I am in Fairbank, Alaska about to embark on two weeks of multidisciplinary fun at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. There is music, creative writing, dance, ice skating (its Alaska), and visual arts of all kinds. The workshop I am teaching will address many of the topics I have been discussing here. I am eager to meet my students and have already met a fabulous group of teaching visual artists, musicians, and other arts professional and a fabulous festival staff. Check out the festival and put it on your calendar for future years. The guest artists like me from afar rotate, and there are always opportunities to work with fabulous Alaskan artists working in a variety of media and disciplines.
This week I continue with the third and final segment of an interview I gave not so long ago outlining my thoughts on career development for contemporary artists.
Interview: Part Three
How important is it to you that your artwork is shown in galleries? It is important to me that my work is shown. My art making is a process of visual exploration of ideas or concerns. The resulting artworks document my creative and critical thinking. After a process of editing I choose the best of the visual texts to share with the world. Because I think making art is a process of communication it seems to me that the arts works are not completed until an audience interacts with them. I must find venues for the art and the audience to come together. Sometimes this will be in a gallery, museum or art center. Sometimes it will happen in other places. I am open to ever evolving possibilities.
I don’t limit myself to gallery exhibitions, but showing in galleries is a very important way of reaching a wider audience than I can reach o my own. It will depend on your goals as an artist whether you should focus on developing a relationship with a number of galleries in places around the country you like to visit, whether its better for you to initially show and sell out of your studio, if you will be better off using on-line virtual galleries and registries to make your work visible and available for sale, or if over time you will find yourself to using all three strategies and more.
Ask yourself a few questions. How important are sales to you? Do you want to show your art for intellectual and creative dialog and/or do you seek to sell the work? Who and where are your desired audiences? Are your audiences local, national, or international? Do they frequent galleries or are they more likely to be found in a gift shop or community center? Are they interested in art or a topic you art addresses? How could you best help them find you and your art?
If you do paintings about fly-fishing, the landscape of national parks or environmental issues you will focus on different venues than if your subject is focused on issues of pure aesthetics, or addressing social justice themes.
Where can we show our art?
There are different types of galleries and exhibition venues. Coffee shops, libraries, and performing arts centers often offer opportunities for emerging artists to exhibit. Alternative and non-profit galleries are usually concerned with bringing under-represented or cutting edge art to the public and provide wonderful opportunities for exposure for artists working in new ways or media. Artists coming together to create their own exhibition spaces like artist co-ops or self run spaces can also be a fabulous way to bring art and/or collaborative projects to the public. Increasingly there are virtual opportunities to exhibit in Second Life and using web-based software.
In the brick and mortar world, university and college galleries and most public art centers will exhibit art of interest to their audiences with the intention of focusing on art of merit based on the content, concerns and aesthetics addressed rather than concerning themselves with sales.
Commercial galleries are focused on sales, and while their coordinators are also interested in that aesthetic and content of the art they show they are most interested in representing artists whose art they know their clients will want to purchase. (I have often heard gallery owner and managers say they have passed up representing artists whose work they personally liked because they didn’t believe they could sell it in their gallery due to the medium they use or the content they focus on.)
I also know artists whose artworks are so in demand that they sell directly from their studios to collectors as quickly as they make the work. While this may sound wonderful to those of us who would like to see our sales increased the downside is that these artists don’t have a chance to show a body of work in exhibition to the general public. This would be problematic for me because I tend to work in series and consider developing a solo exhibition to be like writing a book. Each painting is an essay that stands alone but when gathered together in the anthology of the exhibition it becomes part of larger themes that emerge in the body of the whole. The whole of the exhibition becomes greater than the sum of its parts. While I too would love the problem of having my wok be too popular I would miss the opportunity to share my works periodically in a collection representing creative thinking on a theme.
If it is important for you is to put your art before the public with the intent of sharing your creative thinking, concerns, or aesthetic visions you may want to focus on less commercially oriented venues that will allow you to develop and share works that offer more critical dialogs than commercial appeal. The point is sharing your work. Showing your art in galleries, whether commercial or public, gives new audiences the opportunity to interact with your work. It is worth the effort to explore these venues even as you consider other alternative way to share your art.
