Differences between Emerging, Mid-Career, and Established Artists: Profesional Practices for Visual Artists

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MICA MFA Thesis Reception Friday, July 10

Nobody likes to be labeled, right? Especially not artists who tend to be contrary, rebellious types. However, artist “categories” are bandied about by artists, gallerists, jurors, and critics and most of the people using these terms seem to be clueless, when questioned about what they actually mean.

Applications for exhibitions include titles like “Emerging Artist Exhibition,” while some contemporary gallery websites report that they only exhibit “mid-career” and “established” artists. What exactly do these categories mean and how do you place yourself within them, when necessary?

First of all, the most common mistake is for artists to label themselves “mid-career” based on age. In actuality, an artist who is middle-aged or older has no more claim to this label than a 23-year old MFA graduate. Similarly, young artists are labeled as “emerging” artists, but, depending on experience and career, this is not necessarily the case. I am consistently surprised at artists and art professionals who don’t understand this. Here are a few definitions to clear up some of the misconceptions.

Disclaimer for you sensitive folks: Of course, as with any type of label or category, there is confusion and overlap, but the goal in this post is to clear up downright misinformation. When possible, BmoreArt suggests avoiding labels all together, but, just like saturated fat and lines at the dmv, sometimes labels must be endured, so let’s aim to do it as factually as possible.

The Emerging Artist
An emerging artist is someone who’s in the early stage of their career, someone who’s caught the eye of an art critic and/or gallery, but hasn’t yet established a solid reputation as an artist amongst art critics, art buyers, and art galleries.

An artist who has specialized training in his or her field (not necessarily gained in an academic institution), who is at the beginning of his or her career, and who has created a modest independent body of work.

The term emerging artist is often used for young and recently graduated from a prestigious art college, but can also apply to someone who’s made a career change or recently decided to prioritize their art above everything else. You could say it’s a label art galleries use because it sounds better than “new artist” or “unknown artist.”

The Mid-Career Artist
An artist who has created an independent body of work over a number of years and who has received regional or national recognition through publication or public presentation of his or her work. A Mid-Career Artist has had a significant number of solo exhibitions at significant galleries and museums, located nationally or internationally, rather than locally.

Notice this category says nothing about age of the artist or even a specific number of years in their careers. Look again, because this is very specific. To be considered a mid-career artist, you must have received regional or national recognition through “Publication” or “Public Presentation” of your work. What does this mean? The publication part means that you have had significant publications about you and your work, most likely through a major museum or publishing house. Public presentation also indicates museum exhibitions, rather than just commercial galleries.

Mid-Career Artists have established a national or international following and exhibit in many different states and countries, rather than in a local or regional area.

The Established Artist
An artist who is at a mature stage in his or her career and who has created an extensive body of independent work. An established artist has reached an advanced level of achievement by sustaining a nationally or internationally recognized contribution to the discipline.

This type of artist is considered a ‘blue chip’ artist in the market. Their work’s value has been decided through consistent years of sales, and confirmed at auction. This is a catch-22: many artists and artist’s dealers don’t want to risk an auction sale at Christie’s or Sotheby’s because there is a chance the work could decline in value. Rather than putting it up for auction, many artist’s dealers will buy back the work, keeping the value consistent. Many artists remain in the “Mid-Career” category until after their deaths for this reason.

Grace Hartigan

A local example of the Established Artist is Grace Hartigan. She was, and remains, a national figure. Her work has been collected in museums across the country, there are a number of publications about her, and she is recognized for an international contribution to visual arts. Hartigan possesses an international reputation and national clout. The value in her work is indisputable, confirmed at auction in public records.


Now that you have read the official definitions, you’re probably coming up with arguments and noticing gray areas. You might also be confused about where your practice and career fit within this continuum. That is ok. When in doubt, group in the “Emerging Artist” section.

Many artists remain in this category for their entire careers and have a successful, busy, and healthy studio practice and lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with this and no reason to feel otherwise. You can just feel smarter than your artist friends who think they are “Mid-Career” artists on their 40th birthdays.


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