Letters Not Answered
Hopefully those interviews have lent some insight into the workings of the critic and the artist, and later in this book we will discuss more about what Currin said, but for the artists, the practical side—which this book is devoted to—may come down to something fairly mundane: like what happens when you send a curator (or any professional) a letter and he or she does not write back for over a week. On one hand this may seem simple—the curator doesn’t like your work—but on the other hand, there are many possible reasons for a lack of immediate response. However, there are two ways of looking at this example.
One is psychological, and the other is practical and professional.On the practical side, there is a professional way to handle this situation until you get a response of either yes or
On the psychological side, it is much more complex. When someone doesn’t respond, just like a date you may have had,we all begin to project our fears and insecurities onto what the silence means: “She or he doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like my work. She saw my Etsy page and was turned off. I knew I shouldn’t have made that page. I did something wrong.” We can all go on and on with reasons why we were given the cold shoulder. In this particular case, there are several things to consider.
Fear vs. Possible Realities
In a situation where we do not hear from someone, like a curator, the mysteries of the art world rise up. What does a curator want to hear anyway? To begin with, there are two aspects that must be considered carefully. One is the professional response and how to write to someone and follow up when you don’t hear from them. The other is the information you need to know about what the person you are writing to wants to hear and how to craft that letter. The minor aspects to consider, which can often be huge hurdles, are the psychological issues of what it means to reach your goals and also what it means to feel rejected or to simply be turned down. There is your own fear of rejection, and then there is what is actually happening on the other end of the equation, and the truth of what an unanswered letter means or does not mean.
Answers to Expect from this book
This book will discuss all of those issues and will explain how the various aspects of the art world work so that you will know how to approach galleries, museums, curators, and many other aspects that are new and growing.
Then there is the opposing strategy that is not about networking. Alternatives include the possibility of not having major shows but smaller ones, and perhaps being exposed online and finding awards, grants, residencies, and other ways of sharing your work without the prime directive of making a living or a serious income, but instead, just living the life of a professional artist supported by another job as well as supported by a community of artists and those who appreciate art.
Since networking is the focus of this book, not the option above, you will understand how to get a letter answered, how to make friends with curators, dealers, patrons, and more. You will read interviews with artists who have struggled and succeeded on their own terms, and you will hear directly from the gallerists and curators.
Why So Mysterious?
I am an artist myself and have also worked with hundreds of artists over the past ten years through my online courses and mentoring with my website, www.theartworlddemystified.com. One of the questions I hear most often is, “Why is the art world so mysterious?” It is a question that is troubling to most artists and one that has no easy answer. However, we can ask the same question of other vocations or ways of living. For example, “Why is creating an online business so difficult?” or “Why is publishing a book fraught with defeat and rejection?” or “Why is life not more simple, more straight forward?” The truth is that it is not difficult to understand, just as starting a business or publishing a book is not as difficult as it seems when we are familiar with the process and the steps to take.
If you are reading this book, you probably know what the term “art world” means to you, but for the sake of everything I am about to write, it is worth defining. The “art world” is a relatively new term. Arthur Danto, the late art critic and philosopher, coined the term in 1964 in an essay in the Journal of Philosophy, where he was also defining what art mean—because at that time, with Andy Warhol making silk screens of soup labels that were considered art, many people began to wonder where art began and ended. You know what art is because you are more than likely an artist yourself—or as George Rickey, the sculptor, once said, “Art, my dear, is what I make.”
For the moment, that will suffice to define art, but the art world itself is another matter. The artists that I work with define it as the commercial as well as non-commercial aspects of exchanging artwork, and the entities and persons who represent and facilitate those exchanges. That means not only galleries, gallery owners, and other online sellers of artwork, but it includes perhaps most importantly the world of nonprofit institutions and exhibitions.
Those nonprofit exhibitions such as the Venice Biennial, where artists are chosen to represent their entire country with an exhibit, are a big part of the art world because it is a way for artists to become known internationally to all the other entities that sell art and write about it. The Venice Biennial is the pinnacle of artistic success in the world of nonprofits, but there are now biennials all over the world and art centers that allow artists to exhibit work that is most often chosen by a jury. Critics who write about art, including artist–critics, are also part of the art world because that is also how the work of an artist is spread far and wide. The two aspects of commercial sales and nonprofit exhibits contain the whole of what we now call the art world. This book will continue with defining those elements and how to interact with them.
I began my career as an artist when I graduated from college after studying art. I went to SUNY Purchase in New York, and it was during the graduation ceremony when I heard the artist George Rickey recite the quotation above—that the definition of art was simply the art that he made. As a young artist I loved hearing that because it gave me total freedom to make what I wanted and not to think of external validation. I also liked his humor and mild arrogance because he felt so secure about what he was doing. Like many artists I wanted to feel more secure about my work and direction in life.
Then I moved to Block Island, a small community where I used to spend summers, and I opened a gallery and published a small magazine—knowing nothing about either industry, and without any financial backing (though I did learn to ask for donations, sell ads, raise money)—and also worked as a carpenter throughout the winter months. I learned a great deal by having a gallery and seeing things from the other side of the desk as artists gave me images and statements to review.
New York City
When I moved back to New York in the late nineties, I washungry to find a gallery or museum and get exhibited. I continued to do carpentry in New York City as a “handyman” to make a living. Every moment I had free I eagerly went to nonprofit spaces and asked artists and administrators of nonprofit spaces how it all worked. The answers I received were disappointing.
Even the nonprofit centers were very inarticulate about how to get a show. The general feeling I received was that it was difficult to nearly impossible to be an artist in New York City. Through my experience over the next ten years, I learned that this was not true at all, as I figured out how to get exhibited in galleries and even museums, and was invited to be in the Whitney Biennial a few years later. I also learned how to find and build relationships with patrons that supported my art. But why did I not get better information when I asked?
The reason the information was not easy to get, I believe, was partly because of the egos involved in the art world. Also, it depends on how questions are phrased and asked. Now I have a radio show at Yale University and I interview artists who have represented their country in the Venice Biennial and asked them exactly how that happened and they explain it to I have gotten better at asking the exact questions I need answered. Also, when I talk to artists who have very satisfied egos (like the ones who make a full-time living off their work, or even the unknown artists who make a living online), they tend to be more generous with their knowledge because they generally know that there is plenty for everyone. By that I mean that when you ask people who work at nonprofit centers and who may be frustrated artists themselves, or when you ask artists who are just beginning to have some success in their careers, they are not yet feeling secure about their choices, and the response you will get when asking them about the process of success will probably be coming from a place of insecurity about their identity and they will give you a negative response or one that lacks sufficient information. Thus, the more accomplished and satisfied the professional is that you are talking to, the more likely it is that you will get a useful response.