I participated in an Artists at Work panel discussion at the Chicago Cultural Center three nights ago. The hall was packed with people (presumably artists) who had come to hear me, Joyce Owens, Tony Fitzpatrick, Juan Angel Chavez, and moderator Paul Klein hold forth on "Turning Your Art Into A Career." I am always a little hesitant about participating in these kinds of events, not being sure what will ensue, and if one and a half hours is indeed enough time to say everything that needs to be said to an audience that presumably has a a wide range of experiences, but perhaps still feels lacking in that one or two crucial pieces of information that will perhaps move them forward in their careers. I honestly wasn't looking forward to trying to explain my thirty year career as a series of "how tos" which are, at best, unique to my own set of experiences and circumstances, even as I realize that I have learned a thing or two along the way to the career I have had. At any rate it did turn out to be a variably interesting evening, with a wide range of viewpoints and experiences being presented. I am posting here the comments I read for readers of my blog. They will also, at some point, be posted on the Chicago Artists Resources Website, an invaluable source of professional information.
• Make good work! Be self-critical and informed enough to know if the work you are doing stacks up to the work you would like to be hanging next to. Through constant engagement with work that is being shown, know where and if your work fits into a particular area of current discourse. Nothing else matters more than this, and nothing else will make up for this if you are not doing it.
• Put in 10,000 hours (see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell posits that successful people—across a wide range of fields--have put in 10,000 hours of practice to reach their level of success.) Like any other profession, being an artist requires physically getting up and “going to work.” The sooner you begin your professional journey the more time you will have to put in the requisite number of hours.
• Hang around people who are better than you think you currently are. The longer you hang around them and have conversations with them, the better you are likely to become. Be sure to actually listen to their feedback and figure out how you can use it.
• Assuming you are doing the above, show your work to as many people as possible. If you show the work to friends and associates, show it to those you think are doing work that is at least as interesting or more interesting than your own, who have even more experience than you do, so you can establish an ongoing critical dialogue with them. It is impossible to do good work, show it to a lot of people, and nothing happens. You have to believe this. If you are showing your work to informed viewers and no on is responding or talking your work up to other people, you need to take a long, hard look at your work. Do not be foolish enough to think that everyone else is wrong and that you are right! People that I know who look at work—even with very different interests and tastes—tend to agree when something interesting comes along. And if any one of them sees something interesting, they will usually tell someone else. I always talk to curators I know about interesting new work that I have seen, encouraging them to take a look at it as well. Usually we agree, and even if they are not able to do anything right away, they keep the work and the artist on their radar.
• Be informed. Know what part of the marketplace your work fits; both the marketplace of ideas and the marketplace of certain kinds of objects. Making art is not only about being creative, but understanding the broader context in which you are making your work.
• Cultivate a community of support, and keep in touch with people, even when it doesn’t look like they are going to do anything for you right away. Form a community, don’t just “network.” I have had numerous exhibitions that were the result of keeping in touch with people for up to ten years. People can often be interested in your work, but it takes time for the right situation to develop for them to be able to do something with it. They also want to know that you, too, are in it for the long haul. The last thing they want to do is make an early commitment to someone’s work who then decides to give it up and go work for Verizon!
• Join those professional organizations that can provide a community, network, and professional information, such as College Art Association, Society for Photographic Education, and others. Attend their events and conferences and expand your knowledge and community.
• Become an information junkie. Know about everything and everybody who might be interested in what you are doing. Allinformation is useful at some point.
• Be prepared to make work for the long haul. Be a long distance runner. The great novelist John Oliver Killens gave me this advise thirty years ago, and it's true. Your work should be something that you would be doing regardless of whether the larger market ever responds or not. Making art has to be your own particular obsession.
• Develop good communication skills. The ability to speak and write articulately and concisely about your work is absolutely essential, unless you have someone who will constantly transcribe and edit your thoughts for you, and also act as your press secretary so you never have to actually confront anyone or talk or write about your work yourself. The ability to write and think well is directly related to how much you read and absorb information. I would suggest that you read a lot in order to understand what a well crafted statement (about anything) looks like. Good writing tends to follow entirely conventional patterns and forms.
• Get a good education, whether from a good art or photography program or from your own obsessive seeking out of knowledge. They weren’t joking (whoever they were) when they said that “Knowledge is Power.” You need to know how to DO something; how to skillfully and consistently make something. This requires a respect for craft, knowledge and the necessary training to execute. If you choose to do it through an art school or program, it DOES matter where you go. Some places are better at this than others. Others are good at teaching a narrow range of conceptual theory and jargon, but may leave you unsure about how to give coherent and interesting form to those ideas. Art is a serious endeavor, and much like any other field requires training. You wouldn’t let a doctor with no training operate on you just because she was feeling ”inspired,” or because he or she had good intentions and some interesting theories about medical science. Unless you think art is a less serious pursuit, it should also require some serious skills and measurable competencies.
• Don’t be afraid to create new paradigms for how you can exist and function as an artist. A lot of the old paradigms were never meant to serve artists well in the first place. I don’t know any other field in which you can bear the full expense of production, then give someone 50% to sell the object or product, then pay the IRS the requisite 33% tax rate, and say you are doing "good business." This is the “normal” paradigm of the commercial art world, and at a certain level it does work, particularly at the mid to upper levels. It doesn't mean its the only way, and in the early stages your work will not be priced high enough to cover your costs of production, let alone pay your rent every month, under this structure at any rate. Other paradigms and strategies are possible. Much the way that musicians are finding ways to profitably get their work into the hands of their audiences without label support, so should other artists be devising ways of getting their work out there and truly supporting themselves. There are artists doing this with real success. Find out what they are doing and how they are doing it.