There Are More Resources Than Ever to Help You Become a Successful Artist
Installation view of John Baldessari, Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell, 1966–68, at The Broad, Los Angeles. Photo by @floraguilbaut, via Instagram.
Throughout the years, artists have been variously portrayed as underappreciated geniuses, eccentric celebrities, starving recluses, and passionate visionaries.
They are not, however, traditionally characterized as small business owners. Perhaps the classification seems too pedestrian, particularly compared to the romantic notions that imbue the term “artist.” Though in reality, myriad utilitarian tasks—such as paying taxes, fostering a client base, formatting a CV, or even packaging artwork for shipping—are necessary components of a sustainable artistic practice.
Today, artists looking to acquire these skills are confronted with a wide range of professional practice resources, including university courses, guidebooks, lecture series, and online tutorials, which offer artists the practical knowledge and tools that help facilitate a successful and sustainable career. But that plethora of options was not always the norm.
Heather Darcy Bhandari, now director of exhibitions at Brooklyn art space Smack Mellon, published her professional practice book Art/Work: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career with lawyer Jonathan Melber in 2009. At that point, she recalls, “there were only a handful of classes, mainly in grad MFA programs, that dealt with the world beyond [art] school.”
By 2016, as she conducted research for a second edition of the book, the landscape had transformed. New York in particular, Bhandari says, now harbors a wide range of resources that, for example, allow artists to seek help from accountants and lawyers—opportunities that were “unheard of 10 years ago.”
Her observations mirror those of others working in the realm of professional development for artists—all of whom have witnessed (and contributed to) a rapid proliferation of resources for artists in the United States over the last decade in particular.
“Professional development for artists has exploded,” agrees artist Sharon Louden, editor of the book series Living and Sustaining a Creative Life (the first installment, published in 2013, brought together 40 essays by working artists). She has also organized and moderated New York Academy of Art’s professional practice lecture series since 2010, bringing in guests including Robert Storr, Ann Pasternak, and Roberta Smith to offer real-world insight.
In part, this rise in professional practice resources can be attributed to the Connecticut-based Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. The organization, which divides its focus between art, the environment, and education, launched Marketplace Empowerment for Artists (MEA) in the early 2000s. Since then, MEA has offered grants to a wide range of organizations—including the University of Texas at Austin, Pratt Institute, Savannah College of Art and Design, New York Foundation for the Arts, and Creative Capital—to aid in either developing or maintaining professional practice programs for artists.
MEA has also collected data regarding the rapidly developing field, and their numbers support the trends noted by Bhandari and Louden. In a 2013 report, for example, the foundation tracked the expansion of services provided by 33 of its current and former grantees. In 2003, there were 12 sites offering professional practice resources, all in the northeast; in 2008 there were 92; and by 2012 the number had grown to 287. Additional research funded by the foundation and published in 2014 identified 43 “arts incubators” providing business training for artists and arts organizations in the U.S., noting that the majority were launched in the last decade.
Although additional funding is certainly one explanation for the increase in professional development resources, Bhandari—who has taught a professional practice course for undergraduates at Brown University since 2011—also cites additional pressure from parents that their children graduate with marketable skills. And as enrollment for MFA programs continues to rise, tuition does as well, making it only logical that more and more aspiring artists are having a hard time justifying large chunks of student debt without also developing the practical tools to pay it back.
There’s also a generational divide, says artist Cara Ober, regarding how artists approach the topic of success and financial sustainability. After graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2005, she launched a professional practices program there, in part to combat a mindset she’d observed among some graduate faculty who were disinclined to disseminate their knowledge to students.
“There were certain professors I noticed who were showing nationally and internationally, so I made it a point to ask them, ‘How did you do this? How does an artist get from point A to point B?’ The majority of them were very reluctant to share that information with me,” Ober recalls. “They just said, ‘Oh, keep making really good work, and focus on your work and the rest will just fall into place.’ That’s not helpful at all.”
“There’s this old-guard way of thinking about professional success for art students,” she continues. “Now, some professors do want to actually talk about money and specific strategies and models, whereas other professors think that’s not appropriate or that’s tacky. A lot of it is breaking down boundaries around taboos.”
Louden remembers finishing graduate school in 1991 and feeling judged for having a day job. “There were only considered to be a few ways of making a living: teaching, and having a gallery,” she explains. “And if you didn’t have a gallery, you sucked as an artist.” She says that idea has increasingly fallen to the wayside and “it’s actually applauded for artists to do things on their own—people seek it.”
Louden’s two published books (with a third to come in 2020) work to further that attitude by exploring the multifarious ways in which working artists can structure their lives and careers.
She is also trying to widen the definition of “success” for artists. “When somebody says to me, ‘I want to go to the top’—and I’ve had artists say that to me—I say, ‘What is the top? And then if you get to the top, where do you go?’” Louden explains. “The misperception of some artists is that they get to this old-fashioned place that I don’t think ever existed, really, that they are taken care of by a gallery.”
Instead, “making it” is more about continuing to make work, Louden says. “As artists, we absorb failure and bounce back from it like nobody else in any other field—but sometimes that can be pummeling. To make work and sustain over many years is a huge measure of success.”
Despite an increasing number of resources, there are still challenges ahead for the field. For one, professional practice offerings at universities, while more prevalent, lack cohesion. At RISD, for example, artist Rob Hult teaches a professional practice class in the painting department, but says he doesn’t collaborate with the instructors of similar courses in the sculpture and photography departments. Often, these classes are not mandatory—again, in the RISD painting department, Hult says his course is one of three options for a required elective.
And, despite an uptick in university course offerings, alumni still report feeling underprepared: A 2016 report funded by the Tremaine Foundation revealed that 80% of recent graduates believe they would have benefited from additional entrepreneurial training in school, including managing their finances, promoting their work, and developing a three- to five-year strategic plan.
Professional practices can be a tricky subject to teach. There’s no one way to become an artist, says Louden, and oversimplifying the path to success can be deeply damaging. “For me, it’s all about the nuances and the ways in which, as artists, we can develop our own strategies,” she said. “There are many other people who think of professional development as a cookie-cutter way of just getting into the gallery system, and I’m opposed to that. I think there are many, many different ways to sustain a creative life.”
Although the field will continue to evolve, Bhandari says she has already seen an impact. “It’s not only the artists who are taking themselves more seriously, but it’s all the other professionals who help artists do things in the business aspect of their practices who are taking the artists more seriously,” she says. “Accountants or lawyers realize that the artists have legitimate, interesting problems that they can help with, that they can make money from.”
Artists, too, are changing perceptions of what a successful artist can and should be. “It’s a trend towards sustainability, and artists thinking not just about the short term but the long term,” Bhandari notes. “It’s not cool anymore to not have health insurance and be an artist. There are other ways to do it and still have credibility and integrity.”