Are We Teaching Artists to Fail*?

I recently did an informal survey of artists who have participated in "business of art" workshops, classes and lectures around the country to get an idea of what was being taught and how it was received. This included schools and universities, nonprofit organizations and individuals who offer these courses or workshops. What I found was not a surprise, but was so lopsided in terms of how we train artists about professional practices that it made me wonder if we are teaching our artists to fail.

There are hoards of new "consultants," businesses, classes, workshops and publications that have been created in the last few years on the "business of art." I want to make a big distinction between the "business of art" and professional practices for artists. Most of these new endeavors are teaching artists how to "run a business" in the most commercial way possible. 9 out of 10 of these presentations and opportunities address issues of the commercial market, ie. how to get a gallery, how to sell your work online, license images, etc. This is what I call the business of art training. It is set up primarily for the vertical artist (the traditional trajectory of grad school, to gallery, to collector, to biennial, to cover on the front of an art magazine, with the goal of climbing the ladder of "success").

On the other hand, there are many artists who are not interested in a commercial practice, and making work is a horizontal practice rather than a vertical one. This includes those artists who don't make work primarily to sell, public art, community practices, social based work, or nonprofit aspects. I call this a horizontal career since the strategies are often collaborative, outside the "art market", activists, or more interested in the content of their work rather than it's ability to make others richer in the long run.

Many artists have a 45 degree practice in which they move from vertical to horizontal, using strategies which fit the artwork they are making at the time. Other artists create hybrid careers, mixing the arts and other topics that often create a hybrid practice.

In the business of art, strategies for a sustainable practice are usually about the gallery. I think this is useful for the vertical artist, but I find that most of these resources don't give artists information about the options for sustainability outside of a vertical practice.

On the other hand, those who are teaching professional practices usually include information for both kinds of artists. I do not think that a gallery practice is bad, but if this is the only thing we are teaching artists, and there are not enough galleries to sustain them, then we are teaching them how to fail, by not giving them other strategies for sustainability. What happens if these artists don't get a gallery? What if the artist is not making work that collectors will buy?

I spend a fair amount of time answering questions from artists on LinkedIn Groups and elsewhere, and it is a great research tool to find out what artists are thinking. The questions which I find most often are "How do I get a gallery?", "How do I find an art agent?", and "I want to quit my job and be a 'full time' artist". While these are fine ambitions, there are not very reliable as an economic strategy or a shoe-in for inclusion.

The art world has changed dramatically and I don't see that it will stop changing. If galleries eventually go the wayside of other like minded industries, ie. the record industry, etc. then we need to prepare our artists in more ways than the vertical strategy. In 1941, the total number of degrees conferred by US colleges in the fine and applied arts was 3,428. In 1981, total number of degrees conferred by US colleges in the fine and applied arts was 49,108 (College Art Association statistics). There are now over 1000 art or fine art programs in the US and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of Visual and Performing Arts Degrees awarded in 2009 is 124, 256. A recent report from First Research (Aug. 2010) puts the gallery count at about 6,500 art dealers and galleries in the US.


More artists are creating careers on their own terms, either by choice or necessity. Many are choosing to create a DIY (do it yourself) or DIT (do it together) ways of operating. I wish more programs on the business of art would include these ways of thinking in their offerings. Failure or success is never final.

*PS: I am not talking about failure as a learning experience which often leads to better art, but rather the idea of failure as an artist's career.