Upon reading my first Bluecanvas artist advice column a (non-artist) friend remarked, "What if an artist just wants to make work? Do they need career 'advice' when all they want to do is create?" It's a valid question, one that I want to take a moment to address.
If you are content to "just make your art," do I think you could still use a few golden nuggets of career advice? Yes, I do. And it's not because I am seeking validation for my advice column. Let me explain.
You have a spirit that compels you to make your art. Otherwise you wouldn't bother. You may also be aware that when you are not creating you might feel a little hinky or off kilter, as if some crucial part of you is being neglected.
Creative types need to express themselves, no matter the method or manifestation. When you create you are grooving in your flow. You go to a warm fuzzy place that transcends the perfunctory world and whisks you into a more meaningful state of mind.
If you make art for just you, that's totally cool. But do you really want to deprive the masses of a chance to experience that same spirit that moves you? If you make work for an audience of one, you may be depriving the world of an important message, your message.
You also know what it feels like when you see a magnificent piece of art. It moves you. It's a profound, visceral sensation that takes you somewhere outside yourself. Perhaps it provides a welcomed reminder that there's more to life than Facebook and paying bills. Even if it's just for a fleeting moment, you are given a grand opportunity to add a little magic to the mundane. Wouldn't you want your art to offer someone this same poignant interplay?
I also don't think there are many among us who would refuse being acknowledged for our talent. An "atta-boy/girl" feels good, and there's no shame in that. We like it when people like us. And we love it when they love our art. Recognition of your gift is empowering; it helps you over the artistic humps and motivates you to keep at it. Granted your process, first and foremost, needs to make you happy. But a simple, Hey, I really like your art, goes a long way.
Give yourself permission to further empower your practice by educating yourself on how to successfully get your work out there in the world. You can do it, and I am here to help. And as I said before, you don't have to swallow all that I proffer at once; one step at a time is still one step forward.
In my last article I wrote about finding your work's best audience based on your career goals, (a clear understating of) the type of work that you do, and a realistic assessment of how and where your art fits within the art scene and market based on your media, subject matter, style and price-point. I defined your audience in three ways: your current enthusiasts (fans, collectors, jurors and venues who have included your work in an exhibition, and the writers who have written about your work); the venues and arts professionals you need to champion your work (curators, dealers, art writers and consultants); and where your work fits into the current art scene and market within the gallery system.
Properly identifying and developing your audience includes evaluating your exhibition history and its future trajectory. Sit down with your résumé and cobble a list of everyone that has come into contact with your work. Is there a common thread among the venues? Are they urban, alternative, funky or fancy? Are your collectors a "type," for instance, people in television, corporate America, the nonprofit sector? Maybe they're bankers, lawyers, animators, clothing designers, or film or music industry people. Detecting commonalities will provide clues as to future venues to exhibit and meet and mingle with your tribe.
As per mapping your future, based on your work and career objectives, connect the dots as to what art professionals would make good allies. Once you know who they are you can figure out how to reach them. Research the contemporary scene. Determine which venues, art centers, galleries, alternative and nonprofit spaces would make productive stepping stones. It takes very little effort to (really quickly) become knowledgeable about what's out there, where it's being shown, who is showing it, and who's writing about it. There is an unlimited stream of resources for figuring this out, both online and print. (I talked about all this in my last article, available via Bluecanvas online.)
Since there's no shortage of artists vying for the attention of members of the art community, present (yourself and) your work in a way that is both appealing to and compatible with your desired audience. A conscientious and professional presentation goes along way; if you want people to take you seriously you need to demonstrate that you take your art career seriously. An understating of your audience will prescribe the most effective way to promote and position your work through your promotional materials – postcards, website, portfolio, print publications and so forth.
Knowing your audience will also help you choose the most appropriate language to use when speaking and writing about your work. This doesn't mean you have to pander or adopt a pseudo-intellectual pretension; people will see through that. Instead really get to know the ins-and-outs of your own work so that you can aptly and sincerely speak to it. In addition to demonstrating that you have a solid and resolved body or work, us art professionals want to know that you know what your work is all about; it indicates that you are reliably engaged with your practice and ready for prime time. How you present and describe your work speaks volumes.
Let's say you want to appeal to a curator at the Guggenheim. Staring your artist statement with "I've been painting since I was five and I still love it!" is probably not a good call. Most curators and art writers are more hep to fancy art speak. Don't know it? Read art reviews in regional, national, or international art magazines. Check out gallery press releases - how do they talk about their artists' work? Bit by bit you will glean how art is spoken about, the way language enhances the comprehension of art as well as situates it within the context of the contemporary art dialogue.
