Marketing Mondays: The Big Picture

“Artists make images, but they often
don't look at look at the Big Picture.
--Paul Klein longtime Chicago art dealer, currently founder/director of Klein Artists Works

What is the Big Picture?

Usually I'm the one who jumps in with an answer, but today I have invited Paul Klein, the author of the quote that opens this post, to offer a response. Klein has been a major presence in the Chicago art world (and beyond) for over 40 years, first as the owner/director of a long-running gallery, Klein Art Works, and more recently as the author of Art Letter, a report on the art and artists of Chicago, and founder of Klein Artist Works, a webinar-based course that helps artists at all levels and in all locations navigate themselves into the career they want. (Disclaimer: Participating in a Klein Artist Works webinar recently as an invited speaker prompted me to get Klein to talk here.)
"In the four decades I’ve been immersed in the art world I’ve noticed that almost all participants are thoroughly naïve when they jump in. Particularly artists," says Klein. 
"My hunch is that there are two key reasons. One is that art commerce is unregulated. Rules don’t exist. Guidelines are fuzzy. Recommended paths are vague.
"And two is that the vast majority of art schools do a lousy job of teaching artists how to have a career. Most artists flounder. They rarely have role models and even less often, mentors. Maybe it’s human nature to not look at the Big Picture. Maybe not. How often do you hear artists say, “I want to be famous in one year,” or “I’m focusing on getting a museum exhibit within five years”? Instead, for whatever reason, artists tend to focus on a given work of art, or at best, a body of work, with no real thought about where that body of work might fit into a larger picture and how they might get it there."

Klein describes this as the difference between vision and strategy.

"Vision is the stuff that's nonnegotiable; the need to make art . . . On the other hand, strategy is up for grabs and should be molded to serve the artist’s purpose."
I think Klein nails it, though I would say that many art students now are getting some of that Big Picture perspective. (He might disagree). But it is absolutely true that midcareer artists are laboring under fuzzy guidelines. The irony, then, is that undergraduates are coming out of art school infinitely more prepared to approach the art world than veteran artists. Those newbies don't have the studio experience or the chops or the body of work yet, but they have a clearer sense of the Big Picture and will be spared that decade of climbing out of the abyss that so many of us fell into right out of art school.

Think about the cognitive dissonance so many current mid- or late-career artists experienced back in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties:
. Art is not a career; it's a calling. We expected to work a "day job" forever so that our art would not be "tainted" with commercialism. Most artists didn't dare dream of making it--or if they did, they didn't talk about it, and many felt ashamed for even desiring such a thing
It will happen for you when the time is right. Neither the "it" nor the timing were adequately explained, and I think that's because the professors then didn't have a clue either. It was a carrot perpetually out of reach.

. Just in case you got too ambitious, there was this one: Selling your art is selling out. For well over a decade I had a studio in a building with a number of older artists who followed the "rules" of their generation. Most were unknown, and all had studios crammed floor to ceiling with a lifetime of art they never sold
. The dealer
is your enemy. Oh, the challenge: to approach someone we needed who was the very last person we were encouraged to trust. If we were unsuccessful--that is, if we faced the inevitable rejection--everything we learned was prophecy fulfilled. If we were successful in securing exhibitions and representation, we, too, became "the enemy." And if a friend got what we secretly wanted, we publicly reviled him for "selling out"
Talk about fuzzy guidelines. 
If only we had known what Klein states so matter of factly now: "Artists need their art to take care of them. Artists want to make money. Artists want to get their art out into the world. Artists are among the most creative people on the planet. But typically they sit in their studio, make great art and don’t experience the success they want and deserve. As creative people they have better tools than the mere mortals for accomplishing what they want and need. But they don’t pursue it (well). They don’t look at the Big Picture. Their hunger doesn’t propel them. They don’t apply their creativity to their careers. Resultantly their art is not communicating as well as it could. The artists are not making the money they’re entitled to and the rest of us art not getting the inspiration, stimulation and catharsis that we want."

So the Big Picture is that your studio practice is only half the equation. The other half is getting your art out into the world with confidence and a plan.
How do you see the Big picture? And equally important, where or how would you place yourself in that panorama?



kim matthews said...

