What Does an Artist Coach Do?
I’ve always been slightly curious about—if not downright suspicious of—people who have never been in therapy. How could you not want to pay someone to listen to your hopes and fears and anxieties, to gently nudge you in the direction of better personhood? (Of course, too often it’s the cost or a lack of insurance that is prohibitive.) But therapeutic options are myriad, and there’s no one-size-fits-all scenario. For every person in old-school psychoanalysis, there’s another who is meeting with an unlicensed healer to discuss chakras and cleanses. There are cognitive-behaviorists, nutrition coaches, life coaches, business coaches, and people you can hire to babysit you during psychedelic drug trips. If you’ve got a problem, there’s always someone out there who you can hire to help you solve it.
Unsurprisingly, there are also artist coaches, whose services are geared toward both creative professionals and hobbyists. In order to get a handle on what this type of counseling entails—and who it might be best suited for—I reached out to five very different artist coaches. Some are laser-focused on improving your earning potential, while others treat artmaking as more of a process of self-discovery that has little to do with a paycheck. All of them share a passion for helping their clients become better artists and, perhaps, more balanced human beings.
Public speaking and learning to tell your story
Gigi Rosenberg teaching in New York. Courtesy of Gigi Rosenberg.
Portland, Oregon–based Gigi Rosenberg said that her “perfect client” is someone who has spent about five years engaged in their practice. Most of the people she works with are in their thirties or considerably older, rather than bright-eyed, recent art-school grads. “It’s somebody who’s really ready to, basically, listen to me,” she laughed, “to take direction and really move their career to the next level.” Rosenberg offers in-person sessions at her office, but also regularly conducts online consultations with clients who may hail from the Middle East or Mexico.
Coaching, for her, entails a wide range of services—from assistance with grant-writing to informal website critique. Preliminary sessions aim to get artists thinking about how they define success and where they want to go in their careers. “I find it so easy to tell when somebody is excited about something, versus when they’re just doing it because they think they should,” Rosenberg said. She tries to distill an artist’s desires and motivations with questions like “Do you really want a gallery, or just think you should get a gallery?” It’s this nuance that makes an artist coach more of a resource than, say, a well-meaning friend who’s willing to visit your studio and listen to your problems.
Rosenberg’s practice also emphasizes storytelling—sharpening the ways in which an artist can convey her work in different contexts. Public-speaking has become a centerpiece of her coaching. Artists who are gearing up for a talk or a presentation might give it a dry run during a coaching session, either in-person or via video chat. Rosenberg helps tweak both the “content and the actual performance,” and cautions artists out of familiar pitfalls. A client might think they need to sound “academic and jargon-y,” or they might have the opposite problem—that their story is too vague or wishy-washy. “The comment I mostly give is, ‘This sounds like it could be any artist,’” Rosenberg added, alluding to a hypothetical artist who might boldly state that they’re “interested in the human condition” or other enormous concepts.
A safe space for early-stage artists
Artist coaches like Lauren Rader are a good fit for someone who approaches artmaking as a creative outlet, rather than with ambitions to launch a lucrative career. Rader thinks of herself as something akin to a guide, and her methods are closer to hands-on art-teaching, with less of the professional development tactics that some coaches employ. “I’m very interested in the creative process, and each person’s personal expression—creating art from a place of truth,” she said. Her clients might even be completely new to artmaking. “I’m very much about coming in where they’re at, and figuring out what’s going to help move them forward in a personally real and fulfilling way,” she added.
Rader’s style sounds akin to a gentle crit. Yet while MFA programs have a reputation for their constructive viciousness—with teachers and fellow students attacking one’s work in order to improve it—this art coach isn’t trying to make domineering value judgments.
Rader mentioned that one student she was mentoring in a group setting had soured on the often brutal atmosphere in art school. Indeed, she said that part of her job is to help repair the damage that rampant criticality may have had on her artist-client’s self-esteem. Many people she works with are coming to her “having been crushed” from some hurtful criticism, she said, and are trying to get back to their art.
Rader would make an ideal coach for someone who wants to make art a bigger part of their life, even if they’re not eager to swim into the ultra-competitive market. “You don’t give up your high standards,” Rader said, reflecting on her coaching philosophy, “but you can still be kind and thoughtful.”
Show me the money!
The Abundant Artist founder Cory Huff and Nashville painter Brad Blackman. Photo by John Partipilo. Courtesy of Cory Huff.
