Marketing Mondays: How Do You Define Success?

It's been over a year since Marketing Mondays started. I wasn't sure I could sustain 52 weeks' worth of ideas, but here we are seven MM posts into the new year and there are plenty more topics to consider and some to revisit.

Artist Karen Schifano suggested I revisit the topic of success. I first posted on the topic in June last year, but now that readership is way up (1600+ of you every Monday!) this seemed like a worthy topic to revisit.

Cartoon by Eric Gelber

The paradigm for success looks something like this:
Get a BFA.
Get an MFA.
Set up a studio in a large city, preferably New York.
Tap that font of inspiration to make art every day.
Sweat, agonize and work your little fingers to the bone to create a substantial and worthy body of work.
Do the obligatory Open Studio or two.
Exhibit in group shows.
Get a solo in a non-profit or small commercial gallery.
Receive some blogger attention.
Apply for and receive a Pollock-Krasner grant or other award that marks you as an up-and-comer.
Invite dealers and curators visit your studio--and have them actually come.
Move from being an assistant to having an intern.
Get invited to join a good gallery in which you've previously been included in group shows.
Have a solo show there.
Sell out the show.
Receive a great review in one of the print publications we all read.
Be the subject of a raging debate on one of the art blogs.
Be invited to a Whitney Biennial.
Find yourself hated or lionized (envied either way); pick one.
Have kids that your wife/partner/nanny takes care of.
Have your dealer take your work to the art fairs, where big-name collectors wrangle for the opportunity to acquire it.
Hire assistants (no more pesky interns).
Jump to a bigger, higher-profile gallery.
See your big-ass dealer sell your work for a six figures (maybe more).
Find there's a waiting list for your work.
Move to a larger studio. Make that a much larger studio.
If you're teaching, get tenure.
Apply for and receive a Guggenheim (because you really need the money).
Make the cover of Art in America.
Better still, hit the trifecta, AiA, Art Forum and Modern Painters.
See your work curated regularly into ever higher-profile museum shows with ever more lavish catalogs.
Soar into another level with a MoMA retrospective.
Receive a MacArthur "genius" grant.
Renovate your loft after you buy the building it's in.
Get a second studio in another place--Greece, St. Maarten, Berlin, Rio--your choice.
Have your assistants do the work.
See your work be the subject of multiple monographs by high-profile art historians or critics.
See your work included in the art history books.
Watch your work go for seven figures and your bank account bulge.
Die happy and rich.
(Did I miss anything?)
The reality for most artists is anything but:
Working two part-time jobs with no benefits.
Working a full-time job with benefits but not enough time to make art.
Making art but getting little attention.
Getting some attention but making no sales.
Making sales but never getting into the good collections or seeing your career advance critically.
Sleeping on a futon when you're 35 and all your non-artist friends are buying homes.
Living and working in New York; spending all your time in the studio or working to support the studio.
Not living and working in New York; it's an easier life, but it's not New York.
Not living and working in New York and it's still not easy.
Not having a tenure-track teaching job, but struggling to patch together some adjunct teaching.
Seeing your students get the galleries and the attention.
Not getting the adjunct teaching jobs.
Having kids and regretting it.
Not having kids and regretting it.
Not getting the Pollock Krasner, Guggenheim or MacArthur.
Not getting on the cover of Art in America.
Not getting reviewed in Art in America.
Not getting a retrospective even at your regional art center.
Not getting retirement benefits because you never put in enough hours at any one job to be vested.
Not having a 401(k).
Moving your studio for the fifth time in 20 years because your rent has gone up higher than you can afford--and losing four months with each move to the pack, move and setup. (And, yes, you're doing it yourself with a rent-a-van.)
Battling with sexism or racism for decades only to find another ism biting at your angles: ageism.
Enjoying the privilege of whiteness and maleness for decades only to find your bald or gray-haired self in the same boat as your non-male, non-white colleagues whom you've secretly thought of as complainers.
Losing your gallery, if you ever had one, because it's closing, or because your work isn't selling, or because you're past middle age and the dealer won't admit that's why they're dropping you from the roster.
Losing your studio when you're 75 because the building is going co-op and you don't qualify for credit--plus you couldn't come up with the down payment.
Dying with a studio full of art that gets thrown out when the landlord comes to clean out the space.

OK, somewhere between those two extremes is the career that most of us have, neither big-ass blue-chip nor its black-and-blue opposite.

