Survival of the Artist: We are each other’s Human Resources

I meet with a small group of artists on a regular basis to talk about our work and professional goals. We help each other by sharing the experience and information each of us brings to the table. Sometimes alcohol, dogs and comfy couches are involved, but nevertheless we call it a business meeting.

Our conversations range from practical tips from how to organize your mailing list and whether or not to offer snacks during a studio visit to topics that head down into the territory of murky, grey areas.

Those trickier concerns are usually about our interactions with other artists, gallery directors, curators and people we want to meet.

“How did you meet so-and-so?” “Should I call this person out for copying my work?” “Would you show at that gallery that doesn’t pay their artists?” “Have you ever had your painting returned to you Saran wrapped?”

The art world feels like it has rules, and no rules at all. This can be very confusing.

We don’t have a human resources department to turn to when we have a complaint or want a raise. Instead, I have always felt that artists can be each other’s greatest resource for information, for connections, for emotional support and for critical feedback on our work. Finding trusted peers and mentors to do this can be really hard, and quite magical once you find them.

To tap into this collective knowledge of our local art community, I reached out to artists to reflect on the past year. Commiserating can be incredibly affirming, so I asked to hear about the low points, as well as the successes, so we can all benefit from the insight that comes from each.

What was your low point in regard to your art practice/career in 2019?

Rejection seemed to be at the top of the list for a lot of artists.

“I decided to apply to a really high number of opportunities this year, and I have only gotten about 10% of the things I have applied for. I’ve definitely developed a thicker skin this year, but the weeks (or even days) in which I received, multiple rejection letters back-to-back have still been really demoralizing,” said mixed media artist Nikki Painter.

Several people mentioned a decline in sales, which impacted their ability to make work at the scale they wanted. Some had to spend more time at day jobs, which can also have its downsides: “Working a job at an artist’s studio that made me feel like hierarchies and pecking orders are still real and felt even within the confines of a usually supportive area of the art world economy,” said sculptor Emily Blythe Jones.

Long Beach artist Olga Lah described an encounter where she shared a professional goal with a visitor at one of her installations. Instead of support, she received a look that said, “How dare you dream so high.” Lah went on to say that, “It was a reminder that some people will doubt your dreams, especially if you are a woman and particularly a woman of color, and ask you in a thousand conspicuous or inconspicuous ways, “Who do you think you are?”

While these scenarios can each be devastating in their own way, I know we’ve all experienced some version of them and hopefully life offers a counterbalance.

So, I asked artists:

What was your high point in 2019?

“I’m at my highest when I’m successful in the studio, when paintings come easy and flow,” said Alaska-based artist Somer Hahm. Making work they are proud of, being able to share it and connecting with other artists—it seems that most artists are at their high when they are able to just be an artist.

Veronica Dimitrov’s high point was exhibiting in a group show at Tag Gallery on museum row In Los Angeles. “Even though I’m only 23, I have been a practicing artist for almost a decade now. To be at a point where I’m able to submit a painting and get it accepted to a gallery down the street from LACMA was a solidifying moment for me,” Dimitrov said.

After learning of the international mural circuit through podcasts, muralist David Puck’s dream was to be involved and to combine art with travel and public community engagement. This past year he was able to participate in his largest mural festival so far, Wide Open Walls, where he got to meet artists he’d been following for years, including people from Juxtapoz, and other festival curators. “It was the first time I felt truly seen and valued for my art, that I felt people really believed in me and what I was trying to create,” he said.

Artists are not usually known for being great salespersons, extroverts or their own PR agents. However, it sounds like when the artists I surveyed took steps to put themselves out there, it paid off.

What actions did you take on behalf of your art practice that were successful?

Long Beach artist Jennifer Celio applied to many more open calls for solo shows than she had previously, and was offered an exhibition in 2020. Another Long Beach artist—Jennifer Gunlock—promoted a completed work on Facebook, and immediately was offered a small museum show in 2021.

Nikki Paintercreated an online studio sale with transparent pricing. “I believe this clear-cut approach to selling resulted in a good chunk of sales for me this year,” she said.