How should the beginning artist figure out how to price?
Size, time, market all matter. A way to figure out how to start is to look at the resumes of artists represented by galleries you visit. Compare your artworks with other artists at the same stage in their career as you who are working in similar mediums. It is always easier to raise your prices than lower them so start modestly and work your way up as your sales increase. Price similarly sized works the same whether you have a greater emotional connection to some works than others. Don’t sell works you are not happy with.
You will eventually have a past track record of sales and your prices will increased over time. You should have your artworks at the same price in all venues no matter what percent you receive of the sale (they should be the same price in your on-line gallery or studio as any brick and mortar galleries you work with). I always try to have a range of artworks with some affordable pieces for new collectors in my exhibitions.
What about the myth of the isolated starving artist? Is this all we can expect?
We all have to decide individually how to balance our need to make a living with our need to make and share our art. Some of us simply have more resources than others. Some of us can live frugally enough to buy the time to make our art and focus exclusively on building a career in the arts. Many of us will have to have a day job to get by while we work to make our art and build a career. Artist are the people who find a way to protect the time they need to focus on the making of their art, to grow it and nurture it. Artist commit the time make their art no matter what other challenges they are dealing with.
As artists we can work alone and in isolation or we can decide we deserve more and commit ourselves to also building community of people who care about art as much as we do. Artists can work effectively together formally or informally to find ways to make their art more visible to the world.
You can decide not to compete with other artists for resources. If you work together a success for one becomes a success for all because someone in your circle just moved a little further down the path of success. You can choose to work together in common cause and share opportunities and resources. I have found that sharing ideas and opportunities with other artists brought me many more opportunities than I could have found on my own.
We all need other artists and creative networks to counter the isolation of the studio. As a young person I was never a joiner. I was reluctant to join any group. Later I was drawn to explore the potential of groups and organizations looking for intellectual and creative companionship and resources I couldn’t find on my own. Now, in retrospect most of my opportunities have come from the networks of artists and relationships I made with people I met through organizations and groups working in common cause. I have found that learning about available resources and opportunities often comes from sharing them.
How do you break into the art world?
Check out local and state and national organizations offering opportunities for emerging artists. Most states have a state arts board or commissions that have a website linked to resources and opportunities. Many offer workshops for artists.
It takes a while to get ready to show in galleries, commercial or non-profit. You have to build a resume. Many people start showing their art in restaurants, cafes and libraries. This is fine but it’s a great idea to apply your creative thinking to the sharing of your art in addition to the making. Look for partnerships with non-art organizations working on issues you care about and see if there are ways you can work together.
Often artists start by curating their own shows with other artist friends and placing the exhibitions where they can. You can find spaces empty spaces and covert them to temporary galleries, or approach cafes, galleries, libraries, and other pubic venues that are most accessible.
Magazines like Art Calendar, and websites like Art Deadline, CAFÉ, and the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) can introduce you to national and international opportunities to show and support your work. (Check out the links page on my art website for many more organizational resources. ) Be selective and choose venues that seem right for you that are not geared toward making their money off of artists. Do not be afraid to ask other artists for suggestions and advice. Do not be put off by not being accepted to every opportunity you apply to participate in. Start with a goal of getting accepted to one out of every ten juried exhibition opportunities you apply for. Soon you will develop a feel for where your work will fit and your percent will increase.
Increasingly on-line registries are a way to start to meet other artists and build community too. Thinking creatively works well in this part of your art career as will. Go at the speed that is appropriate to you and the work you create. Eventually you’re work will guide you to appropriate venues because of audience responses. As your opportunities expand you become more selective.
Ultimately it’s the art that matters. Art making can be important creative, critical, aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, political, and/or intellectual work. If you stay open, flexible, and creative in your thinking about your art career and your art it will lead you to like-minded artists, activists, and arts communities, to appropriate and interesting venues, and to the audiences that are waiting to find your artwork.