How to Survive as an Artist
By Carrie Yury
From Artillery, Killer Text on Art
Summer 2012 edition
Recently I was on a panel for the college art association’s annual conference. The title for the panel was “Ten Years Post Degree: Professional Success of Women Artist and Art Scholars in the Critical Decade Post Graduation.”
The panel raised a number of issues for me, including what it means to “succeed” in the zero-sum game art world. But thinking about the question was a good exercise. It made me realize that for me the most important measure of success is the fact that I’m still making work that engages and challenges me intellectually, emotionally and politically. So for my part in the panel, I decided to make a list of the strategies that have helped me continue to make art.
I’m still struggling, but when I remember to think about and apply the following strategies I do a lot better. So here goes. I hope you find it useful.
ONLY TALK TO THE NICE PEOPLE
I mean this on a few levels: socially , career-wise and in terms of getting feedback on your work. You have to go to openings to get to know the gallery scene. But when you go out to openings, there is no point in talking to people who are a jerk to you. You don’t need anyone to cut you down. Stick with talking to people who are nice to you. It’s better for your sense of self-esteem. Andrea Bowers told me this in my first year of grad school, and I’m so glad she did.
Career-wise this is absolutely critical. My friend, Marc Spiegler told me once that as an emerging artist there are literally hundreds if not thousands of people who can help you with our career. It’s only when you’re at the very top echelons of your career that those numbers narrow down. For now, stick with the curators and dealers who like your work!
TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY
When I was still in grad school, I had the opportunity to have a solo show a an alternative space in an office park. I was thrilled, but at one point expressed concern that nobody would see the show because of its location. My friend, Carrie Paterson told me, “Take every opportunity. You never know where it will lead.” And she was right! I can draw a through-line from that show to my current representation at Sam Lee Gallery, where I’ve had three solo shows.
PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE
In the story above, I am leaving out a critical fact: In almost every step of that chain, I put myself out there and risked rejection. After meeting Chris Hoff a few times, I asked him for a studio visit for a possible solo show. And I got to know Sam Lee and asked him to come down and take a look at a show I was in at CSUF, which led to being represented by him. Opportunity is a combination of the luck you make and the luck you take. And you have to be willing to risk rejection, over and over again, and not let it defeat you.
TREAT YOUR ART LIKE WORK
Here’s the boring but necessary part. First, keep regular hours. Schedule your studio time and treat it like a job. Don’t answer the phone or check email. Just work.
Second, have a plan. Literally. I have an exel spreadsheet that I use to help me set deadlines and goals. My spreadsheet has different worksheets for weekly and monthly goals and deadlines. I also have a separate sheet for three-year, five-year and ten-year goals. Check back in and adjust the plan every week, and adjust the big goals every year. It’s so easy to lose sense of direction. A plan keeps you on track.
ART FEEDS THE SOUL: IT’S UP TO YOU TO FEED THE BODY
Don’t rely on teaching art to feed you. The employment rate for MFAs in tenure-track teaching jobs is something like 4%. Adjuncting can be a great foot in the door but it generally pays poorly and usually lacks benefits or job security. If you have another way that you can make money to support your art career, try to develop that alongside your art practice. That way you won’t get to the point where you have to completely stop making art in order to focus on developing a way to make money. And, try to dovetail your business with your art practice, so your practice can benefit from your other profession.
BE PERSISTANT AND KEEP WORKING
If you are lucky you will become an art-star overnight straight out of grad school. But for the rest of us, it takes time. The art world is very relationship-based. It takes a long time for relationshiops to develop. And, it can take a long time for you to develop, understand and articulate your own work. Susan Mogul just told me that although she’s won something like 30 grands, she applied for big ones for ten years in a row before winning them. That’s inspirational. Keep making work, keep putting yourself out there and something will happen.
Most of all, keep making work. That’s why you’re doing this, right? Because you get something out of making your work, something that nothing else satisfies. If you are an artist you make art because you have to, so get to it!