Episode 32 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Transfiguration of the Commonplace

Carey: So now that we’ve inherited this, and young artists have inherited this, and most artists living today, but where is this evolving to? Are we still operating under this new paradigm?

Danto: Yes, I think so. But people have to be taught to live under this paradigm because the question isn’t an epistemological question. That is to say, how would we tell them apart? The question is an ontological one: what is it to be a work of art in contrast with an ordinary object?

That is really the problem that I worked on beginning a little bit with The Artworld but mostly in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace because in there I’ve identified two conditions—it’s not sufficient, but two conditions of invisible things.

The first thing is meaning and second thing is what I call “embodiment.” How the meaning is mapped on to the object, but then you need a third thing which is interpretation. I think the first thing that happens is you get a real vulgarization of what Warhol did, where people say, “Oh, here’s a fuse box, it’s a work of art.” And so you have to say, “What makes it a work of art? What is it to be a fuse box?” and there what you have to do is to start thinking about the meaning and how the meaning is mapped on to the object and how we interpret it, which doesn’t come at all intuitively when we’re just talking about real things.

Carey: Would you say this is what artists are working with today? 

Danto: I would think so, it’s easy to back away from it because it doesn’t seem very inspiring. But sooner or later—I like to think people read my books—they’ll begin to see that they have to work even harder than traditional artists did.

They’ve got to be able to deal with meaning. I was very eager when I was writing those things to back away from the formulas that Greenberg, for example, had introduced and where you’d hear all the docents in museums giving talks—what would that mean? What is the point of that?

My main interest was to reintroduce the idea of meaning, which was basically what Duchamp was interested in. He talked about retinal vision, retinal pleasure. He thought that most of the art that was being made—in his dialogue he says that contemporary art, everything—has been retinal art. He said that’s not the way art history was. There was philosophical art. There was religious art, etc. The primary thing was not to give pleasure to the eye. The fundamental thing was to instruct the eye and he was very adamant about that.

When he talks about that—there was a dialogue at the Museum of Modern Art where he said that with the ready-mades, that they’re surely an aesthetic, they’re picked for their absence of any retinal pleasure. That’s not so easy to find because he only came up with about twenty of them.

Carey: So today, no matter what artists are doing, whether they’re doing landscapes or different kinds of conceptual projects or performances, everything has to have this sense of meaning?

Danto: That’s right, and what I would say about that, Brainard, a good example was Marina Abramovi, performing at MOMA. I mean, anybody could sit across from another person but for it to be a work of art you’ve got to think about what it means and so forth. People responded to it as though they were aware of that, and it was in some way a very profound experience for them.

Carey: Let’s talk a little bit about art criticism today. You are writing, as you say, a bit of an autobiographical piece, and where you are coming from is very different from most critics, in my mind.

Danto: Yeah, there are very few people who’ve gone from philosophy into criticism. I just fell into it because with my history I had set myself up as a kind of a nineteenth century philosopher. I was doing a five volume work on the theory of representation and I began with a book called the Analytical Philosophy of History. I thought, why don’t I just carry that out and say that what sets us apart from the rest of the world is the way we represent it. And then I did two books, one on knowledge, the Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge. And one called Analytical Philosophy of Action.

Then I got the fourth volume, which was going to be about art. I really didn’t want it to be thought of as philosophy, but I found a wonderful title in a Miriam Sparks novel. And I never wrote the fifth because I felt that I was turning art into mainstream philosophy, which I would only get into arguments with, and there was no reason to finish. I did write a one volume work of the whole system called Connections to the World, but that was my thing.

So the treatment of art in The Transfiguration was permeated with traditional philosophical questions about action and knowledge and was not so traditional about history, because what philosophers mostly have done has discounted history as differentiating people. But we’ve got the same physiology now that human beings had twenty thousand years ago, but we’re very different. So history is a really an important puzzle factor there. So that’s not as mainstream as the other stuff was, but it was most original, it seemed to me, with my work.

Carey: Yeah. I think so, too. Your work to me has often seemed very generous in the sense that you’re probing, you’re looking, you’re trying to understand as opposed to critics that are very opinionated in the sense that they’re putting down work.

Danto: Yeah, there’s a lot of that.

Carey: Like the popular Jerry Saltz.

Danto: Oh, Jerry Saltz? Yeah, I don’t think that well of him. I mean, I think he’s a good writer more than one would think, but he does come in as a kind of ordinary person who is responding as an ordinary person will respond.

He does a lot of that, but his wife Roberta Smith is worse. I’ve got an enormous respect for Roberta but every once in a while she just goes off—just goes off on a tantrum where she bashes artists of high achievement, it seems to me. So she’s saying, “You can’t get away with that,” and so forth. Artists like David Reed or Mark Tansey, for example, or Sean Scully, and I don’t know why Roberta does that but she’s a good critic for the most part if she’s not dealing with artists who’ve gone off to a higher achievement.

Carey: And Jerry Saltz you feel is in a similar area?

Danto: I think so, yeah. I remember a few years ago I was writing a lecture for the University in Cleveland. They had a show of William Kentridge and they wanted me to write a lecture on it. He said there, “William Kentridge is an artist in deep trouble, deep trouble,” and so forth. Why is he in deep trouble? He’s trying to make art, and he is an animator, that won’t work.

Carey: That’s what Jerry Saltz said? That Kentridge was an artist in deep trouble?

