Art Market

In New Book, 140 Experts Weigh In on What It Takes to Succeed As an Artist

Abigail Cain
Jan 4, 2017 8:04PM

When Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber first published their book Art/Work—a guide on how to make it as an artist in the United States, drawn from interviews with dozens of established artists and arts professionals—neither was sure how big their audience would be. “I didn’t know who would read it,” Bhandari admits. “I didn’t even think my mom would read it.”

It was 2009, and practical resources for artists were few and far between. There wasn’t much of a precedent for the kind of book the pair had written, which covered professional practices for artists rather than the actual creative process. Bhandari describes the book as a “passion project,” born out of years working as a director at New York’s now-defunct Mixed Greens gallery. “A lot of the questions I was getting from artists were about gallery relationships: ‘How do I get a gallery? How do I enter the art market? What is the art market?’” she recalls. Melber, Bhandari’s former classmate and an art lawyer, offered further expertise.

As it turned out, people did read it. Art/Work appeared on syllabi from L.A. to D.C., guiding aspiring artists through subjects like consignments, loans, and even business cards. Bhandari taught a course based on the book at her alma mater, Brown University. Roughly a decade after research for the book began, the authors suggested a second edition to match the current state of the art world; Simon & Schuster readily agreed.

Over the past year, Bhandari and Melber revisited the initial 100 art-world players who had contributed to the first edition (from dealer Andrea Rosen to artist Fred Tomaselli) and consulted 40 additional experts. The updated text is slated to publish this summer. Together, the research underpinning the first and second edition of Art/Work offers a fascinating look at the recent evolution of one of today’s riskiest and least understood career paths. Ahead of the new edition’s release, Bhandari shared insights on how working as a professional artist in the U.S. has changed over the past decade—and, in some ways, stayed the same.

Art-world traditions have been slow to shift.

It turns out that most of the existing chapters of the original Art/Work are still relevant. “Shockingly, it’s held up for most topics,” Bhandari explains. “The art world changes so slowly when it comes to the way people interact, the traditions a lot of galleries have, things like that.” The caveat, of course, is technology: “Any area where we discussed image size or how you sent things to press or how you approached a gallery—it just sounded so old,” she adds. “In 2009, we were still talking about packets and how to print your images.”

The art world’s resistance to change may be due, in part, to a reluctance of powerful art professionals to divulge their insights. While working on the original version of Art/Work, Bhandari was surprised to find that some people turned down interviews because “they didn’t want to demystify the art world. They liked the power dynamic the way it was,” she recalls. “They said, ‘I don’t want artists to have that information that changes my relationship with them. I like it the way it is.’”

Artists have more resources to professionalize and gain independence.

Beyond advances in technology, Bhandari says the other major shift since 2009 that she and Melber encountered is a growing sense of independence and empowerment among artists. “It’s definitely not ideal—I think there are still a lot of artists who are very powerless in a lot of situations—but I think artists have a lot more information, resources, and support outside of the gallery system now.”

She points to a proliferation of professional practice classes hosted by NYC organizations, including CUE Art Foundation, Artists Space, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. “Artists can now go and meet an accountant or talk to a lawyer or do other things like that. Those resources were unheard of 10 years ago,” Bhandari says. “I know a lot more young artists now who are insisting on getting a consignment form from a space and being careful about insurance. Again, 10 years ago I didn’t know any artists who did that, because they were afraid of tipping the balance the wrong way and losing an opportunity. They didn’t realize that it was just part of being professional.”

Contemplation: Tom Friedman, 2013-2015
Cristin Tierney

Artists are less focused on commercial galleries.

Bhandari says she focused on the commercial gallery system in the first edition because that’s what most artists were curious about. But, “fast-forward to 2016 and there are so many more artists now who don’t want galleries, who find that to be a system that’s not interesting to them, or not good for their work,” she notes. Instead, they’re considering a variety of new revenue streams. Art/Work’s chapter on grants and residencies has been expanded to include options such as crowdfunding and individual donors. The word “gallery” has also been changed to “venue” throughout the book to allow for a broader understanding of the spaces where an artist might display their work.

And as artists identify new ways to develop a sustainable practice—one that doesn’t rely solely on a traditional commercial gallery—Bhandari says the art world is becoming increasingly decentralized. “I think the smart artists use galleries as part of their funding system and visibility and community, but they have a lot of other things going on that complement or even supercede the gallery component of their practice,” she explains.

Galleries are also developing more flexible business models.

Perhaps because of these new approaches to revenue by artists, Bhandari has noticed a change in attitude at many mid-tier galleries. “There are so many galleries that are struggling,” she says. “When we interviewed them for the first edition, the galleries were really confident in the way they did business. This time around, galleries are not so confident.” In fact, she sees parallels between the ways artists and galleries are adjusting to the evolving art market. “Galleries are having to be much more creative in their income streams and their funding sources and the way that they’re dealing with artists,” Bhandari says. “They’re having to be more flexible. Whereas the last time it seemed like the artists were asking all the questions, and the gallerists were answering, this time it’s not like that. I think they’re both asking a lot of the same questions and trying to figure out the answers together.”

Abigail Cain