Sunday, September 07, 2008

My Art Advice: Just another starving artist?

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,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

A sound response Brian.

It is concerning when any artist places this kind of emphasis on their academic qualifications, or to limit the perception of their success (however that is defined in their eyes) by the company they keep in a gallery.

There sure are ways to improve your approach to marketing your work, however more importantly I think this person needs to take time to seriously question their motives for making art in the first place. In art practice (as in many fields of endeavor), the price on your work, your academic qualifications or your industry networks will NEVER guarantee that you are making art of substance or which will resonate across time and art history. Every artist must deal with these questions of motive in a candid and personal way. They are what build and test your creative and professional character.

It is important however once an artist's cage is rattled, to also provide a bridge that helps them move in the direction of their personal success.... so I have included a link that might help with some of the more practical issues around presenting, promoting and marketing your art:

All the best with it.. Paul R.

Anonymous said...

Many of us artist have devoted our time, money and resources to our art also. Academics are only tools that help. I don't put myself on a high pedestal because I received an art education. You shouldn't worry about whether the other artist that you exhibit with have the same level of education. Some artist may spend 40 years creating their art, they are at their level of success by hard determined focused work, doesn't make them worth less, because of a lack of a dipoloma. Your wasting energy focusing on that. Spend more time marketing and promoting your work.

It also depends on how you view success. For me I set goals of creating 15 paintings in five months. If I reach that goal, I'm successful. I sold 7 paintings this year. That's hard on me. I get attached to my work. Sure the money is used to restock my supplies but I don't see myself as being sucessful because of sales. My objective is to share my work with the world. My life ambition is to share my gift. Yes Im financially struggling (lol, starving artist). I know when I die, I'll at least lived my life doing what I LOVE - creating art. No amount of money could give me that satisfaction.

Anonymous said...

wow that was awesome, I don't have an mfa and always wanted to go to art school but could not aford it,instead I just keep painting and honning my skills. I think education is important but If you can't afford it don't give up just keep on creating.Sometimes taking comunity classes creates better artist like you said everyone is different and I don't think you where rude you put it real and to the point kudos

Anonymous said...

Brian is absolutely right. There is nothing worse than a moaning artist with silly ideas of what success means! I will be giving up my job soon to do my art full time. It has been 8 years since my BA and I don’t have an MA or an MFA. (In fact I applied last year for MA's but did not even get an interview!!!) However this hasn't put me off or disheartened me at all as I know the meaning of the MA/MFA come only from your own experience of it. The experiences I have instead will be just as important be it in a different way. I am really looking forward to working on my stuff because I love it so much. Luckily I have very good feedback from everyone who sees my work which give me confidence.

However, I have taken some bold steps to be so confident even with my lack of "experience" (I don't have a long exhibiting CV) For example I got an email about a group exhibition in Berlin which suited my work exactly, I had not made any new work for two years and did not have a portfolio ready to send them. So I called them and said that I would be in Berlin anyway (of course I wasn’t) and I arraigned meet them. I took a flight (even though I was broke) and met them and gave them a proposal. They liked me and loved the proposal and I took part in the show alongside some other emerging artists and some very well known artists and made lots of friends/contacts. I now come to Berlin regularly and will have a solo show here next year. More importantly I have broken away from this idea that to be a successful artist you must have big gallery representation etc. (I still haven’t shown in London for years)

Saying you can’t be bothered to exhibit with people who are not on your level is totally misguided. Are you trying to say that your work is so much better than theirs because you have more qualifications? You are not better just because you are qualified on the other hand you don’t have to be qualified or even any good to make money out of art! Just look around, there is a lot of awful art that makes lots of money! (This is a personal favorite thing to think about when I get a bit worried about embarking on an art career!) Any show can provide the opportunity to meet interesting people, develop your work and give people the opportunity to speak about you.

Also, everyone says networking is the most important part of being successful and they are right. However this is not always what you think. It is not just about making friends with the right people in a superficial way. Make friends for real…with people you like and are interested in because you like who they are and respect what they do even if you think they cannot help you. Then people will start to help you to make the appropriate contacts and will speak about you without you even knowing it. If you don’t think the people around you are good enough then they will pick up on this and wont want to help you. Opportunities can come from the people you would not expect it to. I.e. seemingly not “important” in the art world. In London we are taught to prove ourselves all the time but it can be interpreted as being desperate or arrogant, or naïve. Yes you must believe in your self and your work 100% but trust me, being humble goes a long way!