Danto: Yes. Jerry said, “He’s trying to be a gallery artist using these things as drawings and so forth and he’s not going to make it.” And I thought they were gorgeous. And I thought: What’s Jerry Saltz doing something like that for? Where does he come from by saying that he’s in deep trouble? I mean, this is really one of the best artists around and is doing precisely the kinds of things that I feel artists should be doing, which is to awaken the viewer to the meaning of human life and love.

That is “making it as an artist” of many kinds, and when William showed his work and became suddenly a universal star of Documenta in the nineties, he suddenly was giving people something that they felt was deeply missing from art. That is to say these questions about the power of love and so forth. I mean, it seemed to me that Jerry thought, “I’ve got him. I’ve got him by the balls,” and he didn’t, it wasn’t within range of him. I mean, that kind of thing. It stuck with me.

Carey: Yeah. I’ve heard him speak that way about many artists. In a sense saying what they should do or what they shouldn’t do or how they should make that work, which seems an unusual position for a critic to take, really.

Danto: Yes, well I think a lot of people think that’s what a critic should do, as a matter of fact. When I got started, I have to say that my first impulses were similar to find my way. At first, I really was more negative than I ever thought I had the right to be later on, but that’s how everybody who was writing criticism for a national publication was, really mean.

There was Hilton Kramer who is a paradigm. There was Robert Hughes who was a paradigm and he’s getting off these terrific jokes, but demolishing people that way. It was difficult and at the same time that’s not the way to be a critic, and so I changed the style and really tried to say what the meaning is, how the artist lets you know what the meaning is.

That, the two things: the content and the presentation that I found in Hegel’s aesthetics. There’s a lot more of Hegel in my writing than you’d be aware of, that anybody would be aware of. I used to read Hegel as a guide to what I was doing.

He was a great philosopher and I came upon him really almost when I was retiring but students asked if I would take them through Hegel’s aesthetics. And I thought, well, it’s a nice way to wind up so I did, and I was stunned by what a great thinker he was.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 31 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto

The next interview was one I conducted with the late critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, shortly before he died. Danto wrote for The Nation for twenty-five years and is credited with inventing the term “the art world.” He is a critic I very much admire since he writes through the lens of being a philosopher, and I am very fond of philosophy myself.

In reading this interview and applying it to studio practice, he gives a background of how he observes and thinks and thus, what a critic might be thinking in your studio when looking at your work. He also talks about what it means for an artist to have a “meaning” for their work.

The Interview

Carey: To begin with, let me ask you what is it that you’re working on these days, is there a particular article or writing? 

Danto: I’m working on a couple of things. I’m writing an essay on going from philosophy into art criticism. How I suddenly found myself, at a certain age, writing in a very different way for a very different audience. I did art criticism for The Nation for twenty-five years. So I’m writing a little, so to speak, an autobiographical study of my own feelings about that.

I really had a twenty-five-year career when basically I was at the edge of retiring from philosophy. Well, it took another ten years. Then I’m trying to write a sort of a little book, about the scale of the book on Warhol that I published in 2009, about really the simplest question: What is art?

I’d like to do that because it seemed to me that in my profession, the thoughts were laid out, like in the Transfiguration of the Commonplace—and that I’m part of the tradition, the traditional set of answers to the question of what is art. I think the history is that you can’t get the definition of art until it’s all happened, and it seemed to me that those great and important things happened in the sixties but have to be taken into account in any definition of art all through history. And so that’s a kind of a culmination of all the arguments I’ve been making down the years on the definition of art, beginning with The Artworld but then basically to the Transfiguration of the Commonplace.

Carey: That was when you talked about After the End of Art as well, which was really when you began talking about Warhol and a whole new world of art which really carries us up to the present.

Danto: That’s right.

Carey: We’re still operating in this world of not reproducing, but where almost anything goes now. It’s based in theory—which is was part of your theory, isn’t it?

Danto: That’s right. I mean, when you began to get the kind of cases that came up in the middle sixties where you couldn’t blankly look at it and think, “Oh, that’s art.” You’d have to have a little bit of theory and you’d have to have, as I say, a little bit of history to see it as art. You’d have to know something about how a thing like that got to be considered art.

So that was what the theory is and how the history contributes—those were not traditionally taken into consideration, it seemed to me. My own experience of walking into the Stable Gallery and seeing all these things, boxes in particular, I thought, “I think I’m ready for that.” I could see that experiences in my own history prepared me for that, but I also thought there are a lot of people who are not going to be prepared for it.

So I had this experience which I think I transcribed in one of the books. I had a friend out of Columbia who was the head of the art department, Andrei, who was a fine artist, a wonderful artist. But he told me a couple of years later, he said, “You know what I wrote all across the guest book?” He said, “I wrote, ‘Shit,’” and I said, “Andrei, I wrote The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.”

Carey: Was this the Warhol show? Brillo boxes is what you’re talking about, right?

Danto: Yes, but what people called different things—there were not that many Brillo boxes by comparison with others. There were eight different kinds of boxes but the Brillo Box was by far the star of that show. I mean, it’s the only one that ever gets talked about. Nobody talks about the Del Monte Peach Halves Box.

Although all of the same questions come up with those as with the Brillo Box but the Brillo Box was originally designed by James Harvey who was an abstract expressionist, second generation abstract expressionist and he was a master of lettering. You could see how influenced he was by the hard-edged abstraction of what was in the air and it’s a magnificent piece of rhetoric for the contents of the box, whereas Warhol got no credit and Harvey got no credit for that at all.

