Seven Things Every Artist Should Know

Most artists cannot live off their art -- even relatively successful artists in New York or L.A. So don't feel like you're doing something wrong if you can't make ends meet without a day job.
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This post is based on the book ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (And Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career, by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber, which arrives in bookstores this week.

In the course of researching ART/WORK, we interviewed 100 arts professionals about their experiences in the art world and their expectations of artists. These are some of the most common customs, perspectives and recommendations that we found. The most important piece of advice, of course, was to constantly make your work. Nothing on this list matters more than the quality of your art and your commitment to making it. But if you're pursuing a career as an artist--or even just considering one--there are quite a few things to keep in mind as you make your work:

1. Every artist has a day job.

Most artists cannot live off their art--even relatively successful artists in New York or L.A. So don't feel like you're doing something wrong if you can't make ends meet without a day job. The key is to define yourself as an artist. What you do for rent is just that. It's not who you are.

2. Residencies are good for your health.

Applying to residencies is a critical component to a career as a visual artist. Some are hands-on, with career mentoring or technical instruction; some are totally independent without much in the way of communal activities or guidance. They are literally all over the world, and are a fantastic way to connect with other artists, curators and teachers--not to mention save money on rent.

The application process itself is worthwhile. It forces you to think deeply about your work and goals. And it puts your work in front of curators and gallerists who sit on the selection committees, and who may keep you in mind for other projects and shows in the future (regardless of whether you get into that particular residency).

A few places to start your search:


Every Saturday you can go to Chelsea and see people hauling around their portfolios, cold-calling on galleries. This is a terrible idea. It tells the gallerist that you don't respect his or her time and that you don't seem to care where you show. You should be very familiar with a gallery's program, and be able to explain why you fit into it, before you approach the gallerist about considering your work. And given that galleries don't decide to bring on new artists lightly, the last thing you want to do is insist on a snap judgment because you happen to be in the neighborhood.

4. Write stuff down.

Paperwork sucks. But staying on top of it will make your life easier and save you time in the long run, which means more time to make art.

There are some basic items to track just for yourself. Make a detailed inventory list for every work, a list of contacts, and a chart of art-related expenses and any income from art sales.

There are also arrangements between you and other people that you should write down: When you sell work, make an invoice and keep a copy for yourself; when you consign work to a gallery, use a consignment form; when you do a commission, use a commission agreement.

5. The Internet is all the rage.

You need a website. (Or a blog, or some sort of online space.) Everyone expects you to have one: gallerists, curators, critics, art bloggers, other artists. It doesn't need to be fancy or expensive, but it should have images of your work, a copy of your cv and your contact information. Ideally, the design of the site should reflect the kind of art you make or the kind of artist you are.

Also, think of it as a retrospective you're curating, rather than an exhaustive encyclopedia entry. Present your work in a coherent order (or total disorder, if that's what your art is about), separate different bodies of work and don't feel compelled to upload everything you've ever made.

6. Rejection: It's not you, it's them.

The odds of landing a residency, getting a grant or finding gallery representation are daunting. Popular programs may accept as little as 1.5% of their applicants each year. And even before the economic crisis, commercial galleries couldn't possibly absorb all the artists who came out of school.

Which is all to say that you shouldn't take it personally if you don't get into your dream residency or favorite gallery. With those kinds of numbers, you can be sure that the decision doesn't turn solely on the quality of your work. There are many other factors that go into committee selections, such as how many other applicants do work similar to yours, or come from the same city. Likewise, a gallerist may love your work but not have the collector base to support it.

7. There's more to life than commercial galleries.

Commercial galleries are a prominent part of the art world, but there are many other ways to show your work: non-profits, collaboratives, artist-run spaces, online galleries, artist-run fairs, cafes, restaurants, retail spaces, books, zines, podcasts, project-specific websites, libraries, botanical gardens, hospitals, science centers--really, anywhere you can think of.

Only you can know where your work fits best, which depends of course on its content, the context you want it to be shown in, and the kind of audience you seek. Let your art dictate where it should be shown, rather than conforming it to a preconceived venue.

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