On one level, I'm surprised. As someone who got into the game during the dot-com boom and has been struggling ever since to find a way to get work sold (versus just seen), I can't imagine working without a short-, medium-, and long-term strategy and not just a vision. On the other hand, I have discussions regularly with people on Facebook who don't treat themselves as professionals-both in terms of the quality of the work they produce as well as the ways they see themselves in the larger picture, as though "the art world" is some distant ideal planet. I keep saying, "We ARE the art world," but getting good representation or finding ways to sell isn't getting any easier...

annell4 said...

Since I have been at it, for about 50 years, I fall in the catogroy you described. I have taken more responsibility for getting my work out, in the last few years. But I meet stumbling blocks....

Paul Klein said...

Thanks Joanne, When I conceived of the Klein Artist Works course I specifically designed it for art school graduate students and those who were recently out.

And not one of those people signed up.

Of the almost 200 people who've participated in a bit over 2 years only 2 were under 30.

My sense is that artists coming out of school are all fired up and don't know what they don't know, until sometime later, when they realize that they don't know the steps to a successful art career.

That's when I hear from them - which is after a lot of their peers have already given up.

If the art schools were doing a better job teaching artists how to have a career, more artists, and their art, would have a better life.

Joanne Mattera said...

Kim Mathews: I like your comment, "We ARE the art world." Indeed!

Annell: Did you meet with some of the attitudes I descrtibed? I certainly did.

Paul: You mention another issue, which is the artists who have given up. It is a hard slog for so many of us--the part-time jobs that suck one's time, or the full-time jobs that suck one's time and soul; the constant rejection; the feeling that it's impossible to have a vision without a clear path to get there. It takes enormous fortitude and the support of a community. And, of course, the Big Picture to create a path.

While I do think art schools are doing far better than they used to, I agree that they could do better still. I'd like to see a one-semester requirement in both sophomore and junior years, and a full-year seminar for seniors. The colleges need to fund these courses, too. At Mass College of Art, when I taught there, I had a budget to bring in speakers, and it made an enormous difference; I was able to bring in a critic each semester, along with a dealer from New York City. We field tripped to the Boston galleries to hear from the dealers, and to the local museum (the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art)to hear from curators. It was fabulous.

By contrast I taught at a college north of Boston (briefly), that had no budget for speakers. The class, scheduled for early evening, meant that galleries and museums were closed when the class took place. Many students had jobs, so meeting in Boston on Saturday was difficult for them (and for me, since I wanted to be back in New York). So even when there are classes, sometimes the administration undermines the effort by scheduleing and lack of support.

Paul Klein said...

One of the problems art schools have is that many (most?) of their teachers don't really want to be there, but are out of economic necessity.

That likely means they don't see themselves as successful artists, which begs the question; if they don't see themselves as successful, how're they going to teach someone else to be?

Bringing in speakers helps a ton, as might bypassing graduate school and being an intern or apprentice.

Anonymous said...

I had this discussion with my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Their response was an indignant "we are not a vocational school." It ended there.

Joanne Mattera said...

Anonymous: Thanks for posting this. It's stunningly narrow-minded thinking, isn't it?

Paul: Having worked with colleagues in academia, I can say that a great many are quite dedicated ini their involvement with students. Some are quite successful, but of course others are not.

What scares me most are the professors who teach courses on professonal practices without having had sufficient experience as practicing professionals.

Adria Arch said...

Yes, yes and yes. Thank you for posting the truth, Joanne. I have finally realized all this about my art career, that you need to strategize to get somewhere with your work. In the 1970's there was never any discussion about how to make a career. And in grad school, I never heard about it either. Finally I have a group of friends that are very serious about this and we help each other out. I get it now.

Christine Sauer said...

Thank you so much for this post! I am constantly thinking about all of these issues as I have faced them as an artist having come out of an MFA program in the early 80s, fell into the abyss, climbed out of the abyss, and now as an older artist I am rebuilding my studio practice and career. I taught art to high school students for many years,some of whom went on to undergraduate art programs. And some of them come back to me for help upon graduating from college which I think is odd. This makes me think that there are many schools that are still not helping their students to transition. One thought I have is that often faculty are hired before they have been out in the art world for very long and they don't have enough experience to provide students with the skills they need to move into the world beyond academia. I also think that it would be great if universities had a bridge fund (tied to creating a business plan for their studio practice and students could compete to get it)for graduating students that would help them with the transition to the "real" world.

Fleta Monaghan said...

