Do Artists Need To Be Specialists?

Artists not only make images but project to the world an image they create of themselves through their artwork. That is to say, we know artists by what they do. We say, she is a landscape painter, he is a minimalist sculptor, and we know that by seeing a body of work that allows us to identify their respective subject matter, style and media. The more coherent the artist's work, the more easily we may recognize the creator.

To achieve that recognition, therefore, enabling a viability in the marketplace, artists must become specialists. The landscape painter must forego the photography and the performance art, the minimalist sculptor needs to spend less time with the rock-and-roll band and the theater company. Unfortunately, what makes sense in the market defies a basic element of creativity: Most creative people are interested in a variety of artistic doings, and choosing one that is more likely to earn them money and recognition may be a wrenching decision.

This is not to say that artists must be confined to just one type or style of work their entire careers. Robert Rauschenberg's body of art, for instance, has included painting, sculpture, installations and graphic prints; to say "I bought a Rauschenberg" necessarily requires some clarification. Of course, as an artist, Robert Rauschenberg has pursued a series of recognizable ideas through a variety of media, and those who collect the artist's work know him for his ideas -- the stamp of personality he places on everything he creates.

The same cannot be said for Edward Betts, a painter who works in two completely different styles, large abstract acrylics and smaller, traditional landscape watercolors. "If I'm known for anything, it's for the abstractions," he said. The owner of one New York City gallery that formerly represented him, Contemporary Arts, told him that "I could continue to do the watercolors if I liked, but it would be best if I used another name, Edward Howards or something like that." Another Manhattan gallery that handled his paintings, Midtown-Payson Galleries, "told me simply that they weren't interested in representing those works." In both cases, dealers were concerned that the watercolors might confuse buyers as to exactly what type of artist Betts is. As a result, he exhibits and sells the watercolors in galleries in his home state of Maine -- "where there still is a strong demand for realism," he stated -- and the abstractions in New York and other larger cities.

In a similar vein, more than one West Coast gallery owner has told Santa Monica, California artist John White, "Don't let anyone know you do performance art." Distinguishing his art between "static work" (paintings, drawings, sculpture) and "non-static work" (performance art, video), he stated that, "to the gallery owner's mind, the fact that this isn't the only kind of art I do takes away some of the punch from the paintings, and the public thinks of performance art as suspect anyway."

At times, there is a direct connection between White's static and non-static art, as the paintings, drawings and sculpture have served as stage sets for performances. Still, performance art has been traditionally anti-object, and pairing the two sometimes makes for an uneasy mix.

There are only so many hours in the day, and White had to give up the performances for a number of years in the late 1980s and early '90s in order to make time for his studio work. Working in a number of different styles and media concurrently may reflect an active, creative mind at work, but real life often intrudes. Artists find that it is difficult to have more than one focus of their attention. They may become frustrated as they are pulled in different directions, and ideas, works-in-progress and deadlines begin to pile up at the same time. Many artists find that, if they don't necessarily have to give up a certain portion of their artistic work, they may need to place it on a back burner for extended periods of time in order to produce the work that sells better.

Take, for example, Elizabeth Busch, whose first love is what she calls her "quilt painting," in which she paints a picture, cuts it up and sews it back together in a different configuration, adding a variety of fabrics and other elements. These pieces have been exhibited in galleries in New York and California, with somewhat limited sales. Since 1990, the vast majority of her income has come from public commissions, in which she uses colored plastics that are cut into strips and hung from atrium ceilings. As with White, there are connections between the quilt paintings and the public artworks, "but the quilts are more personal, they come from a different part of me than the public art, which I think of more like an assignment," she said.
Busch called the success she has earned with public art pieces "a mixed blessing: It's how I make a living, and I have to live, but it doesn't allow me a lot of time to do the other work, which I really want to do."

Bonnie Bishop, an artist in Athens, Maine, faces an even harder choice in her career. Balancing graphic design, children's book illustration and teaching with her primary art interest, book art, Bishop stated, "I struggle with the questions of, Am I doing too many things? When is the right time to do what?" She had worked full-time in graphic design at various companies, quitting that life to work at home and take graphic work and illustration on a freelance basis in 1992 in order to free up time for her book art, which has only had moderate success in finding buyers.

Making time for nonpaying work, however, has not been easy because she has to work harder to obtain freelance assignments, and "I have to do any graphic design that I get, because I have to make money." It is her fear that, within the next year, I will probably have to give up the book art, because I need more than just the amount of graphic design work I am currently getting to help pay for it."

In most cases, the reason for choosing one style, medium or subject matter is money. One thinks of artists doing what they do out of love and zeal; having to give up that work, and devoting themselves to a type of art that may not interest them as much, as a result of market considerations seems to defy why they became artists in the first place. Art skills are put to use, although they may be tangential to their main interest in art. On the other hand, artists who find something within their creative realm that earns them money may feel quite fortunate.

Over time, many artists learn these hard truths, or they may be told the same by art dealers and art career advisors: Some are asked, are you looking to please yourself or the marketplace? Others are told that artists working in three different media need three different marketing plans, because painting galleries usually won't take their sculpture, and most painting and sculpture galleries don't handle photography. Also, do they have time to do all three media well?

Art career advisor, Susan Joy Sager, stated, "artists are not seen as serious by collectors and dealers if they do a lot of different things." She also pointed out that, when dealers or show sponsors are aware that an artist works in a number of different styles and media, they may be concerned that the artist will not have enough of one kind of work to fill the gallery (for a one-person show) or exhibition booth.

Artists, by nature, like to experiment throughout their careers, but collectors and dealers frequently view an artist working in more than one style at the same time as a sign that he or she hasn't yet matured artistically. Establishing a market for an artist's work is a matter of developing acceptance among would-be buyers. Art dealers spend a considerable amount of time educating their collectors about artists they represent and are loath to discover that one of their artists has suddenly changed styles, as that involves rebuilding acceptance.

"What I tell artists," Sylvia White, founder and director of Contemporary Artists' Services and the wife of John White, "is that they have to put all their eggs in one basket. In the same way that you don't send the same resume out for five different job openings, but tailor the resume for each particular job, artists have to decide, 'How am I going to present myself to this particular dealer?' Once the artists gets someone interested in their work, once that relationship is secure, then they may be able to say to the dealer, 'Would you like to see some of the other artwork that I do?'"