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How to Survive and Prosper As an Artist

How to Survive and Prosper As an Artist

by Caroll Michels

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist


Launching or Relaunching Your Career: Overcoming Career Blocks

As an artist you have experienced the exuberance of creating something you like, which might be the culmination of a direction in your work or might articulate something new. It felt good. The goodness screamed out. You mastered and controlled. The power felt good. Your expectations were rewarded.

However, producing something you like and believe in does not resolve the question of how to use your creation to survive and prosper. For artists, the question is particularly complex because of the difference between survival and prosperity as defined by artists and those in other professions. For an artist, survival often means barebones existence; prosperity may be keeping your head above water. In other professions, survival is keeping your head above water; prosperity is success.

Being an artist means believing you are an artist; making a living as an artist requires mastering many of the skills and professional attitudes shared by successful self-employed persons engaged in other occupations. Equally important, it is necessary to overcome the career blocks that are particular and indigenous to the fine-arts field.

In the book A Life in the Arts: Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative & Performing Artists, the author and psychotherapist Dr. Eric Maisel pinpoints twenty types of creative blocks that artists often experience:

Blocks from parental voices, personality blocks, personality trait blocks, self-censorship, self-criticism, world criticism, world-wariness, existential blocks, conflicts between life and art, fatigue, pressure paralysis, environmental blocks, social blocks, skill deficits, myths and idealizations, self-abuse, anxieties, depression, and incubation and fallow periods.1

Although these problems and limitations are presented as creative blocks, they are the very same obstacles that encumber career development.


Over many years our society has created a myth about what it means to be an artist. Perpetuated consciously and subconsciously by artists and nonartists, this myth is based on trading off many of the things that other people value for the right to be an artist.

For example, the myth tells us that struggle, complexity, and suffering are necessary components of creativity, and without these key elements an artist will stagnate. The myth tells us that the desire for comfortable lives and financial success will ultimately poison and distort art, that a true artist is concerned only with art and anyone else is a dilettante. The myth tells us that real artists do not discover themselves. Other people do, preferably when the artist is dead!

The myth warns us about selling out, although the majority of artists who are concerned about this issue are not in a position to sell out, nor are they quite sure what it means.

The myth says that artists are expected to be flamboyant, provocative, moody, weird, or antisocial. Writer and social critic Tom Wolfe suggests that this stereotyped image of the artist was formed in the nineteenth century, based on the style and behavior of writer and art critic Théophile Gautier. Wolfe writes:

[W]ith Gautier's own red vests, black scarves, crazy hats, outrageous pronouncements, huge thirsts, and ravenous groin ... the modern picture of The Artist began to form: the poor but free spirit, plebeian but aspiring only to be classless, to cut himself forever free from the bonds of the greedy and hypocritical bourgeoisie,to be whatever the fat burghers feared most, to cross the line wherever they drew it, to look at the world in a way they couldn't see, to be high, live low, stay young forever—in short, to be the bohemian.2

Many of the basic problems of artists trying to enter the art world and sustain a career there are created by their feelings of insecurity and helplessness. There is a direct correlation between how artists see themselves and where art-world power is currently centered. For example, the term stable of artists is commonly and casually used by both artists and dealers alike. It refers to the artists who are represented by a gallery, but it implies much more, and, unfortunately, as a metaphor it works well. It suggests that artists are like herds of animals that need to be contained in an environment where their master can control their lives. Starving artist is another demeaning and frequently used phrase that contributes to the stereotypical image of how artists are perceived and how they see themselves. The lingo is used in advertising, on Web sites, in URL titles, and in products, and even as the name of art galleries.


In our society, there is a myth that suggests that to be antibourgeois, a free spirit, and classless, one should not have an occupation. The myth implies that being an artist is a state of mind and casts great doubts on whether being an artist is a valid profession.

Seeds of doubt suggesting that fine art is not a valid occupation are planted and reinforced, for example, by educators who, under the guise of providing career advice, emphasize alternatives to fine art and steer students into applied arts fields. Medical and fashion illustration, set design, graphic design, industrial design, and commercial photography are viewed as viable alternatives to painting, sculpture, and fine-art photography. Students in art school are encouraged to take a lot of education courses to have something to fall back on. If we were educated to believe that being a fine artist is a valid profession, there would be fewer artists needing anoccupational backup. Has a law student ever been advised to take a lot of education courses to have something to fall back on?