The Art Department in our local university is the only department that actually discourages intern opportunities for art students. In all other departments the students are encouraged by their mentor/professors and are in tough competition to secure unpaid internships in their chosen field. I know first hand how this helps the motivated students secure jobs and graduate spots after graduation, not to mention vital work experience outside the Ivory Tower. I have no trouble finding eager interns to work in my gallery and school. (they get some great perks of free classes and exposure to openings and meeting some top notch professional artists not to mention the all important networking in the local arts scene)But I don't get applications from university students, and the faculty I have spoken to directly are less than enthusiastic to put it mildly. My current intern is a first year art student at the local community college, and is getting a real first hand taste of running an active artists gallery, any classes she wants, private instruction, networking and talking to collectors. She, and other interns have come to our gallery and school at their own initiative, and get a great experience. Too bad for all those BFA's who are out in the art world with no first hand experience!! I believe you hit the nail on the head Paul when you said that faculty don't really want to be at university, but it is a shame for the students to get shortchanged. PS: It is a lot of work to mentor an intern BTW, and really often more work than return, but it is a good thing to help the young aspiring artists and something all artists should try to do if they are so inclined.

Tamar said...

My own experiences echo what several others have already said in their comments, but I'll toss a bit more into the mix.

As an undergraduate studio art major in the early 1970s, pursuing art as a career was completely absent from the conversations--between students and faculty or even between students. No one that I studied with offered any guidance beyond "just keep at it, be true to your vision, you'll get there.... (where?)" But none of us expected early success (in the form of gallery affiliation, let alone earning a living from our work). In our naivete, we thought it was enough to just keep at it, somehow, miraculously, the strength of the work would carry us through.

Although I didn't have any grand plan, I had the chutzpah to start bringing my work around to galleries when I was in my mid-twenties. Of course, I mostly met with rejection. But I did begin to build relationships with galleries and consultants that continue to this day.

But absent a big picture plan, there were numerous parts to building a career that were missing. I equated strong sales with having a successful career (I sure was wrong on that one!) After taking my lumps for I while, I accepted that I was too passive-- I was still sitting and waiting for opportunities to materialize without working at it. It is only in the past five years that I have slowly started to fill in the gaps, and started taking more responsibility for making things happen. As Adria said, I get it now.

Cory Huff said...

Of the artists I know who are making a living from their art, very few of them actually went to art school. They have backgrounds as engineers, stay at home moms, advertising reps and others.

These people are the ones that either understand marketing because of their day jobs, or they had no problem going out and learning marketing because they didn't have an art school telling them how to (not have) an art career.

Mindy Nierenberg said...

Great post. One thing not mentioned is that when I was graduating h.s. in the early '70's, as the first generation in my family to attend college, I had a choice between full scholarships at Pratt, Parsons, Brandeis and Cornell. Every person giving me advice said the same thing: "You are too smart to be an artist- go to a liberal arts school and use your intelligence." I went to Brandeis, tried 'giving up' art, as a junior went back to it and became a studio art major, but went into other fields. What I found really shocking is that as an associate dean at MassArt for 10 years, I had many students confide in me that they had been told the same thing. Some had transferred to MassArt from Harvard, many were getting a second bachelors degree. The idea that creating art and being an artist does not require intellect is astonishing. It has taken me so many years to push past that, and I am now at this point of renting a studio, making art when I can, having an 'imaginary' vision for my art, but working at another job that brings me gratification (I'm in public service),success, and decent money. It's hard to give that up and I just wish at 17 years old, one person would have told me that smart people can be and are artists.

Anonymous said...

I envision myself selling my art for a reasonable price to a decidedly more middle class client, like the print collectors of the nineteenth century. But it's very difficult to make the case for buying art to an uneducated populace. Artists now have to compete with the loud and pervasive marketing strategies used by multi-billion dollar corporations. I really want my art to take the place of say, an extra laptop or a pocketbook that will just devalue over time. While I think that can be done, the client base for this type of sale is hard to come across in my experience. At my Chelsea gallery people tell me my prices are too low. At my friend's DIY venue space in Bushwick people tell me my prices are too high. I once read that the groups who give most of their income to charity are the very rich and those right above the poverty line, so maybe the problem is there. But I digress. Art university programs can groom their artists for the marketplace all they want, but what if there is no marketplace? Or what if the existing marketplace is elitist, insular, and corrupt? I've "experienced" enough of that, and like Dave Hickey, I want out.