Carey: We’re now almost fifty years from the sixties, when this huge shift happened in work. Now, we have students graduating school that are steeped in the theory from that time. As you look at art, as you look at all this time, where do you feel that has brought us now? Is it just a continuity of the past?

Danto: I don’t think it’s brought us sublimity. You know what I mean? I think that was in a way the end of art as far as I was concerned because you have a situation where anything could really be an artwork and the paradigm of that was Warhol’s making a facsimile of an ordinary utilitarian box, and that they at least looked enough alike that you could think of them as indiscernible and, at that point, what’s the difference between art and reality?

The answer to it is that what separates the two has to be invisible. You can’t tell by looking at them. You can’t tell by picking them out—if you read philosophy in those days and could talk about what art is, you would get a kind of Wittgensteinian answer which says that you can, anybody can just pick them out. If you had a warehouse of pieces of furniture and artworks, you could just pick them out. You don’t have to have a definition. And I thought that with Warhol and Duchamp you really did have to have a definition.

Wittgenstein was very, very eager to get rid of the millennial question of what is art. Which was raised by Socrates in The Republic and has been going along for centuries. You can’t just get rid of it by saying you can pick it out because we now know that you can’t pick it out. You’ve got to have other ways of thinking about it.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 30 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Poor Farm

Carey: That’s wonderful. It was also obviously very generous of you, and both of you had to collaborate on that. I mean you still had children that were growing up right? Right there in the house and you’re paying for the guest and everything. So that’s a lot to take, but I love that idea, too—of artists giving back to artists because that also creates a support system for them but also for yourself as well. Right?

Grabner: Absolutely. And again, as a teacher, I’m in my studio and I make a very specific kind of art that’s repetitive. Art that deals with pattern and I know that works, I understand this is true of it. But when I have somebody, when I have a photographer that is coming up, a photographer who is dealing with light and phenomena, I engage in that conversation.

So it’s not a matter of The Suburban being a platform for the work that I like or that my husband likes, or something that we’re ecstatically aligned with. I get to know people’s process. How they think when they’re installing work. How they think when we’re sitting at the breakfast table, having pancakes, before we go out and help them install.

So really this helps me, and it’s fascinating. There’s no cookie cutter in terms of how we do this and it makes me a better teacher, it makes me a better artist because it also takes the pressure off of my own studio when I can engage in ideas or just discuss with other artists about other ideas that they have. So it takes some pressure off of the narrow, limited vocabulary that I deal with in my own practice.

Carey: It was also a great way to make friends. So now, let’s move to The Poor Farm. You’ve been doing The Suburban for a while and then how did The Poor Farm start?

Grabner: The Poor Farm is near Oshkosh quite obviously. So it’s my neck of the woods, so to speak. The kids were getting older, we were thinking of a different studio. The city is wonderful, we’re here teaching nine months every year but we felt we wanted to get a little cabin, or a cottage up in north eastern Wisconsin. That was the real situation.

So we ended up doing that. We bought a little studio, a little cottage up there, a little off the river near this poor farm, which is across the lake from this place that we built, and it was for sale. We looked at each other and the bank was still giving loans out in 2008. So it was early 2008. And by the end of the summer, we had it.

We often say it is The Suburban’s real cousin, where exhibitions last a full year as opposed to every six weeks, every month, in terms of turning over. But the space is huge. This is a massive amount of exhibition space and a lot of land. So if we were going to move to Wisconsin, we better create a situation where we can bring artists, give them a place to be, in a place that we love, a place that we find very beautiful. I guess it’s just our character that we want to invite artists and see them work and give them opportunities.

Carey: And was this still funded by yourselves? I mean, that sounds like a big financial undertaking.

Grabner: [Laughs] It is—we do a lot of physical labor up there, but also, we support it. But different from The Suburban. The Poor Farm is not for profit. We’re a nonprofit up there, so we can raise money or apply for grants and I want to say that the Warhol Foundation has been really supportive. So that helps us, in terms of money for exhibitions, money for artists. In terms of the upkeep of the place, we spend some parts out of our own pocket. But again, we’re happy to do it.

Carey: So these things are developing, this is a whole artist community you’re creating and generating a kind of support for artists. You’re the first artist that I can think of that co-curated the Whitney Biennial. Wasn’t that correct? How did it happen?

Grabner: Yes. I think so. How did this come into being? How did it fall into my lap? I think it made a lot of sense. I think the Whitney knew what it was doing in terms of thinking about the last Biennial in the prior building. It kind of throws the doors open. Bringing curators from the outside. Bringing them from outside of New York actually.

That made sense from the institutional standpoint, because I write a lot. The Suburban and its reputation as well as The Poor Farm’s reputation have made their way to New York. I think that is kind of how it ended up. I always kind of cynically say, it wasn’t because I make good work—and I have nothing to do with the curators liking my artwork or wanting to bring me on board. I think the sheer amount of writing and the project spaces that we’ve been talking about means that I’m an organized person and I was going to be able to write a catalog essay and work on some of the ideas. So I think that helped.

Carey: And the writing that you were doing over the years, because you talked about that earlier—you continued to write for some art magazines, do reviews and criticism. Is that correct?

Grabner: Pretty regularly. Lots of catalog essays for other artists. I say yes to almost all writing engagements. So in terms of what it does, the critical thinking that one has to go through is invaluable. So yes, writing has always been something that I’m engaged in alongside my studio practice.