Most importantly concentrate on your work (not in your qualifications or your cv) and don’t fall out of love with making art for the wrong reasons.
What does being successful mean to you? If you make enough money to live that is defiantly the first goal, earning more is great, being recognized is brilliant and of course we all want this. But as clichéd as it is, living as an artist really is a special life. A highly creative, intellectual and well respected field where it is perfectly fine to break boundaries, be totally eccentric, wild, and different or what ever you want. Everyone I know wants to earn more money and those who are poor are in various different fields of work not just art. So just think mostly about how you want to live your life and try to judge your success by that only.
That is my advice to any moaning artist!!

Much love,

Anonymous said...

this is a really great post. I am working toward establishing myself and my work and try to keep on task by reminding myself about a lot of these key points. good job.

Anonymous said...

Get a job. A MFA IS worthless, except in getting a teaching job. No good at all in doing anythng practical,like design, architecture, or printing, my field. Gotta know all Adobe applications and how they interact, wife just got back from Vegas Photoshop convention, in real life gotta be like a doctor, and continually update ones skills.

A MFA is worse than nothing in creative art, hinders learning about the world, been brainwashed into silly theories and mediocrity. Throw it all out, start over, and get over yourself. Le Douanier Rousseau never "made" it til he was retired. The world owes you nothing, and you have earned nothing. At what, early thirties, you are just approaching maturity as a human. Few ever should be "known" before that age, those that do become footnotes to history at best, even though wallowing in cash at present, from Messionier to Hirst.

Get a job. Work like the rest of the 6 billion humans on the planet, and start living. maybe eventually you will have something relevant to say. But you are not better, or worse, than anyone else, except as can be judged by the sum of the your actions according to your opportunities. Thats what makes a man. Not a piece of paper. That is just a ticket into the game, and then you really gotta compete, and learn.

Balhatain said...

Technically there are more options than just teaching as far as an MFA is concerned. However, any job involving an MFA is going to be hard to obtain. The decision to attend school really boils down to personal choice.

By the way, a day job is not so bad. In fact, sometimes the connections you make at your day job can result in the sell of art. Depending on where you work you might also be able to obtain discounts on materials or take advantage of other benefits that can help you with your art or education.

As Paul hinted at... nothing is set in stone.

Anonymous said...

Rediculous to say and MFA is worthless. That just sounds like jealousy to me on the part of most commenters. Why not say there are other tools besides an MFA that are important. To imply that someone who has worked hard to earn a degree is worthless is just plain wrong!


Anonymous said...

Oh, my bad.

Art academia delenda est.

Fine arts are just that, Fine arts. Those that cater to the rich.
Applied art leads to jobs, in music, movies, design, architecture. Real jobs that lead to real growth and production.

Creative art is what you seek, seemingly, or perhaps not. In this art, those who can do, those who cant teach. Teaching is examining a corpse, an autopsy of others work. And usually leads to brain dead conclusions. Like those I hear about that Modern art was all theoretical and was going to solve the worlds problems. Only according to pseudo intellectuals like Le Courbosier and geodesic dome fool.

Art school nonsense, Cezanne, Gauguin, Picasso, Bonnard, Matisse Klee, none claime such things. Kandinsky was a bit too "intellectual" and may have. Crazy Russians. Schools like Art Center and School of Design here in Pasadena is a real school, teaches practical applications. Even Cal Arts, a Disney based school, can lead to jobs, but has too many airhead fine art teachers and students too. Gotta make money, and bringing in rich wannabes pays off. Schools like Parsons and Otis are pretty useless. Creative arts are of the soul, and mind. And balls. Gotta be a man or woman, not the typical art school hermaphrodite.

And is best learned by studying those who do, not those who cant. Study the truly great artists and artwork by unknowns of human history, all have one thing in common. God, and defining a culture. Since Modernism, that is all humanity. With todays media, this can be done easily. We are fortunate. But still need to work our asses off, and FEEL the art. NOT express OUR feelings, which is childishness, and wannabes. But create objects that trigger feelings of the universe and purpose, of who we are, in others. THAT is our role as creative artist. The rest is essential also, we need to survive and thrive and grow practically. But need to feed the spirit also.

This cannot be done through art schools, they are at best a ticket into the market, where you can hobnob and asskiss. But it is just a beginning, many better, and cheaper ways. If you want it, you can do it. School is a hindrance, and teaches the ideas of the mediocre. Might be nice people, but if teaching, you aint all that. Its a sterile environment. And now, after generations of diverting from arts true purpose, decadent. As is its market.

Tear down the Bastilles of
arrogance. And begin fresh. Truth is not their goal. Its a business, and so self serving and perpetuating. As are all businesses, and organized religon. And government. But NOT Arts purpose.

Art academia delenda est.

Anonymous said...

