Practical advice from artists. I share my favorite quotes from Living and Sustaining a Creative Life about time management, navigating inside and outside of the market, how artists shape the art worlds we would like to participate in, optimism, and gratitude.
I recommend Sharon Louden’s Living and Sustaining a Creative Life (University of Chicago, 2013) to artists.* It’s a conversational, engaging read with 40 short essays or interviews with visual artists on the practical matters of being an artist.
Common topics are:
- time management; notably, many artists are parents and talk frankly about juggling family responsibilities
- gallery relationships, roles, responsibilities
- acknowledging assistants and vendors (something that is nearly invisible in the art world)
- day jobs—many contributors are working as teachers; others are art handlers or artists’ assistants, or as as Sean Mellyn describes, “the post-art school, low-wage worker force—artists that make the art world run”
- studio time: how to use it wisely, and not taking it for granted
The book is full of useful insights, but it doesn’t include one-size-fits-all secrets to success. Rather, readers learn about the diversity of artists’ lives and strategies.
There are as many ways to run an artist’s studio as there are ways to make art.
in the same way that you’re in your studio coming up with a very individual body of work … your career should be the same way. …no two careers look exactly the same.
I’ve struggled a lot with managing time and space since moving to New York. It feels like a catch-22: you work more to afford a space, leaving little time to use your space. This seems like a nearly universal challenge, and artists use numerous strategies. One I’ve started exploring is waking up early.
Finding time… is the most valuable commodity.
—Blane de St. Croix
everything is made little by little… process is key.
There are never enough hours in the day. [After having a child] I’ve pretty much stopped procrastinating; I just don’t have the time.
my work is so incredibly labor-intensive that time is more precious than space.
—Michael Waugh, on subletting studio space instead of keeping a day job
Scheduling Studio Time
at least several times a month, I will wake up … 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. … The amount I’ve accomplished over the years in these pre-dawn hours has been significant.
As teachers, [my husband and I] are both designated atypical work structures…. This flexibility provides for bursts of creative output throughout the year. The downside … is inconsistency. We are in a regular state of building a graceless schedule…. with the exception of an early 4:30 a.m. routine that gives my studio practice its resolute rhythm.
I … get up at 5:30 a.m. … to work.
I maximize my time—I usually work seven days a week.
—Blane de St. Croix
…during the academic school year I spend three days a week at my teaching job, and three days a week in my studio.
A day of rest.
Being self-employed, I am susceptible to the impulse to work every day. To avoid burning out, I take one day off every week… on Sunday. The double benefit … is [looking] forward to Sundays [as well as] Mondays, eager to begin working again.
Setting Boundaries to Protect Studio Time
For me, the studio is for working: painting, drawing, developing ideas. I try to allocate three to four studio days a week. …this means nothing else is scheduled on those days.
on days that I am not teaching [I] regulate all non-creative tasks … to the morning so I can be an unfettered artist in the afternoon and evening. At least one late night in the studio every week helps tremendously.
Nothing is more critical to my process than time…. [after having kids] There is no room for waste. I try not to schedule meetings/appointments during studio time, and to keep clear lines around work and play, which requires a great deal of discipline.
I manage and try to keep up a reasonable balance between studio and home. I … have rules … only working during daylight hours and very rarely on weekends … based on aesthetics… making my professional life comfortable naturally leads to that life being sustainable.
I needed to harmonize the ecology of studio life with life in the world. The necessities and imperatives of one don’t always support the other. … Paying bills, maintaining jobs and relationships persistently threatened to pop [the studio's] protective bubble of productive dissociation, while success itself created tasks and responsibilities that also encroached on the time necessary to sustain the very process that produced it.
A note of self-forgiveness.
It’s impossible to do all things right at all times, and so in deciding to be an artist, I finally put my practice above all….
The biggest struggle throughout my life as an artist has been to put my studio time first. This doesn’t always sit so well with the people in my life, but after 25 years I have managed to surround myself with those who accept this as a given in our relationship.
Family time and time spent away from art-making allow my studio experience to be more focused, essential, and creative. … life has to be nourished first. Creativity follows sustenance.
Having Flexible Space
I maintain a smaller live/work studio, and get larger space when big projects require it. This helps me maintain my overhead.
—Blane de St. Croix
What previous tenants had used for a living room, I use for a studio … I’ve been able to tame my freely spreading work space by renting storage nearby.
My studio is in my home, so I don’t waste any time commuting.
With the studio door about 18 steps from the bedroom…, I’m able to get up and immediately go to work.
Home, university and studio are all within walking distance from each other.
—Justin Quinn, who lives in a small city in Minnesota
Having my studio, [home and job] in close proximity … is very important in order that I spend as much time as I can working on my artwork.
Space and time need to be purchased and it converts many artists into responsible money-makers.
20% for savings, 30% for taxes. This leaves 50% for me to live on.
Find Your Own Way
Working Within the Market
[Living from sales] means I sometimes live well and at other times marginally.
Just because you’re showing, you’re not making, necessarily, enough money to pay the bills. And … it’s just very up and down. That’s the thing all artists have to contend with.
The sales from my work support my family.… a situation I tried hard to avoid…, because I didn’t want to be beholden to the marketplace.
—Beth Lipman (who formerly worked as an arts administrator, which left 8 hours/week to make art)
The Market’s Myths
…many artists with apparently thriving careers and gallery representation still had day jobs. …the art world is at least 50% smoke and mirrors. … tons of brilliant and well known-artists (and curators, and critics and art dealers) are utterly broke, working full-fledged outside jobs [and/or] relying on money from their families.