Anonymous said...

eI graduated from Rhode island School of Design in 1976 with a BFA in Illustration. ( My parents would not pay for a non job-orientated painting major). While my professors were exhibiting in NYC galleries, winning Caldecott Medals, creating the characters for the Hobibit, selling various other books in NYC museum shops, we were not allowed to discuss life outside of RISD in the real world. The big picture was a forbidden subject. We had sell out guilt. So like other young, hungry art school graduates, I faked my way into the art department of a magazine as a paste-up artist and taught myself how to work successfully as an illustrator in NYC. My RISD education and studio experience was rich and full , but I believe I missed out on a valuable part of my education. I applaud you Joanne for the post and for bringing Paul Klein into the conversation.

graceann warn said...

I learned a lot of what I know about keeping my eye on the bigger picture, having short and long term goals and so on from my early years as a design professional. In my undergrad program we had to take a professional practice course. I am constantly appalled/flummoxed by the lack of knowledge (of even the most basic things) of many newly minted BFAs. One course like the one I had in design school to at least introduce concepts of professionalism would be a beginning.

graceann warn said...

I laughed reading Mindy's comment. I wanted to go to RISD, got accepted but felt pressured by my family to go and get a "practical" degree. So I went first to Michigan State, floundered around for 5 and a half years finally emerging with a landscape architecture degree (closest thing to art I guess while still being "practical"), got out, worked for a while until I quit and rented a studio and started doing what I wanted to do a decade earlier. That's the short version.dy 9381

Paul Klein said...

Hi Anonymous, If you don't like the marketplace(s) you find yourself and your art in, Create Your Own Marketplace - or your own paradigm. You're creative. Use it to your advantage.

Kickstarter is a great example. One of next week's webinars is with an artist who was the highest funded sculptor ever.

Other artists we've spoken with work only with art consultants, while others only pursue commissions of large-scale public art, and others still apply for grants and go to residencies.

Look at Sol Lewitt, Christo, and Tino Sehgal. Before them, the way each does 'business' didn't exist.

You are not tethered to the existing system. Find what resonates for you and make it fly.

Joanne Mattera said...

Paul and I agree on a lot of marketplace issues, so let me add that earlier in the year, I did a Marketing Mondays post called "Do It Yourself" in which I offered a lot of options, and examples of artists who were exercising those options:

We are in a position now in the 21st century where the hierarchy has been flattened to a large degree:
. Between between dealer and artist. Dealers, pushed to the financial edge, have a much greater appreciation for what it takes for an artist to continue to make art even when there is no money coming in. And with the pressure to get into certain art fairs, they really understand the sting of rejection in a way they might not have before.
. Between artist and critic. The diminished oppoprtunities for critics coupled with the opportunities that artists have taken via social media (ahem, like this blog) mean that
there is a greater dialog between and among us
. Between artist and curator, or artist and dealer. Artists have no intention of taking a curator's job, but the DIY ethic that pervades the art world now means that artists may curate shows. Or that artists may become dealers. Or dealers may become writers. Or, like Paul, that dealers may become writers and teachers.

Kickstarter and USA Projects have empowered a lot of artists. Artists empower one another. so if you want something, make it happen. Will you become as famous as Picasso or as rich as Gagosian? Probably not. But you can create a place for yourself.

Laura Moriarty said...

I really appreciate this post and all the terrific comments. I have always felt that the best way to approach the business end of art is to view it as a continuum rather than a polarity. There is no art side/business side. My studio practice and the objects and ideas that are produced there are my livelihood. I use that word with intention because it helps me understand that I need to keep my work alive, and that my work keeps me alive. I extend the same amount of creativity to all aspects of this practice, whether it's organizing my time, documenting my work, dealing with audiences and presenters, promoting - all of it is part of a whole. I aim to bring the same focus, concepts, energy and vision to these things as I do to making a new piece. Art IS a business and it is such fun to make your own roadmap to success! It's a crying shame the way so many artists hold themselves back.

Tina Mammoser said...

Really interesting discussion. I identify with the mid-career sort of stagnation, and exhaustion! :) I was lucky coming from a non-art education and experience background so the business side was fun to me. I admit though that more than a decade in my goal setting (short, medium and long term) has lapsed and I have to redress this.