Although the cautious advice given to artists comes from people who are trying to be helpful, it is advice based on other people's experiences, as well as on hearsay and myths. Other people's reality should not be your reality, nor can it be.

Believing in other people's perceptions is a disastrous trap. However, artists sometimes find it attractive, hoping that it can be a shortcut on the road to success or shield them from confrontations. Ralph Charell, author of How to Make Things Go Your Way, observes:

If you filter the perceptions you receive through mediators, you deprive yourself of a direct encounter with the event itself. The more you come to depend on the perceptions and opinions of others, the less of yourself you are able to put into the equations of various experiences of your own life. Soon, if the process continues, your life becomes dim and pale and you are eventually at sea, tossed and buffeted, alone under a starless sky, without an internal compass of your own.3


Art educator Ronald H. Silverman clearly sees the correlation between how artists are viewed as low-income producers and the low priority art is assigned in school curriculums. Pointing out that substantial evidence indicates that more than 90 percent of school-age children do not connect art with a means of acquiring money or earning a living, Silverman goes on to say:

While these figures may reflect pervasive cultural attitudes which stereotype artists as starving Bohemians, they may also be the consequence of current art education practices. Teachers are either ignoring the economic impact of the arts or they are telling their students that an interest in art has little if any economic career implications. Although these approaches may be the honest view of well-intended teachers, they do not square with thefacts. They may also be the key deterrent to art becoming a part of the basic school curriculum.4

Low expectations of artists' earning power have given rise to the practice of dual careers. While few question its symbolic implications, the concept of dual careers for artists is a widely accepted norm that is readily encouraged and propagated. For example, the academic dean of an art college condones the practice of dual careers:

We are teaching [artists] that having a dual career does not necessarily mean that you make less art. After all, what's the point of having all your time free to make art if you have no money for materials and supplies? This no longer means that artists have to wait on tables. There are many more opportunities and diverse choices for the artist today than ever before. They may go into arts administration or arts-related services.5

The phrase dual career is a euphemism for holding two jobs, and under the work ethic of many cultures and religions it is emblematic of fortitude, stamina, dedication, and responsibility. But in reality, and in most cases, anyone engaged in a dual career for any length of time understands that it creates a life-style of frustration, confusion, stress, chaos, exhaustion, and guilt.


Even when students persevere and select fine arts against all odds, they may enter their careers questioning the propriety of earning a living as a fine artist. Moreover, they usually haven't the foggiest notion of how to begin.

The late artist and author Jo Hanson believed that

artists are set up for difficult career adjustments by the omissions from art education, and by the self-image projected through the art sub-culture that discourages, and even scorns, attention to business management and competence in it. In attitudes and preparation, I believe most of us begin with several strikesagainst us. We find, through difficult experience, that we must work our way up to zero to get in a position to go forward. I speculate that "successful" artists are the ones who figured things out early in their careers and could follow a clear line toward their goals.6

In previous editions of this book I described my experience in the mid-1980s when the College Art Association held its annual conference in New York City. Responding to an open call for panel discussion topics, I submitted a proposal suggesting that the conference include a panel focusing on the importance of including career management courses in fine-arts college and university curriculums. Although the response to the idea was less than enthusiastic, I did not receive a total bum's rush, and was given fifteen minutes to state my case at a session called "Special Projects," a potpourri of topics not valued enough to warrant panel discussions.

Five of the fifteen minutes had to be used to establish my credentials to this particularly credential-conscious audience. With a limited time allotment I managed to make the point that hundreds of students are being graduated each year ill-equipped to handle the realities of life after art school or navigate the maze of confusion surrounding the art world.

There was polite clapping, and a few members of the audience later told me they were in agreement with my position. But it was apparent that career courses for fine artists were not on most educators' list of priorities.

In many schools even the mention of "career" and "life after school" is discouraged—or, as one recent graduate of an art school in an Ivy League university complained, "My teachers made me feel guilty when I asked questions that were in any way related to the business aspect of art or how to go about finding a gallery. I was chastised for admitting that I was concerned about making a living from photography."

