neanderthals Destroyed Atlantis said...

Well if the labels emerging/mid-career/late-career have nothing to do with anything but the amount of time an artist has been making art than they are fairly innocuous. The term emerging (out of all three of them), when used, is often insulting to the artist it is applied to. If artists need a label to make it clear to the public that they have been at it for a few, or many, or very many years, that is fine. It might be more fun to use fancier terminology. Underling/Sage/Magi, something like that.

Joanne Mattera said...

So you're all artists, period. Where you're at in your career is not worth identifying? I'm not talking quantifiable (good, bad, MFA) but years you;ve been at it. And you have no interest in being the one to identify yourself as opposed to others doing it for you (which they will)?

BTW: very funny, Tony and Eric, with , painter in chief, and underling/sage/magi.

tony said...

"Where you're at in your career is not worth identifying?"

As usual Joanne you have gove to the heart of the matter, albeit indirectly. How can one possibly identify "where you are in your career" without knowing its culmination ?

If one judges Rothko by his earlier work there is little to commend it; the same could be said of Newman,Pollock, Morris Louis, Arshille Gorky et alia. That is the beauty, the hope & the final judgement - until one has/is finished one never quite knows.

Anonymous said...

how about an emerging artist as one who is still in the process of finding one's voice, or of honing down that imagery or sensibility or whatever it is that will give the recognizable fingerprint to whatever one makes, then mid career, as when one is well along into making that body of work possessing that clear voice, or fingerprint, or sensibility, or presence, like a biological growth pattern that is unmistakable,I guess late career would be that fulsome ending we all wish for.

Joanne Mattera said...

Anonymous 1:37,
I think you're on the right road here. Thanks.

As for the road, Tony asks: How can one possibly identify "where you are in your career" without knowing its culmination ?

Tony, that's like driving from Manhattan to somewhere in Canada. Just because you don't have a specific destination doesn't mean that Champlain or Montreal are not legitimate stops on the route.

Larry said...

Emerging: I can afford, more or less.

Mid-career: Maybe I can afford if I don't eat for six months.

Late-career: Fuhgeddaboudit.

tony said...

Joanne, since when has the creative process been anything to do with points on a map - especially when such points are known & well noted ?

If you must use such analogies why not say it's like driving from Manhattan to Tokyo - at least that would have the benefit of leaving the question open.

Martin said...

dieu donne defined emerging artist as "an artist who is professionally unrecognized but stylistically evolved".

joanne look at these examples of 'mid-career' -

Joanne Mattera said...

Interesting perspectives, Larry and Martin. because within trhem you address both professiona levels and financial issues.

Larry, I have a question for you: Do collectors expect to pay less for a younger artist's work? (This topic will probably find its way to a full post this year, but for now, I'm interested in your thinking.)

Oriane Stender said...

Now that I've been quoted and linked to on the Joanne Mattera Art Blog, I feel confident that I have fully emerged.



Mel P said...

Recently a new MFA grad told me that an "emerging" artist is 42 or younger. I hope I will be considered "mid-career" when I'm there-- or perhaps I will always be behind!!!

But, as many have mentioned, I also feel the term is undefinable; just wanted to bring up another method of determining the hierarchy.

Thanks Joanne!

Hylla Evans said...

Joanne makes a great point about artists controlling their own press and using the commercial shorthand of chronological career placement does make clear to others what the price structure is for the moment. But is it enough information? If a reader/collector only pays attention for 10 seconds, is that the information that's valuable?
Yes, if you are at a point in your career that's noteworthy, then use that fact in your press release. I don't feel good about putting that into the artist statement as I want loftier content there that has more to do with intent than commerce.
Buying art as an investment and expecting to sell it later for a profit is bad finance usually. If I have big bucks and want to follow Saatchi's lead, then I don't have to think for myself. That's not going to give me art that moves me. I buy what I love and want to look at every day. So an artist's career development is interesting but not relevant to what I buy. If it takes a turn away from my taste but into a higher level of visibility, good for the artist but I won't buy the new work.
Yes, yes, yes. An artist should put out enough self-description that writers don't have to fill in the blanks. That way an artist will control at least the factual elements that are put forth. The more important self-description comes from wording like Joanne's "lush minimalism" and language that's more powerful than catchphrases gallerists have come to rely on.
The second your gallerist reduces you to over-used colloqualisms, it's time to get a gallery that talks about the art itself in compelling terms.

So to answer Joanne's original question, it's about chronology and the terms are vague enough to be malleable. It's open to 'mid-career' as a label for anyone who wants to claim it without proof of actual achievements behind her. So I don't think it helps you in marketing.

Pamela Farrell said...

