Marketing Mondays: Advice to Your Young Self

Carmen Herrera at her home in New York on her 94th birthday. Photograph from The Guardian online by Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu

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 89was 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 harderbecause 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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Scarlett said...

I would tell my 20 year-old self to keep reading, keep learning, even after you have that degree in art. Most of all, don't be afraid of change. What's important to you now will be very different than what's important to you in a decade (or two). I earned my degrees in painting, then 10 years later, fell in love with constructions and lost my passion for painting. That's not a bad thing! Keep an open mind - always.

Unknown said...

Great insights!! Thank you for sharing this important advice. My 20-year-old-self should have been more patient and persistent AND should have believed in her abilities more.

annell4 said...

Great post. Young artists are lucky to have such good advice. In my day it was so different.

Oriane Stender said...

I had several profs who considered their students their competition (ergo, almost their enemy). I'm not sure how I would tell my 20-yr-old self to deal with this. "Don't trust your teachers" sounds so negative. Maybe just "don't believe everything your teachers tell you."

Bernard Klevickas said...

What about advice for a 40 year old self?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Scarlet. I would also tell my 20 year old self to become involved with an active, intelligent art community or group. And learn about the business of art, and network. Believing is a big part of succeeding. And then just get into that studio and make your work. Regularly!

Anonymous said...

I would say "keep going, don't loose hope, and don't beat yourself up too much, get involved in your community, and read Joanne Mattera's blog." You are always insightful, thank you!

Laura J. Wellner (author pseudonym Laura J. W. Ryan) said...

An awesome post! I would tell my 20 year old self to keep painting, keep learning (experimenting), stop being so dang angry about the BS, and love what you're doing.

Michele Fraichard said...

I went and read the 'demystify' article-love what Saltz had to say about critics! I'd tell my 20 year old self it was ok to skip art school if it wasn't encouraging my creativity, but merely emptying my mind and my pocketbook (which is exactly what I did at 28).


Learn as much about investing as you do about art. Save every penny you possibly can and start building a stock portfolio that will earn you passive income so you can concentrate on your art.

Anonymous said...

What I did tell my 20 year old self was that I needed to get a MFA for myself after getting the Education degree for my parents.

What I didn't expect was the closed mindedness of my instructors and advisors (what I got from my advisor was that the only way to paint was the way he painted). I was not told how to navigate the "art world," because I did not involve myself in the cliques that were close to the instructors and advisors. And my school told me straight out that they were not a "trade school." It was not their purpose to teach those kinds of application courses.

I would tell my 20 year old self to involve myself with the artists of my school and the academic art environment around me. I would tell myself that I can do it by myself if necessary; I can put on my own shows, organize student shows and draw attention to myself and my work if I need to. I world tell myself that I do not have to wait for the tap of anointment from the "art world." I can be my own art world.

But, be advised that my partner who did create his own art world while a student was told by his instructors that they had taught him all that they could and it was best if he left school. So he did, and went dancing.

At 20, it was hard to know what was good advice and what was bad.

Joanne Mattera said...

Such good Advice!
. I love William's advice to create a source of passive income so that you can concentrate on your work in the studio. (A separate MMM is percolating as a result of that comment.)
. Anonymous 10:03 points out the importance of understanding which advice is useful and which isn't. hat relates to Oriane's comment, "Don't believe everything your teachers tell you."
. Lynette says that believing is a big part of succeeding. Yes, indeed.

Bernard asks: "What about advice for a 40-year-old self"? I think we'd all have to be 80 to have that kind of retrospection. But in the meantime, my MM posts--there are now close to 100--might be helpful.

Anonymous said...

I would tell my 20 year old self to recognize when people are opening doors and trying to be helpful. I was rebellious and angry at that age and thought I could do it all on my own, my way. Luckily at age 45 I began to recognize the error of my ways. Now at age 52, I'm where I wish I had been at age 30 (and might have been had I been able to accept help and guidance). I'm happier now and very appreciative of the network of artists around me and the genuine kindness out there when I allow myself to see it. Better late than never!

Melanie Millar said...

the world and the art world today is such a radically different place from the world of my 20;s. what i would tell my 20 year old nephew who is a junior in a BFA program is: figure out what you LOVE to do, figure out what you are GOOD at, figure out the intersection between those two areas and then learn as much as you can about the contemporary art world and art market and begin to figure out where you can be sucessful. ALSO learn as much as you can about business practices, personal finance, marketing. Learn to think STRATEGICALLY.

that should keep him busy for about 40 years.

if i told my 20 year old self to think of my art career as a business i would have gotten a blank stare. thats the problem with advice from the older to the younger

great post, great comments, as always

studiomargo said...

Thank you for this post! I just turned 27 and have been painting full time for three years now and I am finally realizing that there is no "IT" to reach. I can be want I want to be (any medium and any scale). Patience is key. Discipline and Balance are my friends. It is the process, discovery, and surprises in the studio that keep my passion and heart alive. said...

I don't know, Joanne. You've said everything That I can an think of this morning. It seems that I am at that other level, this year, where opportunities present themselves, including being invited into galleries. Luck is when opportunity meets preparedness. So besides telling my 20 yr old self "to be prepared what you want" v I would tell myself to draw everyday.

Karen Schifano said...

As always, what a great MM post! I would tell my 20 year old self that it's not selling out to get my work out into the world. I've had quite a few conversations recently, mostly with older women artists, who still feel almost ashamed of promoting their own work. I think that we were taught that it was unseemly, unfeminine, to "toot our own horns" and so we tend to hide our lights under a bushel. I've worked for thirty years to get rid of that shame, and feel so much freer about this issue. You can't expect to have a career if your work is hidden in the studio, and having an audience and sales are part of the dialog that work must have to really be alive and part of the culture.

Bridgette Guerzon Mills said...

Wonderful post Joanne and I appreciate all the comments that other readers have left! I would tell my 20 year old self to go ahead and study art because that's what I loved and I should have known better than going the safe route, to the guaranteed job.

That confidence in self and in one's work will carry one forward, as well as dedication and hard work.