So you want to be an artist? Spend your days creating work, live by your own schedule, painting when inspiration hits, and take in life the rest of the time? The plan is to go to art school – where you’ll spend four years in creative bliss? Get a studio when you’re done and then get picked up by a recognized gallery? Let’s be honest, that sort of thing doesn’t happen. Unless you come from a wealthy family willing to bankroll your work, unlike in the commercial world, it is very hard to strategically make a career out of being an artist. So what is a would-be artist to do? The way I see it there are three parts to the equation – you, money, and your community.
Let’s first differentiate between what I consider “commercial-art” and fine art. Commercial art is what you see on the shelves in Ikea and at country fairs – work that isn’t really about anything, created to sell and be used as decoration. We don’t cater to that here, so if that’s your thing, there are more than enough other blogs around that do. For me an artist is someone who is compelled to make work. They don’t care if it’s sellable or not, they have something to say and need to get it out. The problem is that not everyone has something interesting to say.
Art School = Artist?
The big misconception about art school is that by attending you’ll be transformed into a great artist. This is just plain wrong. As I heard photographer Geoffrey James say during a talk – “Art schools don’t make artists. Artists go to art schools.” However, many professors try to dissuade this notion and encourage, year after year, students who should’ve switched majors after the first semester. While it may be good for a student’s self-confidence, the lack of serious and honest critique ultimately doesn’t do them any good. It doesn’t help that a professor once openly told my class that they were told to promote students up and not fail anyone. So four years come and go and the group of people whose work you took notice of during the first critique are still the only ones doing anything interesting. Thus, the first part of being an artist is taking a hard look at yourself.
Be Honest with Yourself
Is it all about the work? Are you constantly thinking of project ideas? Do you create new work even when no one tells you to? Is your goal to complete a project that’s important to you and share it with the world? If it is all about the work then you’re on your way already. If it’s about networking, gallery openings, art fairs, and telling everyone one you encounter that you’re an “artist” then forget about it. You won’t make it, I’m sorry. Focus on the work and forget about the rest. Create work for yourself and then show it to as many people as possible.
Get a Job
The problem with creating honest work – most people won’t recognize its value at the beginning and it’s possible they never will. You still have bills and expenses like everyone else and while being poor and struggling might make for a good story in your later years, there is nothing fun about being in debt. So get a job.
It might be a temporary job or something more serious. Even though I do it myself, I feel like working commercially in the same field as your personal work isn’t the best idea. Rather a related field is probably best, as it would help build contacts and keep you in the loop without interfering with your own work. Also, if you work in a related field, your employer will be more sympathetic if you have to travel for an opening or take some time off to finish up a project.
I’ve talked about this before so I’ll only mention it again briefly. It’s important to have a good support network, so make friends with other artists. Specifically with people who are at various levels of success. They will be the source of invaluable advice when you have to figure out tough decisions in regards to your work.
A Healthy Environment
The goal of this is to create a healthy sustainably environment for you to create work in. At first you have yourself and your ideas. You then have a source of income, like it or not everything costs money, especially art. Finally you’ve got a community of friends to help you along the way to artist stardom. If all else fails, at least you aren’t in debt, have great interesting friends, and have created work that is truly meaningful to you. What more can one ask?