I have had more success and have establilshed more contacts and ooppurtinities to exhibit my art and get it seen by others online than an actual person.

I have no degree an art. All I do is really believe in or at least know that my art is my art and that I think it has some or enough value for me to want to show to others and have others experience the work.

I think that having a MFA(what is that anyway?) does impress others and makes known the fact that the person that has it has education concerning art and what it is and how its done technically and what it means philophically you might say.

But at the end I think it is what you do with your art and what your art, you, is communicating to others

Ben Stock of Brainpower said...

There's a term for the artist who spends one hundred per cent of their time making art: UN-known. To have success, the formula is: take the available time and cut it in half. Spend half making art. I meet artists who don't make time to make art. Tie yourself to the chair if necessary. Use the other half of art time to build your platform: research, networking, marketing. Failing is an option. Don't choose that. Get yourself out there. I see so much truly ghastly stuff in galleries and stores. There's a market for ANY-thing if you make the effort to get it out there. I'm saying you don't even have to be good. You do have to market creatively. Something to re-think: "What do I want?"

Anonymous said...

Exactly Ben. And why art is so irrelevant now. Read my article at Imperial Clothing or just google me. It begins to explain how we got in this MFing situation, the beginning letters of what MFA mean.

Grew up in a art household, mother went to PCA, Father an athlete. I am both, and love and am disgusted by much of both. But sports are much better, except all the damn pink ties they are wearing these days on the entertainment, er, sport TV networks these days. Both have become entertainment, art for the rich, sports for the rest, except golf and tennis. Tiger from a few miles from me to the East, the Williams sisters to the north west from the LBC, home of Snoop Dogg and Sublime, to more pro athletes than any other city, from Billie Jean King on to more pro football players than any other city, over 50. And Tony Gwynn.

But unfortunately I am more artist than athlete these days, my boys playing college ball. Me back to painting. My wife went to Parsons for a minute too. They loved her, but wasnt a rich kid. A tall lovely black goddess, of course they wanted her. But didn't deserve her. Now a UCLA graduated graphic designer and ex-finance major, we have had lives, and so have something to say. Not about ourselves, but got lots to work with. Stuff we can connect to the rest of the world, something art majors need to learn, they are rather ignorant of it, and so themselves and their delusions.

We ALL have something say, if it through study and constructive self criticism, working to discover who WE are, not I. And why we are the way we are. So much we take for granted is not real. Just happenstance. We must understand the world and our history to create, science, politics, love, hate. Art must REFLECT all these things, and how they are intertwined, THAT is creative, spiritual art. The art of Michelangelo and Cezanne, of Braque and Tamayo.

But then, if you just want to cater to the rich and be a decadent fool to amuse them, go right ahead. I aint hatin. Annoyed yes, but we all got our roles in life. Just dont claim to be something you are not, from willful ignorance, or just downright stupidity. Nothing worse than frontin. That leads to all sorts of sins. Constructive work keeps you young, purpose gives life passion. That is everything.
A piece of paper? A ticket into the game, now play it. Or sit down and appreciate those who got skills AND knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I think some of you need to get over yourselves! Put down the guy with the terminal degree in art if you want. At least I have one. This is bogus.

Anonymous said...

The piece of paper is fine to get a job, its only purpose. A college education just prepares you for the workplace, how to research, deal with others. Which usually means teaching, or perhaps if lucky working at the Getty and in conservancy, if thats your thesis.

But you know nothing at graduation, and why its so infuriating to see these absurd children constantly attempting to come up with some new Ism to launch a CAREER. Not create art. School gives you the basic tool of thought and technicality. bu how you ue them is up to you, and takes decades to find and refine how you can contribute and add on to what has come before, by learning your time adn life, and finding he universality of it. Not the specific vanities and self absorbed glorifycation of the individual. We are nothing apart, we add to the whole, lifes purpose to thrive and survive as a people. Now, all of humanity.

Bet they dont teach that in academies. What exactly DO they teach, the ignorance of art, history, science, economics, ethics, humanity is astounding.

Art collegia delenda est

Junkyard Sam said...

Was that question actually asked by someone? LOL. "...on the same level as me academically..." LOL. Usually you hear talk like that right before someone shows some averagish to very-bad art.

Anonymous said...

This thread and its various false premises and claims proves that those using the MFA in straw arguments regarding status or credentials only reveals the general ignorance of those persons who would self-identify ( or self-promote ) as artists in the 21st Century art market: Koons, Chicago, Trump, etc. Prior to whining, get a grip on the differences among commodity, ownership and identity.

Anonymous said...

It ain't mannerly out west to let a man drink alone