Carey: Well, also because you were writing about all the artists, of course, that were in The Suburban and The Poor Farm. Is that correct?

Grabner: That’s right. We produce a lot of catalogs.

Carey: So what’s the future? What’s next for you? Do you see this continuing engagement in The Poor Farm or is there another project like that you will develop somewhere else?

Grabner: There’s actually a kind of a big shift that’s coming. This summer, I’m teaching at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. So I’ll be in Maine all summer and I’m looking forward to that. But when we return, we’re actually moving. We’re moving from Oak Park, from the Chicago area back to Milwaukee, where we want build a building so The Suburban will continue, but it’s a three storey building in Milwaukee, unlike the small, little spaces—and there will be two artist apartments above it. So you’re welcome to come and stay and visit us. Everybody is welcome.

Then we will also be closer to The Poor Farm, which needs some attention. Ideally, we would like to put a geothermal system in. We’d like to be able to bring some kind of alternative energies to it. So it just means some upkeep and adding a little more love. We will go slow, and I think being closer to The Poor Farm will be helpful during the school year. I can commute, I can pop on the train and be down here and continue teaching at the Art Institute. And that’s pretty terrific. So it will be fine. We’re looking forward to the shift. And The Suburban will continue but it will continue in a new space in a new city. And Chicago has always been complicated to me, it still wants to measure itself against the big centers, and it is a center, don’t get me wrong, but when it comes to the visual arts, I think sometimes it kind of freezes up. It calcifies a little bit and Milwaukee has none of those hierarchies. So there’s a lot of freedom there and I always regretted feeling like I had to get back down to Chicago when we were in Milwaukee. I mean, this was the place for this course of action, for art-making and now I think that I’m better, I can do more work. I’m much more imaginative when I feel like I’m off centers. So off to Milwaukee we go!

Since Michelle Grabner is an artist and a curator, she can talk from both perspectives. Not unlike Currin, she found a way to develop and nurture friends and a community that ultimately brought her national and international attention. I think her ideas about conversations with other artists that didn’t share her medium or even ideas is an important way to think about what it means to “network” among your peers, some of whom you may not relate to at all, but may have ideas worth understanding and sharing.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 29 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Suburban

Grabner: I actually started writing for Frieze Magazine. I was writing reviews from Chicago and covering the Midwest for Frieze Magazine, and writing for something that was a small art publication in Milwaukee called Art Muscle, so really kind of covering a lot of bases, and there wasn’t a lot of internet presence of criticism at that point. So really publications for the most part. The New Art Examiner, obviously, which is a real terrific art publication coming out of Chicago and writing reviews and essays for the Examiner on a regular basis.

And then when it came to curating, it was mostly curating exhibitions at some of the college or university spaces up in Milwaukee. So bringing artists from Chicago, people we were in school with, bringing them up so we could have that exchange again.

So that’s how I started the curatorial projects. You were in shows, you know, little shows at the Milwaukee Art Museum or little shows at Milwaukee Art & Design School.

So that’s how that happened. And then in 1997 we moved down to Chicago. And that’s how we started The Suburban.

Carey: I want to ask you about The Suburban, but before we get into that, when you started saying you curate some shows at the Milwaukee Art Museum, small shows, that’s a pretty powerful entry in a museum. How did you curate those shows? Did you just meet people there and propose shows? Or, how do you think that happened? That’s a big step!

Grabner: [Laughs]. Yeah. It was a little in-house. So when I was writing my thesis and working on my masters in art history at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, my office-mate at that time started out as a sort of a curatorial assistant at the Milwaukee Art Museum and then became the curator, the art curator there. So we had a relationship. So through that, he was the connection to curating there.

As everybody says, it’s who you know, right? [Laughs]

Carey: Right. Let’s talk about The Suburban now. How did it begin? And how did you and your husband start that?

Grabner: We wouldn’t be brave enough to do it now. There was something about 1999, and still being young, and still being quite amused and curious. We just thought, “Well, if we invited people from a museum and from Europe, from St. Louis, from New York, people would come.” And they did! I think that was pretentious of us but it was exciting, and it launched a tiny, little institution here, here in Oak Park. Then artists from Madison, Wisconsin or from Florida come up. So it’s been a range. I think, we’re pushing over two hundred and fifty artists at this point.

Carey: So initially it was a piece of property you owned and a building. I mean, just to ask you more details about it. And was there funding for this or did people come on their own? How did the whole thing become funded?

Grabner: Both my husband and I were able to move back down to Chicago because we got full-time teaching jobs. So we funded it from our pockets. We don’t sell artwork. But we’re not in that for profit so I didn’t apply for grants.

It’s our responsibility as artists to give back to artists. I really think I learned so much. I mean, there’s a selfish underpinning to the whole project because artists will come and they stay with us. We’ll take care of them for up to a couple of weeks, if they want to stay that long.

We just had an opening yesterday. It’s a small, little space, so I should be a little descriptive here. It’s a small cinder block building, a ten by ten foot space. In 2003, we added two more spaces, which are little exhibition spaces that are maybe ten by twenty feet.

So, you know, they’re unique, they’re all in the backyard of our house in Oak Park which is a really interesting first ring Chicago suburb because it also hosts Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio. So there’s a kind of a nice relationship of thinking about the suburb as an interesting place for making work as opposed to a suburb as a place of escaping what is going on in the city.

