(graphic Nancy Zastudil/Hyperallergic, original image via Fredrik Sørlie's YouTube channel)

I love my friends, and I’ve had some of them for over 20 years — but they aren’t good artists. I feel like I’ve forgotten how to make new friends. I don’t want to be a jerk and ditch them, but I feel stuck. What can I do?Lonely in NYC

Most complicated social questions have a simple answer. In this case, don’t ditch the friends you love. Forge a few new friendships with artists whose work you admire and respect.  

You have to do this work if you want your career to grow. 

The hard truth is that you will never climb the ranks of any industry if you’re not continually making new friends and connections. How could you? Opportunities aren’t just the result of raw talent but a consistent effort to expose your work to new audiences. You can’t do that if you’re not always meeting new people. So, if you live in a remote part of the United States where you can’t connect with professionals on the coasts, you will need to spend time building your local connections, rock your social media, and find ways to make trips to art centers.

Unfortunately, making new friends is harder than it seems, especially as you get older. Most artists forge new friendships during times of change — a new job, kids, location — and by the time you reach your 40s, you’re tired of it. This can make even small things like braving new social environments feel like a threat to the security you’ve worked so hard to build. 

But here’s the thing: We’re all hardwired to make new friends. Even if you don’t enjoy the process, you can’t avoid it if you’re participating in social events. 

One way of making change without completely upending your life is to set smaller, more achievable goals. Rather than thinking about the desired result, which may be overwhelming enough to keep you stuck in a place of inaction, prioritize small activities that tend to result in new friends. Arrange a small networking dinner party, attend an open studio event with the priority of talking to people you don’t know, or go to the opening of an acquaintance so you can get to know them better. 

You should be taking these actions anyway to build your career, so the framing doesn’t have to be around who is holding you back. Untalented friends are only harmful if you are relying on them for their talents.

If you don’t have many friends who make art you respect, it might be worth asking why. Sometimes we have friends we consider to be bad artists because we don’t feel confident about our work. If this strikes a chord with you, your lousy art buddies could be a symptom of a more significant confidence issue. I can’t give you the magic formula that cures low self-esteem but you can minimize it by actively pursuing what you want. 

You deserve friends, and lots of them. But don’t feel bad about being selective. Friends we don’t have much in common with beyond the core need may not last as long, but is there anything wrong with people who support each other in specific ways? 

Friendships go through phases of intensity and inactivity, depending on where you are in your life. If you have more than one friend in your life — and most of us do — it’s because you discovered that different people fulfill different needs. This does not make you a jerk. It makes you a more reliable friend. 

How do I say “No” successfully and without offense? Currently, I have a few projects I need to say no to, backout, and give the deposit back. The contract has a clause to cancel, but I still need to say no gracefully. — Stuck and looking for ways out.

I gotta be honest –– if you have to back out of a contract part way through the process, there’s usually disappointment on both sides. The organization or company will need to find someone new, and you’re both going to take a financial hit. Exiting takes careful social precision. Frayed emotions create charged exchanges, and offending people after they’ve suffered a loss is much easier than simply declining to enter the relationship in the first place.

Your job is to minimize the damage. 

Begin by acknowledging your partner’s needs. Repeat the same language they’ve used to articulate their desired outcome. You want your colleagues to feel understood. This process will give them the emotional space to hear your needs, and ensures that you’ve taken the time to consider how they’re affected. It sounds simple, but it’s easy to lose sight of your partner’s disappointment when busy managing your own.

Next, describe your needs. Be as specific and clear as possible so you can create a contrast between your needs as an artist and their needs as an organization. Whenever possible, use unambiguous language, so your partner does not get confused about your intentions. A graceful exit can leave room for future collaborations, but it should not leave you in an indeterminate limbo. When you leave, you need to actually leave. 

Finally, if you announce your departure over email, I usually recommend writing the email, and then waiting a day to send it. You want a little down time to process your message and 24 hours will usually give you enough space to spot problems. It won’t transform bad news, but you can at least minimize the risk of creating bad blood. No career benefits from angry partners so it’s best to foster conditions under which both parties can exit gracefully.

Paddy Johnson is the founder of Netvvrk, a membership that helps artists get the shows, residencies, and grants of their dreams. She founded the blog Art F City (2005–17) and the public art initiative...