And that's the topic of today's Marketing Mondays: How do you define success for you?
. Is it based on the art world paradigm?
. Or is it something else--integrating art and life in a bucolic setting? Teaching, raising a family and showing every couple of years in a regional co-op gallery? Finding a way to combine your art and your politics? Working nine-to-five so that you can be free to outside of the gallery-go-round?
. Whatever it is, how close have you come to that ideal?
. Has your ideal of success changed during the course of your career?


Casey Klahn said...

Just defining myself as an artist. That's number one.

If someone else deigns me an artist, that's a bonus.

Did I get into the studio today/this week/ever recently? How did I like my work? There is success.

I don't need the brevets that others have, but I do oogle them when I see them. More so, I oogle their great art (if I like it).

Congratulations on your powerful Monday Market series, Joanne. keep it up - I'm reading.

alexander said...

I’m 27 and have been seriously painting for about a year now. I graduated just as the economy collapsed. I had to re-figure my idea for success since I had been studying Architecture. How could I rely on such an unstable profession? The deeper I looked I found how precarious and vulnerable the professional world is. No matter the direction, nothing is guaranteed. So I started painting which became an affirmation of my free will. It’s the one thing I could control: paint+brush.

I’m at the beginning of my art career so I am relishing the process of becoming. I have my first show up right now and I’m ecstatic. I plan on getting my MFA and I plan on moving out of Boston.

Success is so seductive I try to keep it in context of the artwork itself.
So success is learning from one work and applying that knowledge to the next. If your work brings you joy it is successful, if it advances your career it is a success.

Conjecture: Success is parabolic, it is more difficult attain for a mid-late career artists compared to an artist in his/her early stage?

Harry + Harrietta said...

Funny, we thought you were going to mention doing the level of art work you always dreamed of and not giving a poop what anybody thought. Money ain't everythang!!!!!!!! If you want to make money be a banker. Yippee!!!!!!!!!

lovvvveeeee ya hon!!!!!!!!!!!!!! H+H

lisa said...

11:30 am and no answers to your post yet.
It is a hard question and also very personal.

My feelings of success in my art "career" last for moments, maybe a day or two, and then I am off and running wondering what is next on the horizon. My definition of success is always changing and shifting.

Philip Koch said...

Wonderful post Joanne! I laughed out loud reading your first list of stages in the successful career. Guess if you're fantasizing you might as well go all the way!

My idea of success has certainly changed over the years.

Initially I thought all you'd need was talent and lots of hard work. Then I started noticing all these other artists out there who showed lots of both and still weren't getting famous fast.

Years ago I thought the art world was a much more monolithic beast than it has turned out to be. There are little groups of collectors, curators, and artists with their own particular passions and focus. No artist will ever appeal to all, but their is almost always some significant audience out there for what you are painting or sculpting. So while the art world is more challenging than I first thought, it also offers far wider variety of potential avenues for an artist to travel down. With luck, one can pick wisely.

To me now, any path that allows an artist to continue working at her/his vision and developing a masterful body of work would have to be called successful. I now have enormous respect for any artist who can find a way to go the distance over many decades. Survival as a creative artist is a BIG accomplishment.

In my own case, that has been combining teaching at an art school, a very supportive spouse who works more than full time, and some good fortune in attracting steady sales over the years. Key to the whole business is finding a direction in your work that continues to excite you and gives you real pleasure.

Artists are the people who find the things that delight their eyes and heart, and then go about the hard business of giving those visions physical form so we can share them with others. The more you can keep something good going on in your studio, the easier the career building tasks become. You come to rightly feel you owe it to the artwork you've created.

Lori Buff said...

I wrote about this same question on my blog a few months ago ( I really thing success is different for each person. Sometimes it's earning some money doing what you love, sometimes it's great critical acclaim. For me it would be to have a balance between a good (enjoyable and profitable) career and a healthy social life.

Donna Dodson said...

Somewhere in between or midcareer is where I am at... I think my initial drive to make art is what keeps me on track and measuring my success- theres no shortage of talent- who your work attracts to you and the opportunities that come your way are important and take skill to manage but if you dont believe in your work or yourself, i dont think you'll get anywhere... I've been kind of focused on the business side and gallery side for the past 10 years and now I am thinking more about learning new things and trying new things- hopefully building on the platform I've built but also risking failure, having fun and trying to grow...

The benchmarks you cite are all true and they matter- they mean something in the art world but the realities are also there too.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, all, for your good responses.

Speaking for myself, I will say that my idea of success has changed over the years, too. When I had a 9-5 job, I didn't have to think about sales, except insofar as there needed to be enough of them to make the dealers happy. Success was getting into a couple of good galleries, making enough sales to feel commercially vindicated, getting into some good collections, being involved in the art world, and enjoying the respect of my colleagues.

