This spring I was on a panel for the College Art Association's annual conference. The title of 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. For my part in the panel, I decided to make a list of the strategies that have helped me continue to make art.
I think the mythos of the lone genius is deeply embedded in how we think about artist. But I have found that maintaining an art practice means establishing meaningful ties with a community of like-minded art world folks. I published a version of this in Artillery Magazine this summer, but wanted to put it up here as well because this post is really a thank you letter to all the folks who have helped me, by offering good advice, showing my work, collecting my work, writing about it, coming to my shows, modeling for me, publishing me, and critiquing my work. So thank you to my art community! In particular, thank you to my dealer, Sam Lee. Thanks to Tulsa Kinney for encouraging me to write about art. And thanks to my crit group, Assembly!
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 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 your 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!
Get a support group.
In grad school, Kevin Appell told me that one of the best things I could do to succeed after grad school was to have a crit group. It's critical for me to have people look at my work before it's finished; after it's done it's too late. Taking his advice to heart, I formed the group Assembly with six other women that year, and six years later we are still meeting every month to look at each other's work. It helps me set deadlines for myself, even when there's nothing on the horizon. It's been an invaluable support group for me, and I'm very grateful to be a part of it. So here's a public shout out (artists so rarely get to say thank you!) to Assembly: Cathy Akers, Marya Alford, Louisa Van Leer, Lindsay Ljungkull, Julie Shafer, and Kristine Thompson.
Take every opportunity.
When I was still in grad school, I had the opportunity to have a solo show at an alternative space in an office park in Huntington Beach. I was thrilled, but at some point expressed concern that nobody would see the show because of its location. My friend Carrie Patterson told me, "Take every opportunity. You never know where it will lead." And she was right! I can draw a through-line directly from that show, at the illustrious, but now defunct gallery The Office, run by Chris Hoff, 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 your email. Just work.
Second, have a plan. Literally. I have an excel 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 sheet every year. It's so easy to lose sense of direction. A plan keeps you on task.
Of course, this is easier said than done. I find myself going for months at a time without scheduled studio time or planning. But when I'm floundering, I pick myself up and get back to the plan and schedule. At the very least, it makes me feel a sense of agency. And at best, it can kick-start making work.
Art feeds your soul: it's up to you to feed your 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 of 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 persistent, and keep making work
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, and it takes a long time for relationships 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 grants, she applied for the big ones for 10 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.