Recently, I was in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s, earbuds in place and eyes locked on my phone to deter the cashier’s questions about what I would be making for dinner that night. He asked what I was listening to. It was a podcast, and when I told him it was an artist podcast, he asked if I was an artist. I said yes, and then he asked the question that almost always inevitably follows, and the question that I loathe: “Oh, so you support yourself by selling your work?”
I told him I still have a day job and pointed out that most artists do, and immediately felt that emotional combo platter of failure, contempt and misunderstanding being dumped on my pride while I was handed my receipt.
And then it happened again. After my yoga class, the person on the mat next to me heard that I was an artist and immediately asked if I make my living through sales. This happens to me frequently when people find out that I am an artist. My immediate sense is that the person asking is trying to get a sense of how serious I am about my work, but is using a gauge that doesn’t apply to me. This question has only ever been directed at me by men, which may carry additional implications, but that’ll be a conversation for another time.
When sales are the first thing people ask about, I assume that’s what they consider the hallmark of success and/or seriousness. While sales are definitely important to many artists for a variety of reasons (stability, paying their bills, acknowledgment of value) I personally don’t base my feelings of success on them. I’ve always felt more successful when I receive opportunities to show my work and receive recognition for it.
To see if I was alone in feeling this way, I took a few informal polls through social media to ask other artists if they feel more successful in terms of their art practice/career either from sales or from opportunities such as being given a show, receiving a write-up or winning a fellowship.
Close to 60 artists responded and 15% of them said they feel more success from sales; that sales boost their ego and can help them continue to make their work. “On the real, I get a real high when my work gets placed,” said artist Martin Durazo, who has been the recipient of awards such as the California Community Foundation and C.O.L.A Fellowships.
However, 85% said opportunities make them feel more successful; it increases confidence, brings their work to a wider audience, and generates more opportunities.
“Sales are great, but exhibitions and other opportunities and accolades are meaningful in a different way,” said Santa Monica-based artist Julia Schwartz who recently had a solo show at Visitor Welcome Center in Los Angeles. “Positive feedback and respect from and of other artists is equally potent: it doesn’t pay bills, but it feeds the soul.”
Illinois based printmaker Benjamin Calvert said: “I have such a strong desire—as I’m sure most artists do—of participating and interacting with the larger community. Being in exhibitions and all that surrounds those creates that interaction and dialogue.”
Many artists had difficulty separating out what they think is needed for success compared to what makes them feel personally successful, and I think this is indicative of the complexity of how artists feel about their work and its affiliation to their income, sense of accomplishment and how the outside world defines success.
I am always encouraging artists to regularly apply for grants, develop exhibition proposals and to pursue available opportunities because I think it is one way to be proactive in your own success. Not everyone is aware of what is available though, so I’ve listed out some of the most common things that artists can apply to on a regular basis:
Grants: Free money! Or the closest thing to it. There are different types of grants, but generally, a set amount of money is given to an artist. Sometimes this is for a specific project and comes with requirements, sometimes it is purely to support the artist and they can use the money however they want. I apply to any and all grants I am eligible for because why not?
Artist Residencies: Similar to grants, there are different types of residencies. Some are a chance to escape your life to focus on your work or stare at the treetops, while others offer opportunities for artists to meet curators, host a workshop or exhibition, collaborate with other residents or learn a new skill. These tend to be highly competitive as they not only act as a retreat but can be a real career booster.
Curatorial Proposals: For artists, I think developing curatorial projects can be incredibly beneficial for many reasons. You get to see the process of exhibitions from the other side—the installation, promotion, logistics and of course working with other artists, which is one of the best ways to learn how to behave professionally. Also, being the bestower of opportunity is very different than being the one looking for opportunity and can lead to new connections.
Solo and Juried Exhibitions: Applying for exhibitions not only increases your chances to show your work but can also be opportunities to develop exhibition ideas and new projects, meet curators (tip: always research who is the guest juror/curator), build relationships with exhibition venues and get more lines on your resume.
Publications: Finding opportunities to have your work published and written about can be difficult, but are well worth the effort. A published piece lasts much longer than an exhibition so can be an ongoing tool for sharing your work.
ROUNDUP OF RECOMMENDATIONS
Reading: Hearing from other artists about how they support themselves and continue their work can dismantle many of the misconceptions about what an artist’s life looks like. Check out Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists, edited by Sharon Louden to get a snapshot of the variety of possibilities.
Listening: Beyond the Studio podcast talks about the business side of being an artist through interviews with artists about how they price their work and services, how they drum up business and all kinds of other interesting topics that reveal the many ways artists turn their art into a money maker.
Artist Opportunities: Gallery Azul in San Pedro has a call for entries for a group show about Pandora’s Box, deadline is around the corner on August 10th.
Coming up August 31 is the deadline for a highly competitive artist residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, NE. It offers a stipend, loads of resources, technical guidance and extended support for its alumni.
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