When my publishing job ended in 1998, art had to become my sho'nuff livelihood. Success then meant being able to support not only my studio but earning a living from the sale of my art.

The easiest part is continuing to make art that comes from an untainted place. The hardest part is managing "the business"--the inventory, the invoices, the packing and shipping. (And since the economy has slowed sales, it now means taking on some teaching and various art-related projects.)

I never believed I could have a career as an artist. Certainly art school didn't suggest that as a possibility, so I learned to create that career on my own. Old school artists may curse the idea of "art as a career" but I embrace it--and I encourage others to do the same. Why should we have to become bankers to earn money, for godsakes? Does your doctor work at Starbucks? Does your auto mechanic have to work at an auto parts store to be able to fix cars?

For me now, success would probably be working 40-60 hours a week rather than 80 plus. The MoMA retrospective will have to wait until the next life.

Stephanie Sachs said...

1600 people. Congrats Joanne. Time for a suggested subscription donation. You spend so much of your valuable time giving us advice about marketing and making money it is a blessing to us all. Time to get paid -- at least something.

Have managed to stay busy selling my work during this recession which has kept me knocking on wood.
In all my years as an artist I have never relied on galleries as the sole provider of my income. Everywhere I look for opportunities. Last year I sent off my catalog to the biggest interior designer where I live and now I am working two commissions for a high end hotel renovation.
This month I am combing through Architectural Digest's list of designers, checking their websites for compatibility and send more catalogs.
There are very few Dana Schultz's out there. They are wonderful artists who hit the market at the right time with the right innovation. They are the artists of your first scenario. It is up to us to not be the victims of the second scenario.

Steve Eichenberger | Sculptor said...

>How do you define success for you?

To know within myself that I've successfully translated my inner vision into physical form. That's the first and most important step. But I'll admit that it only feels like a complete $uccess if the piece finds a buyer. And that cycle has to happen again, and again, and again, with enough regularity to pay the bills.

>Is it based on the art world paradigm?

I think being a left coaster frees me from some of that. Your New York-based success scenario sounds like my idea of hell. I'd die from that much schmoozing.

My theory is that art is good for society at large. I think the world needs more art, and now more than ever. It gives me a sense of purpose to be a bringer of art to my corner of society here in the Northwest.

>Or is it something else--integrating art and life in a bucolic setting?

Since my partner is also an artist, and we've been making our full time living from art since 1995, and we've paid off our own little bucolic acre with art proceeds, I think your phrase "integrating art and life in a bucolic setting" says it well! We are grateful every day for the successes we've had, but of course our definition of success keeps a few paces ahead of us to keep us challenged.

>Has your ideal of success changed during the course of your career?

Yes, at first I was content to make a living from any kind of artwork, including "production" work, as long as it meant I didn't have to work for someone else. But now I'd like to see my one-of-a-kind pieces bring in as much annual income as the production work. Pie in the sky success would be if demand and prices for my large scale works would rise to the point that I could justify giving sculpture my full creative attention, and let our employees manage all the rest. I'm upping my game artistically this year in a hair on fire effort to move things along in that direction.

My biggest challenge is sculpting myself! Cutting away parts that are holding me back, and adding new skills / cultivating positive work habits that will help me advance artistically. How can I free up? get looser? dig deeper? live larger? put in more studio hours?

Thanks for MM's, Joanne! They challenge me.

Steve Eichenberger

Thevisionarybutterfly said...

I've never been to art school but it is something I enjoy doing. It came be frustrating at times but then rewarding when one is able to overcome certain obstacles and achieve the results they wish to express. I would love to make a living doing what I enjoy whether it's photoshop collages, miniature interiors, a published writer, stylist or photographer. There is so much I want to do. I started blogging in hopes of sharing my ideas and talents with whoever is willing to listen. It's nice to get feedback and learn from others. There are so many talented artists out there with great vision and create remarkable illustrations, which is inspiring.

Success ultimately is when your making a living doing what you love and gives you freedom.

Tamar said...

Over the thirty plus years I have been working seriously at my art, my expectations about success have shifted--but at the core it is all about walking into the studio each day and feeling good about the work.

I never anticipated a career as an artist--I just kept going because doing otherwise simply was not an option. Of course, I wanted the work to be noticed--for people to be moved by my images and hang them on their walls (and pay for the privilege of doing so). And I had an extended period of time where by that measure, I had achieved a degree of success.

But the work was leading me in new directions, and (depending on how you want to see it) I risked all by following that new path. And indeed, when sales dropped as the work changed, I certainly felt defeated for a while. But I sure was excited by the new pieces!

