I don’t make artwork to sell, and I’m starting to feel invisible. The media only covers art market stars, which is gross, but I can’t help feeling alienated. I don’t have a place at the Miami fairs, and I’m feeling down about my prospects in this industry. What can I do? — An outsider in an insider’s world.
I’m sure you’re not the only artist feeling out of sorts, thanks to the dominance of the December fairs. By this week’s end, there will be enough coverage of multimillion-dollar art sales and exclusive celebrity parties that most of us will despair over the vast inequality on display!
Regardless of how you feel about the millionaire and billionaire class, art fair events attract a lot of art professionals, so it’s usually an excellent way to meet people. Despite the number of artists who disavow the fairs, I’d wager most would rather be active participants. I’m not saying this is you, but for many artists I speak with, the problem has more to do with not being invited to the party than the party itself.
The trouble, of course, is that fair art is only one form of art making, and within that environment, it’s pretty easy to forget that other types of art exist. If the main opportunities for visibility center on blockbuster events and sales, outrage, and influencer fodder, then yeah, the people forging unique paths will be perceived to have less value and fewer avenues for visibility.
And that has real consequences for art because it means less diversity, less experimentation, and ultimately a culture where innovation can’t flourish.
I don’t have to tell you that’s a problem — you’re already experiencing the consequences of a myopic art world. But I think it’s worth pointing out that there are plenty of models for artists to live by that are just as legitimate as the model that will land you on an art fair round-up.
You don’t have to sell your work. Whoop Dee Doo, an artist-led project that creates installations and live performances, gives away their performances for free. The New York-based graffiti artist Revs has refused to sell any art for more than three decades and is a giant in his field. Chloe Bass, a social practice superstar, received a $40,000 grant from NYU’s Future Imagination Collaboratory and has no plans to go to Art Basel Miami!
These artists aren’t rich, but I’d argue they’re more successful than the average art fair staple artist. Whereas many commercial artists get stuck making the same work for a collector base that wants the same art, the artists above have refined a unique voice and carved out a space for themselves accordingly. That’s a success just as valuable as any monetary compensation.
I say this with some degree of caution because, in the art world, it’s possible to be famous and poor — a situation no one should have to endure. Shows at commercial galleries can receive plenty of press yet fail to sell. Even the most successful artists on the nonprofit circuit can’t make a living off grants alone.
And yet, the most common solution to these problems — maintaining a studio practice and holding a job that pays the bills — is often perceived as less legitimate than making your art full time. But any day job used to support your studio is just as valid as selling your art. Some artists, like Travis Leroy Southworth and Andrew Ohanesian, base their art on their day job. Countless artists use teaching to support their craft, and countless others use any number of day jobs to do the same. Many of these artists work at an incredibly high level.
That doesn’t always translate into visibility, a reality born out in other industries. In professional distance running, even successful athletes often don’t earn enough from their work to make a living, and taking a job to pay the bills is discouraged. Most runners do not make enough money to cover health insurance and maintain a full-time job, despite running up to 130 miles a week. Most have little to no name recognition despite working at a level almost no other humans can match.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The exploitation of labor looks roughly the same in the arts, where most professional artists don’t make enough money to pay their bills and work in relative obscurity despite enormous talent and visibility within their field.
Kevin Regan and Ellen Letcher, founders of Famous Accountants, a Brooklyn-based gallery in operation from 2009 to 2011, coined the name as a nod to this obscurity. Like famous accountants, only those in the industry recognize well-known artists.
In truth, a sustainable practice can include goals other than fame and fortune. The path toward achieving them will look different for everyone — but you’ll know you’re on it when you no longer feel burdened by what other people are doing.
Those not well-versed in art are enthusiastic, supportive, and deeply complimentary of my artwork. Those deep in that world say things like, “I like the color red,” or “there are a lot of places you could take this.” Is this normal? Or should I hang up my brushes? — Confused as hell.
Let’s not hang up the brushes just yet. I don’t know who’s coming to your studio, but some people respond to art more viscerally than others. It doesn’t mean they dislike the work, it means they like the color red. Remarking on the color is an acceptable response to a painting, albeit not particularly helpful to you.
If you want better feedback from your visits, you can ask questions like, “What is it about the red in this painting that works well for you?” or “What places are you thinking I should take this?” If your visitor is not a dealer or curator you want to show with, you can try inviting criticism. “Does [xyz thing about the art] seem like a problem to you?” A supportive studio visit isn’t defined by complimentary feedback so much as it is valuable feedback. If you have areas of an artwork you’re unsure about, this is an opportunity to discuss!
That said, potential collaborators who engage in your art superficially may not be good partners. When their responses bother you, don’t ask them back. Even bad work can evoke thoughtful feedback, so the art is not to blame!
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Editor’s Note: If you have a problem you’d like advice on, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.