Starting-Out Artists: Are Your Career Expectations Realistic?

11/04/2011 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 04, 2012

Beth Kantrowitz, director of the Allston Skirt Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, tells her mostly emerging and mid-career artists the same thing before a show and after a show. "I always say, the show will be the best we can do," she said. "I can't promise that we will sell anything. I can't promise that the artist will get a review." Such candor and earnestness should go a long way toward assuaging dashed hopes, yet Kantrowitz must still face some bitterly disappointed artists who had expectations for something much better. Some percentage of these artists believe (dream?) that the exhibition will sell out, that reviews will be written (and be glowing), that a major New York City gallery will snatch the artist up, the cover of Art in America and museum retrospectives to follow.

And why not? Most students in art schools and university art departments are only connected to the practicing art world through the art magazines, which highlight success and the latest new thing. (On the other hand, few of their full-time instructors earn any real income from art sales or have much first-hand information on how a career is born. Few biographies of artists describe how these individuals supported themselves while awaiting sales or even how they obtained shows.) Expectations soar for something big and soon to happen, and the reality rarely comes close. Kantrowitz stated that an artist "should expect a gallery to do with it says it will do," but some artists hear more than the words spoken to them.

Unrealistic expectations may get in the way of building a career -- for instance, if a dealer is treated as a stepping stone to a more prestigious gallery, or if useful gallery affiliations are passed over because an artist has his or her heart set on a particular dealer -- or become self-defeating (the artist strikes people as angry, the artist doesn't work as hard or produce as much). Framingham, Massachusetts painter Ben Aronson noted that, early in his career, he had sabotaged relationships with some dealers by being too "self-directed," rarely talking with the dealers and gallery staff, never showing up at gallery openings and other events. "You can't just produce work, send it on to the gallery and expect everything to go well," he said.

Another painter, John Morra of Stuyvesant, New York, claimed that he took a bad attitude toward galleries into his first meeting with San Francisco art dealer John Pence. His friend and former teacher Jacob Collins "got me into the John Pence Gallery by going to bat for me," Morra said, but at that meeting "I was being grumpy and weird, saying, 'I don't want to be a careerist.' At the time, I thought that supporting myself as an artist was selling, but John Pence said to me, 'Young man, you should make a more professional presentation.'" Time and economic necessity brought a change in Morra's thinking.

Expectations change through life experience. When he entered an art career, Longwood, Colorado painter Scott Fraser looked for one big, powerful gallery -- such as Marlborough or Pace Wildenstein in New York City -- to handle his work. His experience with some larger galleries led him to see that "I like more galleries and smaller ones, where I can talk to the director." In addition, he found out "pretty early out of art school that I can't just do one big painting and assume that will make my reputation. Now, I want galleries that sell regularly."

Part of the maturation process for an artist is learning to align one's hopes with reality, or it may entail changing the reality. Daniel Sprick, a painter in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, spent 20 years grumbling about what his dealers were not doing for him. In 2002, he decided to become his own dealer, advertising in American Art Review (always including the line "No dealer inquiries"), developing a Web site and selling his work directly to buyers.

"When I left school, I thought I'd get a dealer who would take care of all the selling and financial stuff, so all I would have to do is paint," he said. He went through a number of dealers -- there was a problem with almost every one -- before becoming his own salesman. Sprick claimed that he does a superior job of discussing his artwork than any dealer ever did ("When you communicate through an intermediary, a lot is lost," he said. "No one cares about your baby the way you do"), and he prefers to earn all of the money from sales rather than just half. "When I had heard of other artists who were selling their own work, I thought they were crazy, ego maniacs," he said. "There is a specter of self-promotion that is ugly, but I'm over that now. I serve my needs better than anyone else." He added that "all my work of the past two years has sold."

Much of what an artist wants to happen might happen, but the process may take a far longer period of time than he or she anticipates. The 1980s generated the idea of the fine artist as rock star, coming on fast and furious at a young age, entering the international art circuit, cashing in quickly because no one lasts more than a decade. It can happen, it has happened, but it doesn't happen very often. Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Mark Kostabi, Robert Longo, Kenny Scharf and a variety of others may not be the most appropriate role models for artists who, instead, need to understand that it takes years to develop a collector base.

Expectations aren't something that only get lowered; in time, they may broaden and reach unanticipated levels. When she began her career, Watertown, Massachusetts artist Susan Schwalb wanted her work in the type of New York galleries that didn't exhibit her type of art, just because they were the "hottest" galleries, and she "wanted to be on the cover of Art in America, like someone else might want to be Miss America." Neither of those hopes panned out, but her work was taken on by a Manhattan art dealer (Robert Steele Gallery) and a half-dozen others around the country as well, and her goals changed with the increasing number of sales during the 1990s. "At a certain level, you begin to see the possibilities at a higher level," Schwalb said. "The Museum of Modern Art owns one of my works; I want them to acquire more. I would like a print publisher to come to me to produce an edition of prints. I would like a write-up in The New York Times. I'd like a retrospective at a museum and a book about my work. When I started out, I wouldn't have been thinking in these terms, but now I don't see it as so unrealistic."