Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by KQED.org.
I have been a semi-successful studio artist for almost 30 years. For about the last 10 of these I have been able to support myself financially with my work. I consider this a fortunate situation but recently I have had to admit to myself that I’m getting tired and that the satisfaction of being an artist no longer seems worth the hustle of maintaining a viable studio practice. However, I am still an ambitious person (possibly out of habit) and I feel very acutely the pressure to produce work in a certain quantity. Being an artist has been the central part of my identity for so long, and I still romanticize it but I’m just not sure I can do it any longer. If I did stop making my work, I think there’s plenty I could do to make a living in the city where I live, but the thought of giving up a national reputation is frightening. Not that I think that there’s an adoring public who would be devastated but I can’t deny that my studio practice is externally motivated at this point. Is there a way to gracefully wrap up an art career without dying? Is there a way to turn down opportunities and quell the beast of the “artist’s ego” in order to lead a more sane and relaxing existence?
Of the many possible dilemmas to have, let’s admit that this one is rather attractive. Selling work steadily enough to provide a livable income is something that many artists yearn for, a marker of capital-S Success—at least on the commercial market. And for the past ten years you’ve had it, but now it has lost its luster.
Certainly, you could start bowing out. A regular job worked forty hours a week would surely make you too busy (and definitely too tired) to meet your current production demands. If this is what you really want, you need to have some honest conversations with your gallerists and dealers. Tell them that you need some space to pursue other goals right now and will be slowing down your studio work. It will be a hard conversation to have, but if you’re going to go down this path you need to be candid with the people who have helped support your career.
But before you initiate those conversations, you need to have one with yourself first. Clichéd though it may be, it’s absolutely true that age has a way of putting things into perspective and it might be that you’ve matured and grown distant from your current life. Before you lock the door to your studio and throw away the key, let’s try to figure out how you got here in the first place. To put it bluntly, let’s make sure that this is a well-considered course of action and not just a mid-life-crisis maneuver that ends in remorse.
There are some questions that you need to ask yourself. What are the specifics that make your current practice untenable? Could it be that production pressure alone is the cause of your reluctance to continue? How do you feel about fulfilling orders for work that’s not yet made, knowing it has to be good every time? Do you feel like you have room to experiment or are you locked into a saleable style, medium, or format? Do you have artist friends that you see regularly, or are you stuck in the studio? Are you working with studio assistants, or do you do everything yourself? How quickly are you expected to produce work? Take stock of your current modes and methods. How many of the pressures come from without, and how many from within? When was the last time you felt really inspired to work?
Take a couple of days to assess your studio practice and jot down anything that pops into your head. When you feel like you have a robust audit of what’s really going on, then it’s time to imagine the studio practice that would fit you perfectly. Would you work less? Change media? Work with others? Have a different space? This is total fantasy-land, so feel free to write down whatever you think might make you feel satisfied and engaged.
Supposing that you still feel the right course of action is to just walk away, then I suggest that you talk to your dealers, find a job, and then engage the services of a professional therapist to help you sort through any related ego issues as you transition to your new life. But if you feel a twinge of hope (or potential regret), then you’ll want to explore some ways to reconcile your current practice with your fantasy practice.
If you decide that what you need most is some breathing room, what about a limited-term hiatus from art (two months, say, reading novels or hiking or taking cooking classes)? Conversely, if you feel that what you require is a break from pressure but not from art, how about a residency where you can experiment with some new ideas?
If the demands of your current practice have kept you from engaging with others, think about attending as many openings, lectures, and events as you can stomach. Sometimes the energy of inspiration comes from looking, thinking, and talking about art; and that might be in short supply in your hustle-bustle life. Take time to connect with the other artists and art professionals in your community. If being with others lights a spark, consider teaching a class or two, as well. With thirty years of experience, there’s no doubt that you have a lot of hard-earned wisdom that you could share. Whether it’s at a selective art school or the local community college, nothing satisfies the hungry ego like a weekly meeting with a roomful of admiring students. Whatever path you choose, good luck!