The Art World Demystified
I am not a saint or a sage, or a marketing writer with a recipe for success. I am an artist and I have interviewed hundreds of other artists, curators, critics, and other members of the art world. What I know, they have taught me. As an artist myself, I have also learned a lot by asking for things and failing to get what I want. I have learned that asking is often the hardest part—asking for a show, asking for a grant, asking for support.
I am an optimist, and you will probably find this book motivating because I am genuinely excited about the art world and the opportunities there are for artists and arts administrators. However, I also want to present a sober and serious look at the chances of earning a full-time living off of your art and the choices you will have in the context of the interviews I have done.
In all the interviews I have done (over three hundred as of 2016), there are some common threads as artists explain their failure and success stories and curators explain their methods. Here is a brief overview of what I have heard and what seems to point at the truth.
To begin with, there are some artists I talked to who succeeded very quickly—who at twenty-four years old won major prizes at shows, and continued to win major awards, getting prestigious teaching positions and gallery and museum exhibitions all over the world. In some cases, luck was involved—but the kind of luck that happens when you visit one hundred galleries asking if they are looking for artists.
There is rarely dumb luck, and most stories about luck and great opportunities are actually about persistence and not giving up—and then suddenly you meet someone by accident, and it is a meeting that changes your life.
This has happened to almost everyone, including the gallery owners and museum directors I have talked to. An example would be the artist asking gallery after gallery for a show, and after months of rejection finds that her roommate is opening a gallery that shows her work in the first show and launches her career. Those kinds of things happen all the time, but the failures that the artist was having and that her roommate was seeing all the time, were also significant — and something you cannot force by replicating her failures.
That is one the most complex aspects of building a career in art—how can you force the hand of luck? You can’t, of course, but you can tilt the odds in your favor so that more possibilities arise. You can see that this in itself is not a recipe but a possibility that might mean you have to keep your day job until something better happens, because this is a process to be dedicated to—for life.
Unlike most other careers that I can think of, art making is one that usually requires a second job. One that often relates to the art making, but not always. Traditionally, this is a good thing—have a job that doesn’t demand too much of your time, and spend the rest of your free hours making art. Most of the artists I interviewed, but not all, had day jobs like teaching, painting portraits, being a doctor, or some other kind of work they might also enjoy. Some wanted to quit their day jobs, but most didn’t, feeling it gave them freedom to explore in the studio without the financial pressure of having to sell their art every week or every month.
The wisdom of many artists on the day job is that it should not be viewed as a negative aspect of your life, but one that must be adjusted correctly to support yourself enough so there is still time to make art. It does not mean that you should not aspire to be whatever kind of artist you like, as well as to the large financial gains of which you might dream, but that the day job should not be seen as a measure of your success. Pure success for an artist means making work in the studio on a regular and ongoing basis that is always changing and rewarding to the artist in terms of aesthetics and challenges.
How much you earn does not determine your success asan artist at all. We know this is the case from the hundreds of artists from history who werenot financially successful at all in their lifetime, but ended up in the history books because their work is good—or great—and has some real aesthetic value that can still be enjoyed.
So whatever your day job is or is not, be proud that it is thesponsor of your art career and that you are following the path that artists have taken for hundreds of years. Does this mean that if you simply make good work, the world will eventually notice it?
If you simply strive to make good work, you are doing your job as a professional artist. If, however, you feel that the quality of work alone will “rise to the top” so to speak, and that by merit alone you will find professional opportunities, you will be disappointed. In this day and age, excellent work is needed and required, but not alone. You will need the support of your peers, a good dose of networking, some charm, and the ability to write.
This is the third book I have written for artists to develop their careers in a professional manner. More resources are online at www.theartworlddymystified.com. The difference between this book and the other two, Making It in the Art World and New Markets for Artists, is that this book focuses primarily on demystifying the terms and ideas about what the “art world” actually is and how it functions. There is also a great deal of practical advice and clear directions in this book to build your professional career as an artist; essentially this book was written to clarify misconceptions that can burden an artist and drag them down by simply being mysterious.
This book also contains interviews with artists and curatorsthat help define how their careers are managed. Their words and advice are valuable in the sense that they give a direct view into the lives of professionals in the art world. In the past two books, I was using my experience in the art world to write from my particular perspective as an artist, and in this book, I am looking at the perspectives of others in the art world. This book features interviews from my Yale radio station, The Lives of the Artists, Architects, Curators and more, and you will hear some of the world greatest curators, writers, and artists talk about the art world from their own perspective. In chapter one we begin with an interview with Robert Storr that dives right into the depths of art criticism and how a Masters of Fine Arts might influence your career.
Then there is an interview with John Currin, who explains his rise to being an art star and a record-breaking selling painter. Currin explains his early frustrations, the nature of his struggle, and the way he got his first show and pushed himself to network. There are several more interviews throughout the text, and I hope you find them as inspiring and interesting as I do.