Some academics who discourage career advice at the college level believe that students should be sheltered from real-life survival issues while in school. But many fine-arts faculty members are opposed to career development courses for selfish and self-servingreasons: they are aware that today's student artists will become tomorrow's practicing artists, and eventually artists with whom they will compete for gallery, museum, and press attention, so there is much resistance to imparting any sort of information that could possibly give these future peers a career edge or jeopardize their own pecking order in the art world. Even long after I started doing artist career development workshops at colleges and universities, my presence was so threatening that I was considered a "witch"—and not a good witch! Invitations to conduct workshops were generally extended by well-intentioned career counselors at academic institutions who would enthusiastically announce my visit to the art department faculty, who in turn chose either not to inform students about the workshop or adamantly suggested that the workshop be boycotted.

In 1999, I conducted a workshop at the Savannah College of Art and Design that was organized by a faculty member who had read my book. She rallied all of her students to attend the workshop and persuaded a few other faculty members to urge their students to attend. Word quickly spread to the college career counselors about the success of the workshop, and a few years later they invited me back for a repeat performance. However, the faculty member who had enthusiastically organized the original workshop had left the college. Without the support of the faculty, and without exaggeration, in the morning session only a handful of students attended, and in the afternoon session only one student showed up!

Career development information is not only opposed by academia for self-serving reasons, but it has also been used as a scapegoat to explain the ills of the art world. For example, the book Has Modernism Failed? by Suzi Gablik contains a reprint of a brochure announcing a series of workshops called "The Business of Art and the Artist," sponsored by the Maryland Summer Institute for the Creative and Performing Arts, the University of Maryland, and the U.S. Small Business Administration. Gablik concludes that the workshop was

another telling example of how much career progress, even in art, now depends on making organizational values an intrinsicpart of one's life ... . The assumption is that success in the higher corporate world of art requires training in the techniques of business administration, and it leaves no doubt that the principles and practices of corporate management now produce the psychological model shaping even the lives of artists.7

The development of a program on survival skills for artists—one that covers such topics as health hazards, contracts, copyright, estate planning, insurance, and record keeping—is hardly an indication that artists are motivated by corporate institutional and organizational values. But Gablik is not the only misguided individual who believes in the myth that it is far nobler for artists to drive a cab to support their art than to derive a living from creating art!


More and more headway is being made to help fine-art students prepare for the transition from art school to real life.

In 1996, when I was preparing the fourth edition of this book, I contacted 156 schools in the United States with four-year fine-art programs, most of which were accredited members of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. A letter was sent to each school to inquire whether a required or elected credit or noncredit course or workshop was offered on professional practices and career planning that were specifically geared for fine-art students.

Forty-one of the schools responded, a bit over 25 percent, and out of the forty-one respondents sixteen of the schools required students to take a career development course as a prerequisite to graduation. Another sixteen of the respondents offered courses in professional practices as electives. All of the schools that conducted mandatory and elective professional practice courses awarded credit hours ranging from one to four credits. An additional five schools offered noncredit workshops or seminars specifically for fine artists.

In 2001, when preparing for the fifth edition of my book, I contacted 175 schools in the United States with four-year fine-art programs to inquire whether a required or elected credit or noncredit course or workshop was offered on professional practices andcareer planning specifically geared for fine-art students. Most of the schools were accredited members of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

Eighty-five of the schools responded, or nearly 49 percent, and out of the eighty-five respondents, thirty-nine of the schools required students to take a career development course as a prerequisite to graduation, and twenty schools offered courses as electives. The majority of schools in both groups offered courses that specifically focused on professional practices; other schools integrated a career development curriculum into courses that dealt with other issues and topics.

All of the mandatory and elected professional business practice courses awarded credit hours, ranging from one to six credits.

Most of the required and elected courses covered a range of topics, including marketing, presentation materials and documentation, grant writing, résumés and artist statements, art law and copyright, applying for graduate school, publicity, exhibition installation, and gallery relations.

At the Cleveland Art Institute, Professor Matthew Hollern is the dean of faculty and teaches Professional Practices, a course that he designed several years ago. Originally an elective, in 2004 it became mandatory for all graduate students. The course focuses on three main themes: presentation and communication; participation and professional activity; and planning, business goals, and career goals. It has a three-track career emphasis: entrepreneur; industry; and studio, gallery and exhibitions. In addition, the institute requires all graduates to take a professional writing course devoted to grant-writing, proposal-writing, contracts, and cover letters.

