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On the Professionalization of Art

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“Why would anyone need a class on this? This is real life.”

Teaching workshops for artists, and most recently full semester courses at MICA in which we cover how to host a studio visit, write a CV, and create a portfolio website, among other skills, this is a comment I hear with some frequency. I must agree that this field of Professional Development, often referred to simply as “PD,” has sketchy borders between what should be common sense and what are specialized skills that must be learned to actually make a living in the arts.

There are as many ways to be an artist as there are people pursuing our profession. Since no size fits all, every book, workshop, seminar, and essay I’ve read by others about how to be a professional always lacks something of what I specifically need or want. I’m teaching the class I wanted to attend as an undergrad, but I know that we are all seeking answers to a test that will not come because, well, this is real life. I imagine that I am teaching a raft-building class, trying to prepare my classes for uncharted waters ahead. The trick is that every raft by design and function needs to be different. Everyone wants to live a slightly different version of life—my goals for my career are not my students’ goals and vice versa. Not every artist wants to make a living off selling their work or skills.

Despite this, and despite how few artists support themselves completely on sales of their work, the perceived default ambition for creatives in the United States is that professional vigor is tied to economic success. Hustle and girl-boss cultures have dropped us at an intersection where anyone can make a living selling the fruits of their creative labor if they just side-hustle long enough. That feels uncomfortably close to the idea of the pulling oneself up by the bootstraps of a previous generation. Anything and everything in the realm of PD is inherently hit or miss depending on application, just as certain barriers and privileges impede or allow certain people to achieve some version of success. When we’re talking about business, we really can’t say every person starts with the same opportunities. Yet there are some things within our power to recalibrate and strive for.

It’s hard to accurately trace when courses in conducting oneself as a professional business were added to college arts curricula, but they had been cemented into place by 2011 when I was a senior undergraduate at Parsons in New York City. Creative Capital, the New York mega-nonprofit aimed at assisting artists directly with programming and sizable grants, has been offering its Peer-to-Peer professional workshop series since 2003. And artist Jackie Battenfield wrote the early classic The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love in 2009.

I would say Professional Development as a field has gained traction since 2000 because more people than ever are going to college to earn arts degrees and wondering what that actually qualifies them to do. New books come out every year on the subject, Beth Pickens’ 2021 Make Your Work No Matter What being the latest new classic, and there are great resources regularly shared online at websites like Artwork Archive and Hyperallergic.

As a professor, it’s hard at times to put my arms around what students need to learn from me in a simulation on studio visits and what they’re probably going to have to learn the hard way in real life when someone is being a jerk in their personal space. I can bring a lawyer into class to explain contracts to them, but he and I are likely battling to be a dim memory five years from now when the students are rereading the fine print explaining that they have to pay for their own insurance for the duration of their solo show. I oscillate between wanting to tell my students every single thing I’ve learned, good and bad, about being an artist since finishing undergrad ten years ago and throwing my hands up with the thought that this field—which I monitor so closely—still changes faster than any of us can predict. I teach students how to watercolor, too, and that stays roughly the same year after year. How they should properly organize their CV does not.

 The art world, as we know, has very few standard ways that you must do something. You can be a successful artist without having a social media presence, you can get a gallery without going through an MFA program. And yet, people generally agree that it may be easier to sell work today if you’re active on social media, that you’ll get connected faster to the monied side of the art world if you attend a prestigious program in an urban center with an active gallery scene.

Everyone’s solution needs to be custom-designed for their lives and needs.
Suzy Kopf

At a personal low point in the pandemic, after giving some lectures and participating in a few Zoom panels on PD topics aimed at motivating others to push through the challenging times, I decided that my career had stagnated in some way. I was unhappy that I wasn’t getting the grants and residencies I applied for, that the shows of new work I was putting together weren’t selling as well as they maybe could. I saw a therapist for a few sessions, and she essentially beat into me what many therapists need to reiterate to the depressed: some of my so-called career problems were imaginary and entirely within my power to change. It was true I wasn’t getting what I applied for, but when pressed, I realized I had stopped applying for opportunities with my typical zeal. As committed poker players say, you lose all the hands you don’t play.

In my pandemic lull, I had somewhat checked out of doing the very work I try to instill in others. Knowing what was wrong made it easier to sort out what to do. In a move that surprised a lot of my friends—“but you’re an expert at PD!”—and with the financial assistance of a Professional Development grant from the Maryland State Arts Council, I hired Danielle Glosser of Client Raiser for an outside perspective on my season of suck. Glosser isn’t a therapist (although at times it feels like she’s taking on that role), she’s an artist advisor, and I decided it was time to get someone else’s advice on me.

Glosser has a master’s in sociology from George Washington University with an emphasis on race and gender issues. But seven years ago, after a career in social justice work and taking time off to raise her family, she decided she was interested in helping artists market themselves and find more clients. This career shift wasn’t as big as it seems because, as Glosser explains, “Social justice work is about marketing; it is partially about spinning the story and making people interested in that story.”

Since starting out working with a handful of artists, she has grown her business to work with about 150 artists in 20 different states, with most of her clients in the Washington, DC, area. Unlike many other artist coaches and consultants, Glosser isn’t from the art world, so her perspective is uniquely one of not being a maker. Even after spending years talking to artists about their creative processes, she reports with a laugh that she has “absolutely no interest in making anything.”

I asked Glosser something I ponder often when working with my students: Do all artists have essentially the same problems and challenges professionalizing that just manifest in different ways? Her answer surprised me. Emphatically, she said, “No, because everyone has different skills,” and went on to explain that a person’s background, training, and even personality influence how they approach marketing themselves and building their career. In her time as an artist advisor, she has had clients with seemingly opposite problems. Everyone’s solution needs to be custom-designed for their lives and needs.

 Glosser is no-nonsense but nice, efficient, and organized—qualities you surely want in someone who is going to pick apart your business practices politely but firmly. Over my Zoom consultation session, which Glosser calls the inventory assessment process, we chatted and I walked her through my goals. She listened and then the next day she emailed me her version of a checklist with items that could use improvement. I set to work.

That was back in July 2021, when I was vaccinated and many of us allowed ourselves to believe the pandemic was ending. I made strong headway on 10 of the 16 items on Glosser’s list pretty much immediately, tweaking my artist statement to her specifications, and moving a couple of things around on my website to make them easier for collectors to find. I was relieved that I did not need a total overhaul and excited to have a list to focus on. I love a to-do list and they typically work for me. And yet, here I sit in early May 2022, and those last six tasks from Glosser remain unchecked despite me looking at the list daily. It’s taken me until now to realize why.

In short, I work too much. My professionalism at my day job has gotten in the way of my professionalism as an artist. I have become too laser-focused on making money to support my art practice that I had no time to do the business work to support that art practice. Occasionally, at the expense of my personal relationships, I have found time to work in the studio and make my art, but even that has been lacking over the last couple of years as I have taken on more and more work to generate income. This has had negative effects on my health, both physical and mental, but living through the pandemic while everyone around me was also suffering, it didn’t seem particularly noticeable or special that I was unhappy in my work life.

It’s not an item on my list from Glosser, but this spring, with the same feelings of the pandemic lifting that we enjoyed briefly last summer, I have realized that I need to leave full-time work to complete my checklist and move to the next stage in my career as an artist. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of work in the studio and continuing my writing and teaching work. This isn’t the solution for everyone, but I am hopeful it’s the solution for me. As it turns out, we can read every book and become experts in our field but in the end, we’re all just frantically building and rebuilding our raft as it floats out to sea.

 

 

Research for this essay was supported in part by the Maryland State Arts Council (msac.org).

All photos by the author

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