When I posed this question to Joanne, it was after I had read an application for a artists' residency that stated consideration would be given to applications from "emerging artists." Since the application did not define this, I wondered how it could be part of the selection criteria.

As I come across the term in different contexts, I always imagine there being a line or boundary that is constantly moving.

There is an organization in Philly called the Center for Emerging Artists for artists who do not yet have gallery representation. Is this the line?

I've seen calls for emerging artists under a certain age...30? 35? Is this the line?

X$$ in annual sales? X of solo shows?

And so on...

I cannot think of a single instance in which I would choose to define myself in terms other than artist.

But it's those pesky applications that trip me up. None of us can be placed neatly in a slot, yet organizations, grant/funding groups, even publications continue to rely on these terms.

If someone--gallerist, journalist, critic, etc. wants to know where I am in my career, I can choose to use descriptors other than those dots placed along a linear path.

I've read the comments here with interest and appreciate the many perspectives, which speaks to the subjective nature of labeling.

Larry said...


There was obviously an element of facetiousness in my last post. But in general I do think there is some price-correlation among the three stages, as a mid-career artist is to my mind someone whose work has sold fairly well over the years, has arrived at a more mature style, has gotten good reviews, and thus the dealer feels justified in raising their price points to a higher level (read, beyond my budget).

Without naming names, however, I have seen some "emerging artists" (people who have just graduated with their MFAs) who are already being sold for $3000-5000 - which may be small potatoes for some, but not for me. On the other hand, a gallery I am currently working with is letting me pay over quite a few months for a piece by a "mid-career" artist I like. Why mid-career? Among other things, this person has always gotten strong reviews, has had a lot of solo shows, and has some pieces in MoMA. So what I'm trying to do this year and going forward is a more targeted approach where I buy fewer pieces but perhaps better-quality ones that cost a bit more. My annual outlay remains about the same.

But honestly, I don't understand pricing at all. I've gotten very solid pieces for only a few hundred dollars and have seen ten times that amount asked for pieces I wouldn't touch. Maybe it's all marketing and supply-and-demand, but I've yet to be convinced that pricing has any rhyme or reason at all.

Don't know if that helps at all, but I tried.

Philip Koch said...

When one's career suffers setbacks does that mean you're a submerging artist?

Joanne Mattera said...

Great responses, y'all.

The badge awaits you.

I wonder where the grad student got 42 as a figure. It's too funny. I mean, why not 41 or 43? Or 42 1/2 for that matter. Seems to me an artist is at midcareer by that point.

I appreciate your comments as a collector, but wouldn't leave a gallery just because a dealer used a term like midcareer. Indeed, I use the term myself. To me it says, "I've been at this a long time, and I expect to keep at it for another long time. Given the difficulty with living an artist's life, midcareer is kind of a badge of survival--though I know a certain amount of achievment (solo shows,etc.) has to be part of it.

Thanks for sparking this conversation. You're right: the line or boundary is constantly moving--and that "emerging" is always going to have a dual meaning. In terms of applications, I'd say that artists at any career level continue to apply for grants, but that by midcareer they're no longer entering juried shows. (There are exceptions for special situations, certainly, but generally speaking, scouring the back of art mags for shows to enter is a resume builder.)

You're right that one of the boundaries is price. The recent art bubble aside (that brief moment when dealers were selling the work of MFAers, like, $30,000), there is a correlation of development and experience to price. So while the line is constantly moving, experience and track record do help to define boundaries.


Elaine Mari said...

Sorry to enter the conversation on Tuesday rather than Monday, but I was at my no-career dayjob yesterday and had no time to take part. The term career is the first block to me, do I have an art career when I get to spend only 2 days a week in the studio, when I have a gallery and lose it because I change the way I work, when I have never gotten a grant because I don't spend any part of my precious art making time applying for one?

Never mind emerging or mid-career, what about career? I'm in mid-life, or perhaps it's end of life, who knows? I've worked seriously as an artist since 1987, I have a BFA but did not pursue an MFA. I haven't been thinking in terms of career, I think in terms of doing something I want to do come hell or high water.

But, this is "Marketing Monday" and I am reading this because I'm interested in marketing, in selling work so that I can feel wanted as an artist, that matters to me. I have trouble to describe myself as emerging or mid-career. But these terms are important in the market and I found this post and these comments educational. They explained to me that marketing means labeling and I just have to come to terms with that.

I think what I read here is that where you are in your career depends on who you are talking to.

Thanks. Really, thanks, very helpful.

Horse Feathers Saddlery said...

As a fairly new artist, this is a question I've pondered for a while. I now fit into the "emerging" category, but struggled with the lack of term prior to this. Was I simply an "insignificant" artist?

