It will be about ten days before I post again because we are headed to Alaska today. We are visiting friends and relatives before arriving in Fairbanks to teach a watercolor workshop at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.
Below I continue with part two of an interview I gave not so long ago outlining my thoughts on career development for contemporary artists through the lens of my personal experience.
Interview, Part Two:
What do you think are the primary requirements for making art?
You might think its talent or education that is required to make art, and while both are foundational repeatedly you will hear artists talking about acquiring three things, 1) adequate time, 2) adequate space, and 3) adequate money.
Unfortunately, if artists waited until we had all three of these needs met before we made our art there would be no art or artists in the world. I too have spent most of my creative life working toward acquiring each of the three at the same time. On many occasions I’ve had one, on some rare occasions I’ve had two. I have yet to have all three at the same time.
I am privileged to have a wonderful studio, but I still spend a lot of time trying to balance out the time and money. My goal is have my art help me to acquire all three.
What do you think is necessary for someone to sustain them self as an artist?
Every person would answer this a little differently. I believe artists must have the focus and energy to concentrate on our art without relying on the approval of others. I am not advocating for self-isolation. A strong network of other artists and supporters is important, as is feedback from critics whose opinion you respect (don’t ask for feedback from those you do not respect). However, only you know what you are trying to achieve in your work.
We must find the momentum to sustain ourselves. Perseverance and endurance is nine-tenth of success as an artist. We need staying power and the persistence to work to overcoming the obstacles to art making we find in our life. It is important to develop flexibility, creative response to adversity, and the ability to get out of our own way. Stubbornness helps. If you can learn to define yourself and refuse to let others define you or your art you have won half the battle.
Without self-discipline and ability to carrying out the plans we have made it will be difficult to develop and sustain a career as an artist. This means telling the people we love ‘no’ regularly.
A large part of sustaining ourselves as artists is to understand that making the art has to be its own reward. The process of making is what matters. The art we make documents our journey. Work to stay open-minded. Evaluate your own work and art-making process honestly so that you can identify what may be holding you back. Know that you must value your own art and creativity more than the society at large does but keep it in perspective. Its not the worlds fault if we don’t receive the attention we think we deserve. We, as artists, must figure out how to bring our work to the people that need and want it. You can trust that there is an audience for your work, but you may have to spend some time thinking about who and where they are and how you can best reach them. It may not be through traditional art world channels.
How important is it that an artist understands the business of art?
An artist is a small-business owner. If we do not organize ourselves as a business, we are at the very least missing deduction opportunities at tax time. A key here is in understanding that the ‘business of art’ is not just about selling art. It is about sharing our creative and critical ideas with the world. If we shift our thinking in this way acquiring the skills we need to gain visibility for our art seem less mercenary and less disrespectful to the core purpose of making art, which is about being human. Art not shared is really not art. Art requires and audience to complete it.
It used to be a part of the myth of being an artist that you just created the work and left the definition, distribution, and evaluation of your art up to others. This specialization allowed artists to avoid distracting themselves with commerce but it also left them dependant on the good will and skills of others. Today it’s is very important for artists to learn the business of art to know how to deal with art dealers, galleries, collectors, and the world of commerce in general as well as art showing venues more focused on ideas than commerce. We have to know how to deal with people who produce art materials, who ship and freight, who market, and who control the venues we hope to enter.
Today’ artists will do better if they learn to build professional relationships and to network like in any other business people. You may have to hire people to help with parts of it. While the process of making art may not be like creating products in other economic ventures, the business aspects; the showing, distribution and marketing of the work is like any other business. It is important that an artist become comfortable with developing and using business skills. We need to know how to talk to people and learn how to talk comfortably about our work when there is an interested audience.
Even as we focus on the business of art we need to remember the “why” of our art making. Remembering why I make my art, why its important, makes it easier to talk about it. For me as a painter it helps to think of my painting as a verb (an activity) that documents my creative and critical thinking rather than as a noun (product) made simply to sell.
Why don’t artists embrace the marketing of their own work?
It is hard enough to overcome our doubts about the content and quality of our work and to learn to declare our identify as an artist, let alone needing to singing our own praises to the world as well. Visibility can be hard to bear. Many artists are shy. We don’t mind bringing attention to our art but it is terribly hard to have to bring ourselves into the spotlight too. It is hard to develop confidence in our art, and believe in the importance of sharing our creative and critical voices, but it is an important part of sustaining ourselves as an artist. Seeking venues to represent and show our work puts us in the position of facing repeated rejections. This is hard for anyone, but it is especially hard for artists who view the work we make as an extension of ourselves.
What about the tension between the desire to be an artist and the need to address the business side of the art?
The tension is absolutely there, but it can lessen if we let our art guide the process. It is important not to put yourself in a position where the commerce kills the art. This can happen if we try to focus on what is popular in the art market to determine what we will make. While we may be able to identify the flavor of the month and produce it, the likelihood of our sustaining an interest and commitment to making art over the long hall will be much reduced.
First we need to make our art, and continue to focus on making, expanding and developing our art over a sustained period to see where the process will take our creative thinking. We need to discover what matters most to us and make art about it. The more we engage in the process of actually creating our art, the stronger and more confident our artist’s voice becomes. With focused attention our art grows, expands and improves.
How have you handled the tension between business and art.
For a long time just making my art and showing it was enough for me because I was so thrilled to be able to be an artist and share my art. As a University art professor I was privileged to be able to make my living through my teaching while exhibiting my work in venues focused on ideas more than sales. This meant I could make the art I wanted without focusing on making a product to sell. The content of the art was and is what matters to me. When I shifted to part-time university administrative work to give myself more time with my art I continued my commitment to put the art first even as I worked hard to expand the audience for it.
Eventually I realized I wanted more and better venues and that I would have to be more intentional about building my art career. If I wanted to move it forward and expand my opportunities I was going to have to commit part of my time to working on the business of art. I have become more strategic about growing my career awhile remaining committed to retaining the integrity of my art. I have given myself permission to go at the speed that feels correct for me, guided by my art and its intentions.
Again, I’m not saying that selling doesn’t matter, especially to those of us who make objects and want to sell them. I’m saying that first we make the art and then determine where the market for it is rather than starting with the market and trying to make art for it. If you make objects you will either have to decide to enter a gift economy or learn to market your work. The most important thing is that you make the art!
There are artists who do exclusively performance or installation work that is less unique object oriented or has that has specific political or social justice purposes. These artists have to find creative ways to fund their work. Some rely on grants. Others sell artifacts related to their work. Still others rely on donations and sponsorship. There are endless possibilities.
I have artist friends that have decided they care more about making the art than anything else. It’s the creative thinking and making process that matters most to them. They’re not interested in getting their work out into the world or selling it, and that is fine for them. I know other artists that are interested in visibility for their work. Their art is about the concerns they address and actually selling is beside the point of the artwork. None-the-less this art requires economic and other kinds of support to be realized.
The need to put your art before the audience you want to reach requires similar efforts whether your intentions are to generate sales, grant support, or other forms of fundraising. If you’re interested in getting your work out you will have to find some way to embrace your inner businessperson.