Equating success only with sales ultimately isn't all that satisfying. Some of the paintings I feel are my best have not met with commercial success. Sure, it's disappointing, but what matters most is that I still get a chill looking at them when I pull them out of the rack.

Beyond the financial rewards (and I'm not knocking steady sales!) success as a creative person is about the work continuing to evolve, about picking yourself up and getting into the studio even if you've made a mess of the past few weeks or months of work, about feeling charged up to keep at it, no matter what it takes, because you are doing what you love. And hoping that enough $$ will come in so you can keep going.

Catherine Carter said...

Joanne, I want to join the list of your readers/fans who sincerely appreciate your ongoing commitment to supporting, informing and celebrating other artists through your blog. I have learned so much from reading your Marketing Mondays installments, and I've smiled, sighed and nodded with recognition while reading your honest and witty words. You ROCK.

No matter how plump my resume becomes, the most important thing to me is that excited, child-like, joyful feeling that fills my heart whenever I enter my studio. The cares of the outside world (even of my art career) disappear and I am in my own Heaven on Earth. As long as that continues, I am a Success.

And I admit with embarrassment that I'm 47 and STILL sleeping on that damn futon.

LXV said...

Joanne, What a great post! and great responses! I admit I read it early this morning before there were any comments and it put me into such turmoil that I couldn't come up with anything to say. But I'm grateful to all those who shared their experiences, philosophies, hopes and personal wisdom. Such positive energy!

There are times when the capital A "Art World" does not seem like a place I inhabit even though I have never not been an artist. And so, I make my own world in which the art is never a "product". The times I have been led down the path of producing a consistent oeuvre at the request/expectation of a gallery have turned out to be dead ends that left me with "inventory" I feel estranged from. And the fear of the dumpster looms large, but I keep making the stuff anyway. It's not paying its way lately, but I never really expected it to. I view being an artist as sort of like having a disabled child. First you have to acknowledge the reality, then you have to commit to its care, unconditionally. The rewards and the risks go hand in hand. Unfortunately, all the day jobs have dried up, so I'm still on that darn futon too.

Maybe this crappy economy will level the playing field in that ordinary people (read: non-artists) will start to understand the uncertainty we all feel. There's no sure thing in this world.

Nancy Ewart said...

I'd like to echo the others who have posted their thanks for this (and other) great posts. This one was funny but what a loaded question - how do you define success? I lived in NY for a while and realized that I just wasn't cut out for the grim grind. When I decided to move to SF, I didn't know HOW to be an artist, much less what success meant. In fact, from what little I knew of the art world, I didn't think I would be a success - if you define success as selling in galleries and all or some or a bit of the items that you first listed in your post. I always had a 9-5 job and never made much money as am artist; the times I tried to support myself were so unsuccessful that the day job was a less horrible option. I am constantly redefining success as I go along but I know what it's NOT for me. It's not the trappings of NY fame and fortune. I don't have the stamina for that. But what it is is making art, making connections, having fun, writing, and creating community. But in the end, I think of that old song "You've got to walk that lonesome highway. You've got to walk it by yourself. " That pretty much says it all for me.

Nancy Natale said...

Jesus, you're a cynical bastard, Joanne!

What the hell else would I do if I wasn't an artist? If I worked in an office (or maybe The Office), how would I define success? When I see the other poor schmos going to work on the highway, I define myself as successful because I don't have to see them five days a week. When I make a painting I like, I'm successful. Will it end up in a dumpster some day? Maybe - but so will I (well, hopefully not literally).

Anyway, the whole thing is just relative no matter what you do in your life. If you're an artist, you're luckier than other people because you get to think about things like this. How much is it worth to ponder esoteric topics? Can you put a price on it?

When you come to the end of your life, it would be nice if you thought it had meant something - even if only to yourself. I guess that's success.

Joanne Mattera said...

Nancy, while I am a cynic (although a fairly optimistic one), I'm covering all the bases for the blog post. I'd need a golf cart to carry all that cynicism around in real life.

Horse Feathers Saddlery said...

There are so many wonderful answers to your post already, Joanne, that I feel there's little I can add. I particularly enjoyed Steve's comment about the challenge of "sculpting" himself and Catherine's description of the child-like joy of starting work each day.

I confess that I do dream of being shown in national institutions, having critics eating out of my hand and tripping to exotic locations to create my latest body of work.

However, these things would mean nothing if my passion for art grew stale. I value that I have made the choice to be an artist, and that I am following my heart. In a world where most people hate their jobs, I relish getting up in the morning to do mine. What's more, it allows me to grow, and to emotionally and intellectually engage with the world.