Anonymous' defition of emerging is fantastic, although I would hope my voice and work continues to evolve (I'd hate to remain static, doing the same thing in 30 years).

Like Pam, I first heard the words used to define an artist's "career progress" from an arts organisation. Government agencies, funding bodies and public galleries use them all the time when calling for residencies, proposals and funding submissions.

I feel like I have to join the game in order to grow my career.

debraclaffey said...

Wow, I really hate these labels. I didn't go to art school until I was 30. Then I was a "mature student" (read "not serious", plus female which meant "dabbler"). I've sold my art, had solo exhibits, had galleries sell my work, so I suppose I emerged from somewhere. I'm in my 50s and have been making art for more than 20 years so I suppose I'm now mid-career, but it's really meaningless. I left art school determined that being an artist meant making art because nothing else would do, and that I would determine success by not giving it up. And yes, it's vitally important to write your own story and not to let it be written for you.
Great discussion!

Kim Matthews said...

The futility of cold calling aside, where these labels are useful, I think, is when an artist is looking for representation. If a gallery that seems appropriate to me only indicates interest in midcareer+ artists, I'm not going to ask them to look at my packet/website because they are obviously not willing to take on someone without a proven track record. Most labels are for critics, curators, and art historians and needn't concern the rest of us too much.

Adam I Zucker said...

Its all semantics when it comes down to it. I think its total B.S. for someone besides the artist to decide whether they are "emerging, "mid-career" or "established." Because an artist could have created their best work when they were 16 or when they were in art school, or a week before they die. The fact that art making can be so evolutionary and artists always go through "periods;" is what makes being an artist so worthwhile. Again period is a term made up by the critic and art historian...
A time line is not art.

Anonymous said...

'artists always go through "periods;"'

I've got my period right now. I'm practically submerged.

Carolyn said...

This is a great topic - and I agree . . but aren't emerging artists self-defined? I use the term all the time, yet leave the definition up to those who identify themselves as one. And, yes, emerging can mean young - but not necessarily. How about defining emerging artist as "an artist who has potential"? The dictionary definition of emerging is "to come forth from obscurity".
It makes sense that people identify with this - it's positive, hopeful, beginning. I can live with that.

Dickson Brown said...

"And for the 25-year old who emerges bigtime? How about lucky? Or well-connected? Or child of famous parents?"

Great post Joanne; I particularly liked the quote above. It's unfortunately true that talent and creativity aren't the key reasons why an emerging artist might emerge.

Mink said...

Really great discussion, I always get sucked into reading your blog late at night when I should be sleeping.

after reading this I feel like the labels kind of suck, but I see how they are needed to describe where someone might be in their career.

I am pretty much an emerging parent who paints.

Mark Yearwood said...

Why do we need labels at all?
If the art speaks for itself, don't interrupt.

LM Smith said...

I'm in my fifties and just finished an MFA after years away from painting. Though most people consider "emerging" artists to be young, how do we older people fit into that category?

Anonymous said...

I have to repeat some of the comments previously made in that I have a certain amount of contempt for the term 'emerging' as it seems to come from the commercial branch of the Euro/US art world and in particular the art capitals of London, New York and Los Angeles.

I was labelled an 'emerging' artist ten years ago when my work began to be exhibited commercially and then in museums in both Europe and the US. The collectors followed the visibility of the shows and seemed to back the work more out of protecting their investments than for a love of the work itself.

Then there was the market crash of '07 which coincided with me, at the age of thirty, wanting to move beyond the already branded identity I'd been given in the market place. I had become known as an 'emerging' artist making one kind of work.

Ten years from my early commercial successes in the art world, I'm still searching for a language and set of interests that can occupy me and make me believe in what I'm doing. My point here is that these terms such as emerging, mid-career and so on are really nonsensical to the life and experiences of artists.

For me what matters (and I've learnt this the hard way) is a connection to a dialogue that is profound and sustainable over a period of time. A body of work or several bodies of work that are produced over time that enrich our being in the world and provide people with access to ideas, subjects, experiences otherwise unattainable.

It is the preoccupation of mediocrity that worries about meaningless labels that are imposed upon my market forces. You either contribute, and there are many means and manners of doing so, or you don't. Only the foolish look at themselves in a reflection cast by those that make a living off the work of artists. MFA programs, media, commercial galleries etc... are all complicit in this.

It matters not one bit that Carmen Herrera was discovered in her 80's, but it matters that her work is being seen.

For me are more interesting and genuinely intelligent pondering is that of the relationship between an artist's early work, mature work and the nature of the movement between those points in how such a transition is made. This approaches ideas from an intellectual creative perspective and not from the shallow confines of Frieze, Artforum, Modern Painters and Art Basel Miami.