The University of North Texas in Denton offers a course called Professional Practices for the Studio Artist. It is described in the graduate catalog as a "study of theoretical and practical aspects of succeeding as a practicing artist outside the academy. Survey of protocols and common practices expected of the artists [sic] as a productive member of the business community where fine art is the commodity."

Every two years at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Kent Rush, professor of art and chairperson of the art and art history department, teaches the elective Professional Practices and Survival Skills, a graduate seminar course. In addition to covering careerdevelopment basics such as copyright issues, income and sales tax, and résumé development, the course includes office organization, mailing lists and databases, and health and safety. Rush also plans to invite a psychologist to discuss issues regarding self-esteem, stress, rejection, and career versus family.

In 1999, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduate students Sophia Allison and Dan LaValley created the Web site Professional Practices in the Arts. It was designed as a final project for a seminar on professional practices conducted by Professor Leslee Nelson. With the assistance and support of Professor Nelson, Allison and LaValley received grants to maintain the site. When Allison and LaValley left school, the site was reorganized and administered by other students and renamed artUW.com. The site continues to provide career-related information and Professor Nelson continues to teach elective professional practice courses for graduate students, "but I allow motivated seniors to take them too."8

In 2000, Professor Michael Warrick, who for several years taught the required course Professional Skills in the Visual Arts at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, organized and moderated a two-session panel, "Teach Them to Swim or Let Them Sink," for the joint meeting of the Southeastern College Art Conference and Mid-American College Art Association.

One of the panelists, Stephen Driver, associate professor of art at Brescia University, presented the paper "Teach Them to Swim ...? How Long Can They Tread Water?" In his presentation Driver pointed out that he developed the seminar "as a response to the lack of preparation for a career in the arts that I received as a student."9 He went on to say, "Many of my peers who no longer make or teach art fell by the wayside because they just couldn't see their way past all the obstacles."10

Driver teaches a mandatory professional practices seminar for seniors in the fine-arts department. "It is a valuable course on several levels. Students for the most part find it as a wake-up call to just how competitive the art marketplace is and ... as an opportunity to get their act together."11

As college faculty and academic career advisors see the large impact a career development curriculum can have on fine-art students,Professor Gary Keown at Southeastern Louisiana University points out clear reasons why career development also benefits schools:

It should be understood that, with university budget cuts, this system is streamlining its various programs. In light of this, we as art studio faculty should realize that upper-administrations look very closely at student success rates after graduation through exit reports. As a result, art departments have a vested interest in the success of their students through career achievement after graduation. Preparing these students is of utmost importance during these pragmatic times.12

In the article "Art Schools: A Group Crit" published in Art in America, thirteen educators, artists, and scholars discussed, among other issues, the skills young artists should acquire. Out of the thirteen participants only a few people raised the importance of business and professional practices. Bruce Ferguson, a former dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University in New York and an independent curator and critic, believes that

the issue of "success" is a much more interesting and complicated one than the issue of failure ... therefore ... instruction that stresses professional preparation, from the conceptual and theoretical to the legal and administrative, has a place in contemporary pedagogy. To send students out into the world to reinvent the wheel, as was often the case, is both depressing and condescending.13

Dave Hickey, who taught art criticism and theory and ran a graduate program in studio art at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas (where he is a professor of English), points out that

teachers of art practice have one overriding obligation to their students: to be intimately familiar with the contemporary stands of art practice, discourse, trade and exhibition against which their students' work will be measured—so their students will know the unspoken rules they are choosing to break or not to break. The art market itself should be dealt with evenhandedly and explained in detail. It is a fact and an option from which students should not be cloistered. Demonizing the art marketplacedoes more damage to students than exposing them to collectors and dealers who are irrevocably a part of the art world.14

Although many more art schools are acknowledging the importance of preparing students for real life, artists who are planning to enter B.F.A. or M.F.A. programs should consider application only to those colleges and universities that offer professional practice programs for fine artists.


How much do you want to earn as an artist, and how much are you willing to spend in order to earn it? Thoughts of money are ever present and, depending on one's situation, the thoughts are in the forefront of one's mind or are nestled in the subconscious.

How much is my work worth? How much am I worth? How much do I need this year, this month, this week? What can I afford? How much should I be earning?