The Suburban is giving an opportunity to artists to think through a display of the way they think through art-making in the studio. So we don’t curate. I mean, the closest I come to curating is maybe having to schedule somebody. If somebody has a good idea, they all approach us. As I’m traveling and I meet somebody in Los Angeles, I will say, “If you’re interested, come do a project at The Suburban.” We don’t say, it would be great if you can make us a sculpture. We just let people do what they need to do.

And I think of a really good example would be when David Reed, a New York artist, did a project here. He had never shown his drawings before and so he wanted to take this opportunity to do it. And he had a really great show of drawings. And within two years, he had a big drawing show.

So sometimes it’s giving an artist an opportunity to think through their work differently. We’re in the suburbs, so you come and stay with us in our house, the spaces are small, so you can try something out. I do see The Suburban as an exhibition space but an exhibition space where artists make the decisions. They can fail, they can succeed, they can try something out that they wouldn’t if it was a commercial gallery or a proper institution.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 28 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Michelle Grabner

Chapter 7

Interviews

Here are interviews with important figures in the art world to demystify their process: artist and curator Michelle Grabner, critic Arthur Danto, art consultant Todd Levin, and artist Allard Van Hoorn.

Michelle Grabner

The first artist is Michelle Grabner, who I mentioned earlier in the book as having a career as an artist and teacher as well as a curator. In the interview that follows, she unfolds her career and what it took to build it all. Her special projects that I only briefly mentioned earlier, like the The Suburban and the The Poor Farm are especially worth noting, as you could, of course, do something similar.

The Interview

Carey: What are you working on now? What’s happening in your studio at the moment?

Grabner: A very big project. It’s a solo exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art which will open soon. So getting work together—it’s going to range from all the past work to the present.

Carey: So is this a survey of your work?

Grabner: It’s not a true survey. But it really is still focusing on the newer installation, some of the paper weaving projects that I’ve been doing. So it does run the gamut, but there are three very big rooms to fill. Then, there’s some new work that has been commissioned for this as well.

Carey: And so, how are you filling that space? I know that’s kind of intimidating but wonderful! How are you managing that?

Grabner: I’m working on a new hanging project, a new hanging piece. These sculptures that I call My Oyster. A curator asked me yesterday when I was on the phone with her, just what does My Oyster mean? Basically, “the world is my oyster.” It’s a sentiment of happiness. So that’s a new piece that I’m into. That would be at the entrance.

And then we’re moving to a gallery of paintings, and then we’ll have the long hall that will have a massive platform and very colorful paper weavings that I’ve been working on. Another new project for the Indianapolis Museum show is actually a series of photographs. So I’m really looking forward to that project. They’re being mounted right now. So that was something very specific to Indianapolis.

Carey: Let’s talk about where you came from—Oshkosh, Wisconsin. That affected how you began in all of these. Now you’re a painter and conceptual artist, and have done so many projects. I’d like to get to those soon, but what was it like growing up in Wisconsin? Oshkosh sounds like the quintessential town away from everything. What was that like?

Grabner: I have to say that everybody in my family, my uncles, my grandfather, my father, there’s a lot of vernacular art practice, or vernacular activities going on, whether it was wood carving or carving decoys or natural landscape. I mean something that wouldn’t be considered in the contemporary art world. But there were a lot of activities. So that kind of crafting, engagement in making things.

Carey: So how did you get to the Art Institute of Chicago?

Grabner: I always like to tell this story, especially to my students. I went to the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee for an undergraduate degree and then a graduate degree in art history. And when I wanted to get my masters, I wanted to go to the Art Institute, but I was never able to get into the Chicago Art Institute, and that is the department that I’m teaching in now. I have been the chair of the art department for four years, but it’s the school that wouldn’t let me in. I wasn’t good enough to get in when I was applying to school.

So this is how it is. You just have to be patient; it’s the story that many artists have.

Carey: Did you have supportive teachers early on?

Grabner: I had a really terrific high school art teacher. For three years, Mr. Perez was there for me and really supportive and could recognize some innate ability that one could have in terms of recording the world in front of you. And that was just supportive.

He reminded me or told me that you could go to school and actually get an art degree and that, I think, surprised me. So you know, I don’t think it’s a rare story, an unusual story, but Mr. Perez was there to inspire me through high school.

Carey: Sometimes it seems it can be a pivotal moment—how a high school teacher can have such a huge influence on someone’s life. That’s a story that I’ve heard from other artists, from people who were in the middle of nowhere who ended up in the Venice Biennial because, essentially, someone said in high school, “I think you should do this.”

Grabner: Exactly, it just opens up the world, and especially at that point in your development—young adulthood—when you think you know everything and you actually know nothing. And so you need somebody who is very inspirational to see.

Carey: I’m interested in what happened between getting your master’s degree and the first project which was The Suburban, right? Then The Poor Farm, correct?

Grabner: Right. The Suburban, which is now sixteen years old. That’s been going on for a while. I was raising two small kids, I had one when I was in graduate school. And I was trying to nurture and concentrate on developing an emerging practice. When you are in art school, as we know, it’s a bubble; it’s very different than when you step out into the real world and face these kind of forces and conditions that want to erode that kind of concentration, especially when you have a young family.

So we moved, and I was down here at Northwestern getting my masters of fine arts. We moved to Milwaukee just because it’s a smaller town, and I’m in a place where we could feel like we were dedicating ourselves—I say we, because my husband is also an artist—dedicating ourselves to a work habit. Evolving a vocabulary that was more true to our lives at that time.

