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 co-sponsored by KQED.org.
I graduated from college about a year ago, and have been pursuing art passionately and persistently ever since. My work is well received, and I’ve participated in shows, but I’m used to being generally unnoticed. When it dawned on me that ardor does not equal opportunity, I came to another blindingly obvious realization—I know virtually nothing about building a career as an artist past this point. How do all of these young, contemporary artists that I admire get to where they are now? My whole life is art. I’ve never had more faith in anything, and can’t see myself doing anything else. My point is that I am unacceptably clueless about how to reach an audience in a way that I would like to. I’m aware that being an artist isn’t a walk in the park, but right now I’m stuck in a rut. What do I need to do to keep moving forward? I don’t want to lose my spark because I’m in the dark.
I wish I could give you a fun and non-cynical pep talk along the lines of: Just work hard and the magic will happen!, but you’ve already figured out that you can work your fingers to bloody nubs and still no one at Art Basel will know your name. Your question, though, is a good one. It’s the fundamental—perhaps axiological—query of the emerging artist living in the shadow of late-market capitalism: “I am passionate about art; how do I garner acclaim and money for my work?” And you’ll find any number of peppy answers if you poke around in art-career books, but my advice is that you keep these two things as far from each other as you can, because—and this is the really important part—you can only really control one of them.
The point I’d like to make about control is central to your concern about how young contemporary artists got where they are now. These days, most young hotshots attended highfalutin MFA programs in New York or Los Angeles, where their work was seen by high-level gallerists and/or curators, some of whom were paid to take a look. Most of these artists had early market successes that were driven by a dealer who was willing to speculate on the value of their work. Many artists have been plucked from the deep, dark well of obscurity by a high-powered curator who put their work into a high-profile show at a major institution. When you weigh it in the balance, it turns out that these artists did not have much control over their careers beyond getting into top-notch schools and thereby having access to VIPs—someone else with money, influence, and power made it happen. I’m not trying to cast doubt on these artists’ relative talent or make pessimistic comparisons to the likelihood of you reaching your own goals, but it’s crucial that you understand that a rapid ascent to the dizzy heights of Artforum Mountain is not in the power of the artist alone.
That said, it is absolutely possible to meet people who believe in your work and who will help you move your career forward. You can start by building yourself a website with crisp, professional images that convey exactly what your work is, with accompanying texts that briefly explain what and how and why you do what you do. You can invite curators and gallerists and writers to your studio to chat about the work. You can submit images to online and print publications that showcase the work of emerging artists. Those art-career books will tell you in great detail how you can do all this. You can also look at some previous Help Desk columns here and here.
But the spark I’m worried about is not the one that lives in public. Not to be too negative, but what happens if you suffer a year, or a decade, or a lifetime of having your work ignored by the art establishment? How will you maintain the flame of your faith in art? It’s essential that you put fortifications and safeguards into your practice so that navigating the vagaries of this shitty market-driven system doesn’t pulverize your psyche to a sour pulp. The most important thing you can do is to make loads of art friends—the real ones, not the competitive bullies—because it’s crucial to surround yourself with people who understand the process of being an artist and who will both hold your hand through bad times and celebrate with you in good ones.
You are right to point out that being an artist isn’t a walk in the park (unless that park is dark and cold, uphill both ways, with sinister whispers coming from behind the bushes), yet I hope you will find ways to sustain your passion. In the lowest of times, make sure to go see great art in person frequently, because it will fill you with wonder and remind you of why you became an artist in the first place. Looking at art and talking with your friends will also motivate you to keep working in the studio, which is indispensable for your mental health. You’re young, so your watchwords should be experiment and expand—tattoo these terms on your wrists if you must, but make sure to make this your mantra every time you set out to work. Above all, try to remember that building a career as an artist is not the same as being an artist, and you can “move forward” in more ways than are recognized by the current gallery/biennial/museum system. Keep the faith, and good luck!