There are artists who have identified with poverty for so long that when money finally comes their way they are consumed with enormous guilt, a theme that dominates their existence. There are artists who become Little Johnny One-Notes, churning out whatever made money in the past, in fear that venturing in new directions will bring them back to Poverty City. And there are artists who attach so many stigmas to the concept of prosperity that they undervalue their work, riding the train to martyrdom. And as psychotherapist Annette Lieberman and writer Vicki Lindner state in their book The Money Mirror: How Money Reflects Women's Dreams, Fears, and Desires, "Money Martyrs think it is 'morally superior' to ignore their financial needs and often become the victims."15 They also point out that "artists believe, often with validity, that financial rewards are bestowed on artistic products that are not the best. They say that they have not earned much money for their work because it is 'good' or 'pure.'"16

Carol Lloyd, a writer, performer, and author of Creating a Life Worth Living, describes the attitudes of many artists who have conflicted relationships with money: "They want a luxurious life but nosigns of filthy lucre passing through their hands. They want stability without savings. They want to be poor and righteous and generous of spirit on the one hand and they want to be rich and fabulous on the other. They want to do wonderfully healthy things for the world for free and, at the same time, work in high-powered prestigious fields and get paid by the truckload." 17

Lloyd goes on to say that "if you have this internal battle with greed and guilt, hedonism and morality, you may be suffering from the effects of extreme thinking. From this black-and-white perspective, the middle ground of getting paid for good, hard work reverberates with negative connotations: borrowing, staid, conventional, capitalist, careerist."18

"Almost all of us have struggled at one time or another with money shortfalls and found ourselves face to face with overwhelming fears,"19 writes author Tad Crawford in another very good book, The Secret Life of Money: How Money Can Be Food for the Soul. Through stories and myths from around the world Crawford helps us understand why money is so much more than the useful tool we may think it to be. He discusses how money secretly influences our lives, why money is so easily worshiped, and why money sometimes feels more important than life.20

The most common money-related mistake artists make is a reluctance to invest in their own careers. Although artists are willing to spend relatively large amounts of money on work materials and equipment, they are miserly and skimp when it comes to other important aspects of career development, such as travel, presentation tools, publicity, and mailing lists, and such preventive medicine as using contracts, hiring lawyers and accountants, and engaging the services of other professionals. Subsequent chapters discuss why these expenditures are important. But it simply boils down to this: If you are not willing to invest in your career, who is?

An artist's reluctance to make crucial career investments is sometimes spearheaded or aggravated by the attitude of a nonartist spouse or mate, particularly if the artist does have a separate bank account. If "family funds" are being used for career expenditures, an artist might experience subtle or not so subtle pressure to generate art sales in a relatively short amount of time or provide some sort of tangible justification that career investments are not a wasteof time and money. Although it is not always possible, it is important for artists to sensitize their mates to the reality that earning a decent part-time or full-time income from sales and commissions is certainly possible, but it can take time. Help them understand that when instant gratification occurs, it most likely happens during the process of creating work and not in the early stages of launching a career.


Many people are intimidated by visual art, including many of those who buy and sell art.

The fear of visual art is perpetuated throughout our schooling, beginning as early as kindergarten, as we are bombarded with conflicting messages about the importance and relevance of visual art in our culture. Often visual art is presented as a "filler" subject—not in the same league, for example, as science, mathematics, or history. But by adulthood visual art is perceived as a discipline that can only be appreciated and understood by someone possessing a high IQ or a substantial background in art history.

On the other hand, random interviews with members of the public inquiring about preferences in music will produce immediate and confident responses. People are eager to tell you that they like jazz, country and western, classical, or rock and roll!

But ask the same public about their preferences in visual art, and their responses are laced with hesitation and discomfort. Often defensive platitudes are offered such as "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like."

Art historian and lecturer Carol Duncan described an experience with a department of motor vehicles inspector during a test for her driver's license:

Upon discovering that I taught art history, he felt compelled to tell me of his dislike for Picasso, probably the only modern artist he could name. For a good fifteen minutes, while I did my turns and stops, he complained steadily about modern art. "I'm not stupid," he kept saying, "but that art doesn't say anything tome." Indeed, there was nothing stupid about him. But he felt that someone was telling him he was stupid by holding up for admiration expensive and apparently meaningful objects he could not comprehend. Students in the state college I teach often indicate such resentment—or else they are full of apology for not liking modern art.21

Educational systems that give mixed messages about visual art have contributed to the shaping of a society of individuals who do not value or trust their own opinions and feelings about visual art.

