Q. I’ve created art for over a decade and have an MFA to back my professionalism as an artist but I‘ve not had any real success. I can’t believe that I’ve devoted so much time, money, and resources only to be another starving artist. I don‘t want to waste time exhibiting in galleries unless they represent artists that are on the same level as me academically. Do you have any advice for people in my situation?
A. The first step is to stop thinking on terms involving the ‘starving artist’ image that you have accepted for yourself. The problem with the ‘starving artist’ image is that it is a romanticized view of what it is to be a painter, sculptor, what have you, who is struggling to establish a market for his or her art. It has become an easy to obtain label that many people suggest should have some form of respect granted to it. In other words, people decide that if they can’t be a successful artist they might as well address themselves as a ‘starving artist’ because it sounds better than accepting failure directly. In my eyes, calling oneself a ‘starving artist’ can make an otherwise creative lion appear to be nothing more than a paper tiger. Do you want to appear weak? Or do you want to accept your assumed failure and advance from there?
Artists rarely accept the fact that they can fail-- you are not alone in that regard. Some choose to sugar coat their lack of success by accepting ‘starving artist’ as some form of noble title-- at least that is what I‘ve observed. Thus, I think it is vital for artists to accept their marketing failure and to try and figure out why they have failed. You need to think about your marketing plan and ask yourself questions based off of your experiences. Yes, you will need to critique the business of your art if you desire to overcome the label that you have willingly embraced. Instead of thinking like a starving artist you need to think like an entrepreneur as far as marketing your art is concerned. For example, if brick & mortar marketing has failed you perhaps online marketing is a better option-- or vice versa. Many artists who have not had success in brick & mortar galleries have went on to have great success marketing and selling their art online-- it can happen. You need to discover what works for you and not let your MFA get in the way-- more on that later.
Before you think about your plan of action as an entrepreneur you must first think about your idea of what failure and success is to you. For example, if your idea of success as an artist involves exhibiting at a high profile gallery, having a group exhibit with Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, or earning millions from your art there is a chance that you will never reach your vision of success. Waiting for those dreams to become reality will only serve to place you in the confines of constant failure-- you will end up restricting yourself and in the end you will place your art under the lock and key of dreams that will most likely never come true. Thus, you may need to rethink your position concerning art marketing success so that your goals are attainable… and dare I say, realistic.
Being realistic about your art and your market will involve conditioning yourself to take advantage of situations that you may-- with your current train of thought-- view as mediocre experiences. To put it bluntly, you need to get over yourself and realize that perhaps your work is not ready to be marketed on a high profile scale-- you must accept that you may never reach that level. True, artists reach that level everyday with little to no experience backing their movement in the art world. However, you need to remember that you are not those people and that you may not have the same experiences they have had-- so take advantage of the experiences you could be having instead of waiting for your big day to come.
Unfortunately, the fact that you have worked on your art for over a decade does not matter as far as marketing your art is concerned. It is not like you work to a certain point before the golden gates of marketing success open with trumpets blaring in the background. I know artists who have worked for decades with little to no marketing success simply because they adhered to the ‘staving artist’ mentality as you have apparently done. They stayed in that safe zone waiting for a miracle. They failed to realize that any success is good success and that the success we have is largely based on the actions that we take. On the other hand, I’ve known artists who have established themselves in less than five years due to accepting opportunities that were within their reach. Forgive my bluntness, but it seems that you need a wake up call before you end up on the Island of Starving Artists waiting for a ship that may never arrive.
You have an art degree. Great. I’m sure that you worked hard to earn your MFA. Education is important and you can utilize what you have learned and the connections that you have made to advance yourself toward marketing success. However, you must realize that not everyone views an MFA as a sign of professionalism. In fact, your bold statement could be seen as arrogance or insecurity-- take your pick. If you are as vocal about your MFA in person as you are with stressing that fact in online messages I can see why you have found it difficult to market yourself.
No, I’m not suggesting that your MFA is worthless… I’m simply pointing out that it should not be the sole point that you make in order to validate yourself as a ‘professional’ or as an artist. Be careful of doing that. It may work in some circles that view an MFA as the end all-be all of accomplishments, but more often than not it will do more harm than good if you make that accomplishment your strongest pitch, so to speak. In other words, sometimes stressing the merit of your professionalism based on your educational experiences-- which I assume occurred years ago-- can make you appear unprofessional in certain situations. Especially when you downplay the work of other artists simply because you hold an MFA and they do not.
I realize my answer is probably not the answer that you were hoping for. I try not to cater to fantasy. So if you feel that my response is rude that only means that maybe, just maybe, I’ve given you some things to think about. Where you go with that is up to you.
Take care, Stay true,