We did that and then I started doing a lot of critical writing when I was in Milwaukee, too. I went to grad school, my husband went to grad school, and so there wasn’t that much language or discourse happening in Milwaukee. So we’d come down to Milwaukee quite a bit and start to curate at the museum, it was just a smaller city, so it enabled us . . .

Carey: I’m sorry to interrupt you. But exactly, how did you do that? What were you writing for and what did you curate?

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 27 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Subscription Plan

I am using him as an example to show that just because you have a major gallery and an international career, it doesn’t mean you can’t do your own commercial ventures on the side without harming the purity of your art career.

He has a subscription plan he came up with—he sent a letter to his mailing list and made a subscription offer—for $6,000 per year he would send the collector a sculptural lamp he would make every two months, and of course whatever they received would be a surprise, because Jorge had no idea exactly what he would make in advance.

The first year he did this, he sent out a letter and asked people if they were interested. From the first letter he found that sixty people subscribed, and in the second letter, sent the second year, he said ninety people subscribed. Ninety people at $6,000 is $540,000 dollars—quite a large sum to receive for work that was not even completed or designed yet!

He compares this to ideas like wine clubs or other online clubs where companies send you surprises in the mail, and he felt that people like him enjoy surprises in the mail. I agree with him, as I am subscribed to some monthly clubs. I enjoy a vinyl record of the month club, because I am sent music in beautiful packages that I would not have bought otherwise, and I love that experience.

While Jorge has a mailing list already, he found a way to leverage that list and get more people to support work before it was made. This is a concept that you could do as well. An artist that I worked with, not nearly as famous as Jorge, did the same thing with small sculptures that could also be worn. She came up with a similar pricing plan. Not as expensive as his, but lucrative just the same. In a newsletter she explained how the sculptures would be small surprises that subscribers would get every two months.

As your career evolves, you have to figure out how to pay those monthly bills. These ideas are entrepreneurial, which the business of art generally is. At some point you have to sell your work, and no matter how you do that, it is the same as having your own business and finding clients for your business. That is largely why you are reading this book—to find out how to run your business and build the appropriate relationships. We talked about the pros and cons of teaching, producing a product line of some kind, and selling prints, but there are of course other jobs out there.

The other jobs used to be working at a restaurant or a bar to make ends meet. If you have a family, that will usually not be enough to sustain everyone. Early jobs I had were carpentry, cooking in a restaurant, and washing dishes. The problem with the best of those jobs, which was carpentry, was that I came home exhausted. It doesn’t help very much if you can only make art on the weekends, so it is helpful to have a job that is not too physically tiring or stressful.

Another example of a job that might be helpful and rewarding is working with people who truly need your help. You can be creative here, too. After my parents died, I began to think about helping people in nursing homes. I play guitar, though not very well, and began calling nursing homes and asking if they would like me to come and play guitar. They paid me for doing so, and it was rewarding and not exhausting. However, I didn’t know too many songs and wanted to do something else to help that would not rely on my musical talent! I saw so many people just sitting around these homes looking bored.

I read somewhere that people in nursing homes were using the Wii game system for bowling and exercise. So I did the same thing. I called nursing homes and told them I could teach the residents how to bowl with a virtual gaming system (I had a Wii system at home) and they agreed. I would bring this small system to a home, and hook it up to their big TV and have fun teaching them. I got paid well, but that was just the start of it! Soon I worked with the director of the home and we created leagues and played against other nursing homes, which was terrific fun, and made me feel as though I were truly helping, and left plenty of time for me to make art.

This may sounds like a truly odd job to you, but I mention it because it was not entrepreneurial in the strict sense: it was a job I invented for myself, but its rewards were much more than monetary. Seeing the smiles and laughs on people who were bored in their environment lifted my spirits and made me laugh and smile as well. I was an independent contractor, as they called me, but I was essentially working for nursing homes, able to change my schedule when I needed to, and came home every day feeling good and filled with energy.

There are other jobs I could suggest, like working in the health industry if possible, which might also give you positive feedback at work so that you don’t feel so exhausted when you get home or to your studio.

Other possibilities are online jobs. You can freelance online if you can write good copy or design a logo or other kinds of web site production. There is an online freelance site called Upwork, and you can essentially set up shop there and comb through daily listings of jobs in your field of expertise. I use Upwork to hire people for different jobs. You can translate text for people if you speak different languages, or you can do programming or almost any other task. In this instance, it requires expertise in a field of some kind. Or there is the current TaskRabbit, a site that can generate income locally if you want to do things like stand in line for people or assemble their Ikea furniture.

In the next chapter we will talk about a few case histories of artists and art world figures who have done a variety of things to sustain and build their artistic career.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 26 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Creating a Small Business on the side

Creating a Small Business on the side

Artists today often survive off of small businesses or products they make. That means you can be a career artist with a major gallery and biennial aspirations and still have a series of works that sell all the time. Examples of that could be something for a design store. One artist I know has a career of making installations in museums and galleries. At one point early in her career, she was experimenting with cast iron, since she is a sculptor. At first she made fruit and then she made sculptural bookends for her shelves. Other people liked them and wanted to buy them. Since she felt they were not really where she wanted to go with her art, she made a choice to sell them at local high-end design stores in her own city and then in other cities. She had children at about that time, and the pressure to meet the needs of her children and spend time in the studio increased. She resolved this by selling her bookends and having a foundry cast them from her designs on a regular basis. This made it easier for her to provide for her family while not worrying about selling her installations at a quick pace. It was also not as stressful as most jobs.