As a result of the public's intimidation by visual art and insecurity about their beliefs and feelings, a power structure has developed within the art world comprised of intermediaries whom we have come to depend on as sources of truth. We actually believe that good art can only be determined by the judgments and decisions of art dealers, critics, curators, academics, and art administrators. Unfortunately, many people within the art world believe this myth, including artists!

If members of the public were self-confident about their preferences in art, the strength of the power structure would diffuse. For example, art dealers would be acknowledged as sales personnel, a title that reflects their real occupation versus the messiah-like image currently awarded. Arts-related professions would be recognized as occupations that were created around artists, and not, as it often seems, the other way around! Or as arts administrator Ted Potter pointed out: "Curators, administrators, directors and art dealers are all really flight attendants for this thing called art ... . Art and the creative artists are what it's all about."22


Self-validation has great staying power compared to the type of validation that artists often seek from the art world. Validation awarded from the art world is fickle, volatile, often irrational, and usually short-lived.

When external validation is bestowed, the recipient might feel ecstatic, making one conclude that whatever sacrifices were made,and whatever time and money were spent, it had all been worth it. But for some people, it doesn't matter how much praise, press, exhibitions, commissions, and sales they receive, it will never be enough.

The ability to validate your own artwork does not always come easily nor does it come quickly. When I am called upon to validate an artist's work, I point out that in my capacity as a career coach and as a human being, it is not my role to assess whether an artist has talent. And when put in this position, I pose the question: How would you respond if you showed your work to six artists and half of the group said you are talented and the other half disagreed?

Emphasis on gaining approval from the art world has become so commonplace that few artists question the negative implications of looking for validation from external sources. For example, in her book The Practical Handbook for the Emerging Artist, Margaret R. Lazzari, who is an artist, earnestly writes that

there are two ways to have your artwork validated, that is, recognized as significant and meaningful by others. One way, the "mainstream" method, is to have your work recognized by people within the museum/gallery system, such as curators, dealers, and critics. These people are art professionals who are entrusted by society at large with evaluating, displaying, buying, selling, and preserving artwork.23

For artists not seeking mainstream validation, Lazzari goes on to say that "validations for these artists cannot come through the traditional gallery-museum system, but through alternative means. Artists must identify the audience who is interested in what they make, and find ways to bring the work to them."24

The types of validation that Lazzari describes encourage artists to give away their power in deference to "those who know best."

Contrary to Lazzari's message, David Bayles and Ted Orland, authors of the book Art & Fear, take a much healthier approach to the issue of validation, reminding us that

courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the oneissue that really counts—namely, whether or not you're making progress in your work.25

Other issues regarding artist insecurity are discussed in chapter 11, "Rationalization, Paranoia, Competition, Rejection, and the Overwhelm Factor."


Artificial barriers and provincial attitudes about the art market can deeply restrict artists' career development. Preoccupation with regionalism has given rise to the expression "regional artist," a self-limiting phrase that, unfortunately, some artists use to describe their status.

I lived in Manhattan for twenty-five years. In 1995 I moved to East Hampton, New York, a small town at the end of Long Island, where I lived until 2004 when I moved to Sarasota, Florida, a small city. In East Hampton and Sarasota I witnessed firsthand an obsessive desire of many local artists to only exhibit in local venues.

Some artists adhere to a self-imposed hierarchy of believing that you have to "start small and work your way up." Other artists believe that their market is limited to their town or city of residence, or that some sort of universal censorship is imposed, illogically concluding that there is no market anywhere for their work if they are unable to find a receptive audience in their hometown. (Artists living in large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, for example, are as likely to engage in this form of provincialism as artists living in towns and small cities.) Other artists earnestly believe that hometown exposure leads to national recognition; should a hometown be a city with a vibrant contemporary art community this is sometimes true. However, this is the case of neither East Hampton nor Sarasota. More often than not the motivating force of many artists to exhibit work in local galleries and cultural centers is a deep-seated need based on anger and rage to prove to local folks that "I'm somebody."

Sadly, for most artists who pine for national or international recognition, but limit their horizons to local or regional resources, their longings will go unfulfilled because the artists have yet to understand the universal law that national and international recognition and support usually comes your way from venues and audiences outside of your neighborhood.