At other times, the really small things in life make me feel successful. For example, how many other people have the luxury of taking their pets to work (there's a miniature dachshund on my lap as I write)?

Anonymous said...

Success for me is: having time to create art, being able to enjoy my art practise as a private endeavour, and enjoying the inner peace that comes from creating.

Pamela Farrell said...

For me, I guess success is:

>having my work sell during this recession, after raising my prices

>feeling a sense of fulfillment in being able to create work that people that seems to bring people enjoyment

>being represented by a well-respected gallery

>running 2 businesses (private practice psychotherapist & artist) that are synergistic rather than antagonistic

>having my art respected by my peers

>being a late-bloomer, having only painted "seriously" for the past 6 or 7 years, and being given my first solo gallery show at 52

>I live mostly outside the "art world", ensconced in a quasi-bucolic area on a couple of acres with a nice little studio. I live equidistant between NYC and Philly. Sometimes I wish I lived in the city, but then I come home and am happy for the space and the quiet

By some measures, mine is modest success. But it's mine, and there's still plenty of room for growth and development, both with the career and the art-making.

Thanks for revisiting this topic, Joanne. I love the many perspectives and definitions of success.

Mink said...

one more thing comes after this

"Dying with a studio full of art that gets thrown out when the landlord comes to clean out the space."

Then some art students pull your paintings out of the trash and take the canvases off to use the stretcher bars.

Unknown said...

This made me grin!

I recall a few years back when I visited my niece's HS art class. Her teacher was welcoming but another came in, said hello and bluntly asked, looking down her nose at me, "How much work have you sold?" At the time the answer was 3 pieces from the current series, that year, with no marketing effort as I was just "gearing up". I remember thinking, "Wow. If that's how you define artistic success, you are unfit to teach art."

I have been working at my art career full time now for 3 years and I am happy to say that I have made progress towards what I consider being successful. My definition of success hasn't changed much since I played it out in my head over ten years ago. Horn tooting time: my most recent accomplishment/step taken: being selected as the next resident artist at the Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, Va.

While professionalism is a must in all career paths, I would hate to see the visual arts path become nothing more then a series of check boxes (MFA, studio, etc.). There are things you must "check off" certainly (like taking your marketing seriously, presenting work well, etc.) but creating work is a personal adventure/challenge. It's different for all who undertake it. As is the (personal) definition of success.

Karen Schifano said...

There are so many great responses that I can't add much more, except, IT'S A GREAT LIFE even with all of the pitfalls and struggle. Wouldn't want to be anything else, except maybe a musician on the side. (but there's not enough time!)

I'm finding that the less I worry about the externals and keep working steadily, the happier I am. I care less about approval, (although of course some is always warming in a lonely studio.) Ultimately I'm agreeing with all the people who said that success is trying to fulfill one's own vision and having those moments of surprise and excitement - you lose yourself in the process and feel the most alive.

anne mcgovern said...

I worked on Wall St. for years, raised a child and suppressed my real love of painting. At 52 I moved to the Southwest, started painting like crazy, occasionally sell a few, and my relatives will probably inherit a housefull of paintings they won't know what to do with (hopefully not throw in the dumpster!). I can tell you it has been the happiest and most freeing time of my life and I wouldn't trade it for all the money in the world.

Anonymous said...

Success- well that’s easy. Simply put, one has to be happy in order to be successful. I don’t think it can be measured by just one aspect of our lives, like one’s art practice/worth. Recently, I have been asking myself over and over again- what do I need to be happy? For me, making art is at the top of the list. In fact I have managed to edit out the most important things I need to ‘feel’ successful in life. They are: 1. having a healthy family (within reason), 2. Making art and 3. Running. Everything else is manageable.

Neanderthals Destroyed Atlantis said...

I hope the text in the comic isn't too hard to read. The full size version is here:

Joanne thank you for covering all the angles, literally.

JT Harding said...

to me, longevity as an artist is success. There are stars who burn brightly and quickly fade ...and there are those who quietly achieve and slowly amass raving fans.

Bill said...

Dizzy Gillespie said it best: "I don't care about going down in history, I want to eat!

patricia sahertian said...

Thank you for the contrasting look at the world of art. Yes, somewhere in between, defined by our own selves, would be the ideal.

I am happy to say the words, "I am an artist."

mel prest said...


I love this post. It's such an important thing to determine for ourselves what is success, rather than relying on exterior forces to tell us if we've made it.

Thanks for asking the good questions.