Another example would be artists that make popular prints and sell them to interior designers on a regular basis. Some artists who get good at selling prints or designs on the side even begin a business of doing it for other artists, growing the supplemental income and still having plenty of studio time. An artist I know, Jen Durbin, graduated from college and had a problem that many artists have: she wanted to live in a city—Brooklyn—and she wanted a big studio to build large sculptures in. She also wanted time to work in her studio.

Her solution was to find a commercial building in Brooklyn and rent it by subletting it to other artists for studios so that the rent was paid. Of course it wasn’t that easy. First she had to find a building that was not being used. She found an old building that was built in 1896 and had a huge vaulted ceiling and was more or less falling apart. The roof didn’t leak, but she knew it would take work to fix it up to rent to other artists. She rented it and began to work on it, and in the first week she put an ad on Craigslist saying the large main space could be rented for commercial photography shoots. She had the thought that photographers and filmmakers might like it. The next thing that happened was that she got a client willing to pay a large sum for renting the space by the day for a commercial. Then more came who wanted to shoot a music video there. She told them she would fix up the space soon and paint it. They all said not to paint it or improve the interior, because that was what was attractive—it looked old and industrial.

Now she had money to make studios in parts of the building, which she rented out to artists. Then she made a nice website to market it to filmmakers and photographers by the day. Soon she began to rent some props and add to the cost of daily rental. She had found herself in a nice situation—she used the large space whenever it wasn’t rented, she also had another smaller studio, and was making an income that was paying for it all and more. The last time I talked to her she was thinking of doing it with another building and also had a child and the beginning of a flourishing art career.

Business people say if you want to start a business that will work, there is one formula to make it easy: look at another business that is successful and duplicate it in your part of the world. You could easily consider duplicating her business model in another city where there are artists and it would have a very good chance of working. If you want to see her website and how it is all set up now that she has learned a lot, search for www.the1896.com and see what she has done.

Are there more ways to make money? There sure are. I talk with successful artists all the time and I ask them how they do what they do. Many of these interviews are on the website www.artworldinterviews.com. Those interviews are all from my Yale University radio program where I interview artists as well as curators, critics, museum directors, and more. I am fascinated by how creative people build their careers and how they thrive. Unlike any other profession, there seems to be an unlimited amount of ways to survive and thrive as an artist. Either make one up on your own, design a product, or look at a model you like that works, and duplicate it.

Another example of a method that you could use are subscription plans for your work. An artist that I mentioned earlier, Jorge Pardo, who is a well-respected artist in a major New York gallery, created a subscription plan for some of his sculptures.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 25 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / More on Jobs for Artists

The artist Chuck Close says that in the 1970s, you could rent a loft in New York City and pay for that loft by working one or two nights a week at a restaurant or bar. Since then the equation has changed dramatically and artists living in cities like New York or San Francisco are working full-time just to pay the rent. So if you are not going to pursue a career in the arts aggressively, you need a full-time job that will sustain you yet give you time to make art.

One such job is teaching art at a university. These jobs arealso getting competitive, so this goes back to the question of MFA or no MFA. The College Art Association (CAA) is an online resource that also holds events designed to help academics and teachers in the arts. There are job postings there for lecturers, teachers, and other academic positions.

The question about an MFA degree is about your decisionto teach or not to teach. If teaching is something you are driven to do, you should pursue it, and use all the means necessary to help you. My parents were both college professors, so I have a bias there. I grew up hearing about the politics of academics at the dinner table, and it was not pleasant. I have many friends who teach, and I hear many of them talk about the stress of the job, the pressure of tenure, the pressure to exhibit and publish. It is certainly not a cushy job, as it might seem. Probably because I grew up with teachers, I also have a natural leaning toward teaching. I have lectured in colleges but never taught in one. Instead, I write books, teach workshops, and have online classes.

If teaching is in your bones, then there are other options besides a university. Online classes are becoming more and more popular. I teach an ongoing online class on Facebook and it is very rewarding because the class begins to support its members, and that is valuable as a teacher. If you want to find a way to teach, there are now many options. Platforms like Udemy and Coursera are just a few that offer classes.

The real reason most artists want to teach is so that they will have a consistent income while making art. That is no longer the easiest or the best model for a steady job, since the field is now competitive and requires a masters and or a doctorate to gain an edge on your peers. Before talking a bit in this chapter about other job alternatives, perhaps it is good to ask if teaching is good for your art.

Most college professors are working artists, as they should be. However, the environment of the university classroom is a world apart from the art world we all experience. The well-known poet Daniel Berrigan once told me that he would never teach for more than a semester, though he is asked to teach for a full year and more. The reason he doesn’t do it is because he said the university atmosphere is too cozy—there is no edge to it. He explained more: he said that when a teacher is an artist, they tend to surround themselves with adoring students, who in many cases begin to make work like them. This, he felt, was an unnatural situation in which the teacher was elevated to an illusory status. He said if the teacher is doing well, the faculty will also be adoring, and all of that was not helpful for the artist’s ego, because they will tend to want more and more of it and find it impossible to be in a situation that is the opposite.

There are of course exceptions to this idea, but it makes sense to me that teaching can surround the artist with an atmosphere that has little to do with the “real world” beyond academics. That is a question for you to consider if you are leaning in that direction.