I definitely agree that we are the art world, and there isn't just one marketplace. Not exactly successful yet with how to make my own (or add mine to the existing marketplace that's working for me a bit) but I won't stop trying.

It shocks me that any university would discourage art internships! Some of the experiences that gave me the best business head-start were thinking like assisting in a gallery, working at an art fair (love them or hate them!), and training with a framer. How can you know how to present your artwork to that "commercial" side of the art world (if we call it that) if you don't know how they work? said...

I went to art school but I didn't go for a degree. I just went to learn...while working full time. I was working for a start up at that time and so I had that mentality. When I went into painting I had a boot strap plan and some savings. I considered that "graduate school". I am making a living at it now. Paid my savings back. It's not easy. You take the good the bad and the ugly that goes along with this job of painting. So now I am doing for myself what I did for the start up. The pay is less but the rewards are great. I'm living in the paint.

Jhina Alvarado said...

I guess it's a good thing I never went to art school, as an undergrad or grad school. It never occured to me that selling my art would be selling out and I have always had long and short range goals because that's what you learn for most other careers you go to school for (although I tend to be goal orientated in most things I do, regardless of what it is).

Nowadays it's so easy to learn how to market oneself and to get our work out there that there really is no excuse to not do it. We don't need to have gone to an art school to learn (or not learn) these things. We really do have it a lot easier than artists ten years ago.

Anonymous said...

From Frank Hyder, Philadelphia-and-Miami-based artist and gallerist:

As regards your market comments from Klien: He is partly right as are you when you say today's art students are better prepared for the art world. In my opinion there are several art worlds. First of all clarify which one you want. All art schools fail except the Skowhegan school in my opinion and possibly the Yale grad program. Skowhegan because it has no curriculum only a rough idea of professional artist as a goal, and uses a combination of very talented students who disagree on just about everything together with four successful in NYC live-in mentors. This actually works.
Yale because it takes very talented intelligent students and hammers them over and over on issue clarification--a similar system to skowhegan but with a bit more emphasis.

I have taught and visited in many art schools they all have the same problem TEACHERS WHO TEACH STUDENTS TO DO WHAT THEY DO. Few of these have been successful. They have no sense of reality; they are experts with little or no experience. They read art magazines and live vicariously through though the articles.

Then there are dealers who are another art world. Dealers often assume that their point of view is right on, young artist need to understand where they fit.

As I said there are several art worlds, and the streets are now full of underprepared artist with little talent but a plan to be famous. This is not good either.

I recently saw an old teacher who is still painting every day. He taught for many years and has several students who have become Very famous. He himself was part of a Museum of Modern Art show in 1962, singled out by John Canaday as his favorite in the New York Times review, and today is content painting and selling paintings for 2000$ a piece. He has no bitterness, no remorse, only a true love of being an artist. Is he a success or a failure? As I said there are many art worlds. Each of us describes a universe as we see it.

Fiona the Artist said...

This is so interesting. I graduated from Art School in the UK in 1983. We were given all the grounding in technique, and emotional support for our individual vision, but absolutely no strategic advice on how to continue after graduation. We were generally advised to approach London galleries (much easier back then), or get a studio in London, and make connections that way. It was all rather vague. A number of our visiting tutors were established artists, and the general idea was to follow in their footsteps, and some of us were lucky enough to be mentored by an ex-tutor. It was less complicated back then, of course, but we left Art School with no idea of The Big Picture. A perpetuated myth was that it was enough to keep painting, and sooner or later, your work would 'get somewhere.'

I moved abroad to Cyprus shortly after graduation, and I became immersed in a very active art community. There was a lot of debate amongst artists, a lot of support and advice. I was able to be a full-time artist, and participated fully in local and international opportunities. On my return to the UK, I suddenly became aware that Art Schools were now giving advice on the 'steps' students should take in their 'careers.' Also, the internet was re-arranging marketing and networking, and I had to re-learn many things. Facebook has been invaluable for networking with artists and galleries, and for advice. Your blog has opened my eyes to issues I was ignorant about, and I've learned so much from reading your 'Marketing Mondays.'

I agree with Paul Klein that we, as creatives, have to channel some of that into our marketing approaches and strategies, and in creating our own personal niche as an artist. It's daunting but exciting because so many resources are now at our fingertips.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful discussion. I appreciate it dearly.