Bridgette Mayer wears many hats: gallerist, art consultant, author, and coach. Her extensive background makes her a go-to resource for established artists who are keen to evolve—and to monetize their artmaking. “I don’t do the work for the artist,” she said. “I ask them questions; get their wheels spinning.” Artists generally sign on to work with her for a period of 90 days, with check-in calls every 10 days. These intense, fast-paced conversations generate “a whole checklist of things that they need to do,” she said.
Mayer cited one former client who, nearly bankrupt, was able to swiftly turn things around, selling over $20,000 of his work within three weeks. She helped another artist, who was already showing with a Georgia-based gallery, launch a sideline career leading lucrative watercolor workshops. “Most wealthy people have between 10 and 15 sources of income and revenue,” Mayer noted. “Most artists have one, maybe two at the most.”
Mayer, and coaches like her, would make a good match for professionals who have the art chops and training—but might lack the killer business instinct to actually make a living. She doesn’t have much patience for MFA programs that fail to prepare students for the actual market, or for popular clichés that assume artists are doomed to struggle. “I’m really interested in undoing the ‘starving artist’ paradigm,” she said.
Many artists have anxiety and shame around money, Mayer added. “Some feel it’s not even authentic to talk about making money, that it’s anti-art,” she said. Her approach might also be energizing for anyone with big career ambitions who has been rebuffed after attempting to break into the insular market of a city like New York. “There are so many talented artists,” Mayer said, “and they’re looking at one model: the New York, major gallery, blue-chip, well-known-artist model…that world isn’t for everyone.” Her coaching is intended to inspire clients to “create [their] own art world” beyond that bubble—one in which they can achieve both personal and financial satisfaction.
Cory Huff, founder of The Abundant Artist, takes a similarly no-nonsense approach to coaching. “Most artists I’ve met have been deeply uncomfortable with talking about money, sales, or both,” he said. However, the artists he knows who didn’t go to art school “rarely have that baggage.” When artists are coming from another career where they were fairly compensated, he said, they’re more likely to expect that from their art career, as well. “We all need to eat and put a roof over our heads,” Huff said. “The idea that we should ignore that is silly fantasy.”
However, one-on-one coaching with The Abundant Artist isn’t for everyone. Huff said that his clients who sign up for six-month stints are already pulling in around $100,000 a year from art sales. “Typically, our work together involves assisting with hiring studio assistants, scaling up production, and creating new revenue streams for the business,” he said.
Art coaching with a side of psychotherapy
New York–based Dr. Chloe Carmichael is another type of art coach entirely. She’s a licensed psychologist whose practice focuses on anger management, couples therapy, and anxiety issues, in addition to coaching creatives. While she might help a client improve their business acumen and confidence, Carmichael wields a more holistic, big-picture lens—helping artists work through emotional management, for instance, or “rejection sensitivity.” The distinction between art coaching in this sense and actual psychotherapy can be minor—but important. Psychotherapy, Carmichael explained, would likely include a clinical diagnosis, whereas coaching would not. The distinction there might also affect whether or not insurance will help pick up the bill.
Roleplaying is one key part of Carmichael’s toolkit. Sometimes, she will play the gallerist and the artists will play themselves. “And sometimes we might flip it: The artist might want to watch me model responses to some of the difficult questions a gallerist or agent might give them,” she said.
By utilizing cognitive-behavioral techniques, Carmichael can also help artists move beyond self-destructive patterns. And unlike passive, Freudian-style analysts, therapists like Carmichael are actively guiding their clients and offering specific advice. She mentioned the example of a hypothetical artist who, before an important event, would “go through some really negative self-talk…because they think it protects them from being surprised by disappointment.” In this case, she’d introduce “thought replacements,” she said—“things that the person would want to be mentally rehearsing and saying to themselves on their way to such a meeting…different types of mental scripts.”
This type of artist coaching would be ideal for someone who wants to address both their creative practice and everything else that comes with it. It’s more of a whole-person approach, but one that can introduce its own unanticipated anxieties. “Artists tend to have a love-hate relationship with whatever it is about themselves that they’re seeking help with,” Carmichael said. An extremely sensitive artist, she noted, might lack the wherewithal to promote herself—and yet find herself “almost superstitiously attached to that sensitivity or vulnerability. They feel that it’s the source of the raw material that gets expressed through their art.” The same can be true for an artist consumed by anger or sadness, emotional states so intertwined with the concept of the so-called “tortured artist” that, as clients, they are “almost afraid of fixing” their problems, Carmichael said. Part of the coaching journey here might simply be accepting that your problems don’t define you; that it’s possible to become a better artist, and a better human, all at the same time.