Besides teaching, there are many other jobs that can support an artist without enduring academic pressure or the insulation it may create.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 24 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Jobs for Artists

Chapter 6

Teaching and Learning and Jobs for Artists

What is the role that academics play in the career of an artist? Many artists also teach, and it has a profound effect on their career. As the Master of Fine Arts degree is pursued by artists all over the world, what is the ultimate value of that degree and how does it affect an artist’s career? This chapter will discuss the role of teaching and learning in the university setting and how that can affect a career in positive and negative terms.

There are more MFA graduates than ever, and now for teaching positions, a doctorate in the fine arts has also been created and is being pursued by artists. I am often asked by artists if they should go back to school to earn an MFA, which they feel would help them in the art world and would be a type of credit or pedigree that would get them further in their careers. That is how MFA degrees are sold to some extent—you are told that this is a way to advance your career, to develop your practice. What actually happens in an MFA program varies depending on the institution, but in general, you are given plenty of time to work in your studio, and you are given “crits,” which is the controversial part that can either help or literally hurt you.

I have worked with several artists that have been wounded by their MFA experience, and by that I mean that they are the opposite of enthusiastic about getting their work out into the world and applying for residencies and grants. I have also spoken with many artists who did complete an MFA program and felt invigorated and ready to reach out. How do these points of view become established? It is important to look at theories of this if you are to consider an MFA or if you have one and want to teach. The interview at the beginning of this book with Robert Storr also points out some of the advantages of an MFA degree which the interview with John Currin makes clear as well.

When pursuing an MFA, besides studio time and history classes and lectures, there is the inevitable “crit,” which is designed to teach you how to defend your work. A “crit,” which is short for “critical appraisal,” is designed so that the teacher and students in a class offer criticisms of the student’s work that is being shown. As the student, it is your job to defend your work. This can be a valuable skill to learn. If you are talking to curators or gallery owners after you graduate, and you are giving them a studio tour, you might use this skill if you are asked what your work is about. Or if you are told that something in your work doesn’t work and you get the suggestion that your art needs to be “pushed” or “evolved.”

That is the moment you most likely would want to defend yourself and explain why the work is moving in the direction you want it to, and why the person making those comments was not quite right. It is a chance to articulate where you are coming from and give the viewer a way to understand your work.

Is that training worth eighty to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars? I am not sure, and hesitate to form an opinion since some see value in it and others do not. If you want to teach art someday, then it is necessary. The only way to teach and not have a masters or doctorate is to have the professional equivalent—meaning that if you have had enough exhibits or are published widely, you can often teach at a university level without the higher education degrees. In general you need those degrees to teach, but not necessarily to make art and be successful.

The downside of the “crit” and the MFA experience is often told by artists who leave graduate school in a state of shock and with a battered sense of self-esteem that makes it nearly impossible to venture out into the art world and feel safe. The reason is that there are other ways to react to criticism by your peers and teachers besides being stronger. Have you ever experienced someone telling you that your work was not good, or worse? For most artists will easily go into a tail spin, it doesn’t take much. Making art is already a delicate balance of believing in yourself and not listening to the world’s opinion of you. For the more sensitive, which is the majority of artists I would say, the idea of constant critical feedback does not make them stronger: it erodes self-confidence and a sense of vision. If that happens to you in your MFA program and then you leave realizing that you are not sure what to do, and on top of that have a big debt and no job prospects, it is depressing to say the least.

Keep in mind that MFAs are a recent invention, and that most of the great artists from the past that you can quickly name did not have MFAs. One major issue is that there is little in the program for professional development of the artist’s career. The notion of helping a college graduate with a career is a recent idea. I know because teachers are using some of my books to develop the practice. For decades, talking about building a career in the arts was forbidden in higher education because it smacked of crass commercialism. After all, it is not about making money, is it? Can you imagine telling that to someone studying to be a doctor that it is not about the money or a job, it is about helping people and that should be the focus? That doctors should get a day job to support their practice?

That is what artists are told: it is not about money, so focus on your practice and don’t think about making a living. There are many sides to this argument, but in today’s competitive world, it is not easy to be a full-time artist with a side job.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

Episode 23 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Mysteries of the Soul

Mysteries of the Soul

As you present work or tell others about your working process, which is essentially what Duchamp, Beuys, Banksy and other examples have done, you could also talk or write about things that are truly mysteries of how you think, feel, and work. There are no half-truths, just the nearly ungraspable nature of the creative process. By that I mean that instead of making up a historical event or describing your work as something it is not, you can present it as a way of investigating something more existential, like the nature of your creative well itself. Some artists talk about their working process as if they are possessed by another entity, or like channeling a spirit of some kind. Books have been written where the author claims to have been told what to write (the Seth books to the Gospels) and many artists have spoken of a similar experience. You don’t have to be religious or even spiritual to think this way, because creativity itself is a mystery, and no one really knows where ideas or inspirations come from.

In this version of creating a mysterious and an intriguing version of yourself, you are saying something very sincere indeed. Think back to the dating analogy, because all of this chapter is about presenting yourself to a curator or dealer of some kind and making an attractive presentation so that they want to know more about you. In this version you can discuss the ideas that stimulate you, the source of your investigations, or the questions you continually ask, or even wear your heart on your sleeve and talk about the intimacy of your art.

Sincerity is what this version is about, and it can take an intellectual, emotional, or psychological direction. Just as in the date conversation, it can make a memorable impression so that more is asked of you, and that is what you want when you begin a relationship with a potential supporter or gallerist.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.