Art Market

This New Course Is Teaching Artists How to Professionalize—Here are 3 Takeaways

Isaac Kaplan
Oct 5, 2017 10:02PM

Photo by Annie Spratt.

A new course that teaches artists the professional and practical skills they so rarely learn in art school hopes to provide a lifeline to mid-career and emerging artists at a time when the smaller and mid-sized galleries that support them are more precarious than ever.

Mana Professional, a new educational course run out of arts center Mana Contemporary’s New Jersey location, equips artists with the tools that can help them successfully navigate the professionalized art world—such as understanding contracts, how to approach digital marketing, undertaking financial planning, and fundraising for projects.

The $300 course, which offered scholarships and kicked off in September and runs through mid December, was developed by Guggenheim curator Sara Raza and features industry professionals such as JiaJia Fei, director of digital at the Jewish Museum, and Leah Heister, senior director of the consulting firm CCS Fundraising. (Full disclosure: Artsy’s senior counsel, Yayoi Shionoiri, is also a lecturer.)

The program offers mentoring, workshops, and more in addition to the lectures. Below, Raza and Mana Contemporary’s president and founder Eugene Lemay share some of their key advice for emerging and midcareer artists.

Think professionally

Being professional about your art practice might seem obvious and foundational. Even though the arts tend to emphasize free-wheeling creativity, you should think about the nuts and bolts of being artist like any other career, noted Raza. “Why should being an artist not be taken as seriously and professionally as being an aspiring surgeon?” she asked.

This means thinking about finances, as we’ve written previously, but also things like a having pristine website that’s navigable and clearly presents your work. Don’t put a ton of effort into creating works, only to fall down when it comes to how you represent yourself to galleries, collectors, and institutions in a Powerpoint. Ultimately, whether you stand out from the thousands of other artists out there will be a matter of the work itself, but the these are the “tools that are able to enhance that,” said Raza.

So where can you turn for organizational support? Conferences offer a major resource for professional development but are “highly underutilized” by artists, said Lemay in an emailed response. He specifically cited the College Art Association’s annual conference, which includes workshops on how to write grants, use digital platforms for showing art, budgeting, and even portfolio reviews, among other things (the forthcoming conference will be held in Los Angeles at the end of February). If you’re not in Los Angeles, it’s worth investigating what professional conferences are happening near you.

Do your homework

Artists in search of funding might be tempted to apply for every residency or fellowship under the sun. Lemay cautions against this approach. Instead artists should research what they’re applying for and think carefully about how it relates to their work. “It is important that artists consider both the objectives of the project one is applying to, along with the professionals who will review proposals,” Lemay said. “If you can’t align your work with the program’s objectives and perhaps the reviewers’ expertise, then perhaps you shouldn’t apply.” Understanding who you’re writing to and what the grant or exhibition is intended for will allow you to speak directly to that—and be straightforward and don’t generalize.

Raza said she’s often asked about how to approach big institutional curators. Start by knowing who works in your area of expertise. Raza recalls being contacted by an artist whose work was of a mid-century modernist painting style. A contemporary Middle Eastern art specialist, she was the wrong person to speak with—not to mention that artists don’t typically get exhibitions at the Guggenheim by cold-calling a curator.

Build support networks

Or, as Lemay puts it, “immerse yourself in a community of people who share similar goals and interests and where there is mutual support.” That can come about organically through friendships, or more deliberately by, for example, renting a studio in a complex that houses other artists. The point, Lemay notes, is not to network but to build a supportive community that can help create something larger than any one individual artist could alone.

Part of building a community means staying current with the goings-on in your field and following the work of your peers and those you respect. “You need to understand what your speciality is in order to build and start working on a community. With the advent of technology and social media, it’s not difficult to start to build that network.” This means eminent experts, critics, curators, gallerists, and institutions, especially those working in your field. “Don’t think just about people who are artists,” Raza said; rather, think broadly.

Genuine community goes beyond friend requests, meeting people, shaking hands, and exchanging business cards. Artists can support each other’s work by, for example, posting about work they like on social media, or bringing it up with critics or collectors. That can help ameliorate the isolation and competition that can sometimes be part of the art world.

Isaac Kaplan