“I was way more persistent this year. Sometimes it takes way more than one email or message to get someone to see you,” said illustrator Jonny Bummers

“I put myself out there more whether it be through social media channels, direct emails or phone calls,” said environmental folk artist Deane Bowers. “I listened to my heart and not my fear and doubt. I stood tall in my personal truths and also did a ton of self-improvement and self-confidence work to finally feel comfortable in my own skin.”

Do you have any regrets from 2019?

Yes, artists also had some regrets: Taking on free gigs. Letting an opportunity slip because of lack of follow through. Not getting out and looking at enough work. Not speaking up when in need. Letting rejection and self-doubt take over the studio. Not acting on ideas as they hit; not taking more risks.

“I let others dictate my action plans when I knew in my heart those plans did not feel right to me. I tended to get discouraged too easily and let anxiety set in,” said Bowers.

A common sentiment was also shared by many artists, which Long Beach artist Stevan Dupus put succinctly: “I regret not spending more time in the studio.”

If there seemed to be a common thread, it’s that artists just want to be able to do their work, to be financially and emotionally stable enough to do so. Jennifer Gunlocknamed what so many of us want: “The ability to leave my day job and be a full-time artist.”

So, what’s next?

I’m a believer in naming your goals. Somehow it seems to help, whether it’s as simple as reminding yourself that you actually have goals. So I asked artists about what they want to see in 2020.

I heard many things repeated, but the most common was that artists want more community, the IRL kind, as Los Angeles-based painter Michael Nauert put it.  Some artists are thinking of ways to cultivate this, such as multidisciplinary artist and designer Nick Zegel, who is thinking of initiating workshops, or Sacramento-based artist Elizabeth Corkery who wants to be proactive about scheduling studio visits with artists she admires and attending openings, talks and public programs to get more connected to the larger art scene.

It’s easy to feel like an island and seeking connection can be really important.  As artist and co-founder of Midnight Gallery Shelby Batalla put it: “Collaboration is key. No one walks alone.”

Artists also want to shed self-doubt and grow their confidence. Zegel put it nicely in saying that he wants to “exhibit with less fear.”

“I want to push my practice beyond the constraints of time, resources and self-doubt,” said new genres artist Chelsea McIntyre.

Interdisciplinary artist Sayon Syprasoeth describes being asked by a collector for a studio visit. Initially hesitant and skeptical of their interest, he decided to go ahead and have them over and counts this as one of his high points of 2019. “I’m glad I allowed myself to be open to the unknown,” he commented.

Being open to the unknown is so much of what we do in the studio, so I think it isn’t too great a leap to extend this into the outward facing aspects of our lives as artists. I think this may become my mantra for 2020: be open to the unknown.

Roundup of Recommendations

It’s the start of a new year, and if you are the type of person who likes to use this as an opportunity to plan and set intentions, I have some resources for you:

Kick off the new year by making some goals. Springboard for the Arts offers a free digital toolkit for business planning and growth called Work of Art: Business Skills for Artists. It will help you identify your goals and outline action steps in all areas of your practice including time management, promotion, and record keeping.

If your goal is to earn more through sales of your work this year, check out the Artist Sustainability Roadmap from the Void Academy, full of checklists and practical steps you can take to become an emotionally and financially sustainable artist.

Also plan to attend the Art World Conference in February which is bringing in a stellar lineup of speakers to address topics around business and financial health for artists. If the fee is too high for you, apply for a CCI Quick Grant to cover the cost.

One of my personal favorite resources that I return to frequently is the Artists Thrive Assessment Tool. This rubric helps artists identify where they are thriving and where they can improve in terms of planning and capacity, communication and connection, power and money.

If you want a stream of useful posts coming through your Instagram feed, here are some accounts you may want to follow:

@taxesforartists

@makingandbeing

@angelenaatlas

@makingartmakingmoney

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Virginia Broersma is an artist and operates The Artist’s Office. She lives in Long Beach and along with her studio work, organizes opportunities for information sharing, relationship building often through shared meals, and offers a variety of services aimed to help artists identify and pursue the opportunities available to them, including a subscription service for artist deadlines. Her work can be seen at virginiabroersma.com and on Instagram @theartistsoffice and @virginiabroersma.
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