The myth of equating career success with exhibiting work in a New York gallery is highly imbued in the minds of artists and nonartists. In all of the many years I have traveled throughout the United States and in Canada to conduct workshops on career development, the question always arises: "Do I have to show in New York to make it in the art world?" Although my answer is always an ardent "no," in most instances members of the audience do not hear me or want to hear me because they have been brainwashed to believe that being represented by a New York gallery is pivotal to career success.

Because of the importance that has been attributed to exhibiting in New York, some artists will pay anything to have a show in a New York gallery. Naive attitudes, feelings of neediness, and the extraordinary pervasiveness of the belief of the myth of New York have contributed to the growth of vanity galleries in New York (and in other cities, see here).


The phrase successful artist loosely describes a person who has achieved some degree of fame and/or fortune. Depending on whom you ask, the definitions of fame and fortune can vary considerably.

Although, as previously discussed, some artists equate success with having a show in New York, other artists equate success with being reviewed in a leading art trade publication, while other artists equate success to being featured on the publication's front cover! Some artists describe success as having their works included in the "right" private collections, and other artists believe that success is being represented in the "right" museum collection. Some artists define success as having a solo show at a museum, while others view success as nothing less than an invitation to exhibit in the Whitney Biennial or Documenta. To some artists the sale of a work at $5,000is a sign of success; to other artists anything above $50,000 is an impressive number.

Although attainment of these goals is not insurmountable, it is naive to believe that achieving any one of these goals, or a combination thereof, will lead to career success that spans a good portion of adult life. Yet an astonishing number of artists' belief systems is centered around adolescent aspirations, and for many such artists these aspirations have become obsessions.

In practical terms the meaning of the phrase successful artist could describe, for example, an artist who earns a living doing what he or she loves doing best: creating fine art. Many artists are able to derive a healthy part-time or full-time income doing what they love doing best without being swept away with all of the illusions surrounding the mystique of how to be successful in the art world. But because these artists' names are relatively unknown, the existence of alternative forms of career success is also relatively unknown, and adolescent attitudes prevail.


Nancy Anderson, in her powerful book Work with Passion, points out:

There are two ways to look at the Planet Earth: (1) It is contracting and shrinking—therefore my chances are scarce. Colloquially put, "there ain't enough to go 'round so I've got to get mine!" (2) It is expanding and growing with opportunity—my chances are based on abundance. The choice is mine, and time is my ally.26

Unfortunately, many artists have adopted the philosophy that "there ain't enough to go 'round so I've got to get mine!" The "shrinking" mode of thinking is also reinforced by other members of the art world. The foolish platitudes that there are too many artists or there are too many artists for the number of commercial galleries throw artists into panic attack or a chronic state of anxiety; some artists develop sharp elbows. A belief in scarcity is played out in many areas of an artist's career. Some artists sell their work at lowprices because they have come to believe that the only buyer for their work is the buyer who makes himself or herself known at that given time. Some artists exhibit at galleries under unfavorable terms or circumstances because they believe it is their only chance to show their work and they must seize the moment. Many artists withhold from fellow artists introductions and referrals to art world contacts because of a fear there that isn't enough to go around.

In the long run, if the "community of artists" were truly functioning in a healthy capacity, whether on a national, regional, or local level, my occupation would be deemed obsolete because artists would be exchanging information and banding together to change the many basic inequities in the business of doing art. Unfortunately, a fear of scarcity has created a lack of a sense of community among artists. A fear of scarcity is largely responsible for why artists often feel isolated from one another.


Another stumbling block in career development for artists is not realizing or coming to terms with the fact that if you want to sell and/or exhibit work, art becomes commerce and it is a business. The next chapter, "Launching or Relaunching Your Career: Entering the Marketplace," looks at the business aspects of art and examines some of the ways in which artists can successfully enter the marketplace and sustain a career.

To launch or relaunch a career that is earmarked for success, artists must learn to transcend career blocks and emphatically reject the myth of the artist. The myth, like racial and religious prejudice, is subtle and sneaks up without warning. Do not underestimate the extent to which aspects of the myth can affect, influence, and limit an artist's career.

If artists go along with the myth, they must accept the consequences of leaving their careers in the hands of others. If artists do not develop and expand meaningful goals and act on these goals, their careers will be formed, manipulated, and eventually absorbed by people who have goals that are meaningful only to them. Artists become a means to the ends of others.

Copyright © 1983, 1988, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2009 by Caroll Michels All rights reserved.

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