Once you have I.D.'ed your audience, what do you do with them? It's profoundly critical that you dutifully promote your work to your past, present and future audience. How can people love and support your work if you are not putting it out there for them to love and support? You have to keep your current peeps engaged in your career. You have to cultivate art professionals, art spaces, and galleries by putting them on your mailing list and going to their exhibitions, galleries and lectures. Create reasons to stay in touch with everyone: participate in group and juried exhibitions so you can send out show announcements; find more significant opportunities by pitching solo shows to respected alternative or university galleries; send out an email blast when you post new work on your website; and so on and so forth. Your job is to get your work out there so the right people have a chance to see it.
You also have to be a face to your art and be a part of the community that you want to be a part of. I will (never) stop hounding you on how important it is that you are seen out there in Art Land; network like gangbusters to cultivate the right introductions and relationships. If you stay holed up in your studio it ain't gunna happen for you.
When assessing where your work fits into the art market, research which local and national galleries are best suited to your work by learning what is being shown where. Galleries in different cities show different types of work. They each cater to the needs and penchants of their unique demographics. San Francisco galleries show different work than Los Angeles and New York; Santa Fe, NM and Laguna Beach, CA don't cater to the same clientele as Chicago, IL and Boston, MS. Miami, FL might really like boldly colored abstracts while Portland, OR seems to fancy illustration and pop surrealism. Santa Barbara, CA might really dig paintings of the sea and sail boats because people there are all about the sea and sail boats. Galleries in Toronto, Canada might adore designer-friendly landscapes while Vancouver can't get enough figurative work. I also suggest looking where you have the most established connections – your immediate community or where you went to school. It's easier to make headway in smaller backyards on the way to bigger playing fields.
When reading the art trades in print or online, look at the pretty pictures – do you see work that reminds you of your work? Create a list of seemingly simpatico galleries (and art centers and alternative venues). Go to each of their websites. What is their program? In other words, what type of work do they show? Is there a through-line in terms of subject, style, media, and size? Who are their artists? (Their artists' bios are on their website.) Are they emerging, mid-career, museum-level, or at all levels? Is there a focus on niche artists with specific ethnic backgrounds? Are their artists engaged in social or political messaging? Based on the gallery's style and price-point, what clientele does they cater to –sophisticated or novice collectors, designers or everyman? And keep in mind - just because the gallery shows photography does not mean they show your style of photography. Do they only show black and white photos? Color? Digital? Nudes? Landscape? Photo journalism? What type of photography do you do?
Once you have crafted a current and dream gallery (and venue) wish list, both locally and out of town (if that's right for you and your work), divide them into the ones that are right for you right now (based on your exhibition history) and then ones you'll have to work towards by building a more compatible résumé. Get the name of the director and put them on your mailing list. If local, show them the love and go to their openings. Even if you don't currently fit into their program you still need to get to know them, nurture a relationship, and demonstrate your support of their program.
It's super important to thoroughly understand how and why you fit into a gallery or art venue's program before you considering approaching them. Determining where you don't fit in is as important as finding out where do. Don't waste your or the someone else's time barking up the wrong tree.
Also don't give up on the dream, more pie-in-the-sky galleries or venues with whom you aren't currently compatible. If the artists they show are more advanced in their career, work on creating a résumé that will better position your work in the future. Remember, all your exhibitions are building blocks that work in a continuum; opportunities are all about timing. If your work sells for $500 and a gallery you are interested in shows work that is $2500 and up, your task is to increase your market demand so that you can justify raising your prices (it's not cool to make an unwarranted leap in price). Decide that once you've sold ten pieces at $500 you will raise your prices 25%. Find more opportunities to show and sell your work, but with galleries and venues that are in line with your desired path. You can also host studio sales (which are a great way to stay in touch with your current enthusiasts and develop future ones). Working to increase your market demand may take a slow and steady pace, but your focused determination and career clarity will definitely pick up the speed.
Oh there's so much more to talk about! Next time I'll explore what galleries are looking in artists, how to best present your work (website and portfolio), and when to submit to a gallery and/or art venue. I want you in tip-tip shape so you stack the odds of acceptance in your favor!
And don't forget – if there is an issue you want me to explore in this column or if you ever need me to expound on a previously discussed idea or topic, drop me a line at McLean@bluecanvas.com.
Onwards and upwards!