Working Outside the Market
the work I love to do best involves interactivity, community action, and … political topics…. A huge part of my success has been in coming to this realization early, because I think artists can get very mired in success models that are really not applicable to a particular life.
I refuse to be depressed about what happens in the art market, and I am always willing to act, to take risks against the status quo, and to create the kind of work that I want to do.
Opposition to the Market
[the 1% is] the way the art market works: a hierarchical structure in which only a limited number of artists achieve any lasting recognition, usually with their work acquiring tremendous value, while other less recognized art workers exist at the margins. … [There is] inadequate support available to most contemporary practitioners, including not just monetary compensation, but all the factors that contribute to the legitimization of an artist.
my practice … has remained oppositional to the gallery system. And rather than hide behind the false idealism, I am forced to find alternative ways to make my living and support my studio and art practice. I have decided to engage myself in … projects which engage new audiences outside of the art world—and which can be sponsored and commissioned by alternative art economies and shown by museums, festivals, foundations….
Working with Galleries
Sometimes that it’s what’s in [galleries'] best interest that is their top priority. To them it’s not personal, it’s business. But for an artist, everything about their work is usually personal….
I don’t have time for the drama of dealing with galleries that don’t pay their artists.
The one deal-breaker for me is non-payment without negotiation.
I have taken a sabbatical from showing with commercial galleries….
that is a very dangerous myth…: that somehow a gallery is an artist’s parent…. I think an artist should want to be an equal player in their career…. There should not be this infantilization of the artist.
Seeking Out Alternative Institutions
It has been a conscious decision to keep my work unimpeded by seeking non-profit project spaces, institutions and museums that would fund my … projects and research.
—Blane de St. Croix
I’ve been working independently for some years now. …I don’t have a main gallery representing me…. I often work directly with clients and institutions.
It does not make sense to get invited to show in an institution where everybody enjoys professional working conditions but the artist. …an artist fee is obligatory….
Maintaining the Integrity of Your Process
The important problem … was to establish and sustain a routine in which study and learning could be braided into the activity of making artworks….
Efficiency in my practice means that I engage in willful awareness that my work is not simply a product of consciously directed, linear intellectual work….
Keeping a healthy balance between my art practice, the market, and demands of a career by buffering myself financially has been beneficial…. The pace and progress of the work are determined internally, rooted in process…
—Annette Lawrence (who holds a university teaching job)
…I heard Chuck Close on Charlie Rose saying, “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work.” …I always have to remind myself, while … searching … resolution to one problem or another, that showing up and doing the work will get me there. And so it always has.
I’ve always admired those artists whose careers went through … creative transformations challenging what they know about themselves.
Serendipity is underrated.
So much of my growth is strictly about visibility, so I am continually looking for opportunities to keep my work out in the world, whether it is through my website or exhibitions.
Artists frequently feel forgotten … so it helps to curate a show with yourself in it or have people come to your studio.
Cultivate Community: Contributing and Crit Groups
Real artists buy other artists’ work. … From working in the arts, to running a gallery space, to curating shows…, and [reading] art criticism, I have become part of a community where I help people and in turn be helped.—Austin Thomas
…the last aspect of my life that … has been crucial … my community of artist and arti-involved friends. [Our] crit group … forced each of us to keep making our work when no one else cared whether we did or not.
…I’ve been in several artist groups where we … give each other unstinting critiques, with a real commitment to honesty …. I’ve learned from teaching that we almost have to pay to get truly honest critiques.
I enjoy [professional commitments such as lecturing, being a selection committee panelest, etc.] very much. …they also reinforce my interest in serving as an active citizen in the arts community…. Undoubtedly one of the most sustaining activities of my life as an artist.
Collaboration is grueling and incredible. I highly recommend it for getting out of our own headspace, which we can all start to privilege a lot more than it warrants.
Engagement: Shaping the World/Art World We Want to See
[My project’s] call is meant to challenge artists to think about what it means to be active citizens, and how their critical and creative tools might work to create humane alternatives to all those bestial acts that keep the 1% alive at the expense of the rest.
[I started my artist-run space to investigate] What direction of contemporary art production do we want to see flourish?
I like to work but don’t always like to start, so I make it as easy to begin as possible.
Everyday I create a problem for myself to solve, a battle that within my four walls is the only battle in the world.
Since my work is labor- and time-intensive, I set doable goals that insure progress from day to day. … Typically an extended body of work will take two to three years to complete.
Fear is a tool—it is more frightening to think of not evolving within my practice than not selling the work.
I like the challenge of making art and my primary motivation is curiosity. I really do want to know what something will be like if I make it. The most satisfying aspect of being an artist, for me, is to spend most of my time working out ideas.
in the end it is the everyday-ness of the studio practice that yields work that has significance and a life that has meaning.
I have come to realize the sacrifices I have to make on a daily basis… things… a social life… people… [but as] my painting professor, Stanley Whitney, said, “Even if you had every day for the rest of your life to paint, it still wouldn’t be enough.” And that wakes me up each day.
Respect, flexibility, and honesty
Respect is also a key part of my business. … In a profession ruled by deadlines, shifting priorities and unforeseen challenges, the ability to work well with others and to adapt quickly to changing circumstances is essential.
the best professional relationships that I have had have been open and honest. The art world is an extremely anxious and subjective world; the last thing that you need is to be second-guessing your work or your relationship to your dealer.
a sense of humor really helps…. And by that I mean a sense of perspective. I think that artists who come into this with a very specific idea of what’s supposed to happen [in their careers] are setting themselves up for disappointment.
I believe that [artists] will always find creative ways to overcome obstacles and support ourselves… and I am proud to belong to such a dedicated, hard-working lot.
I continue to be inspired and challenged by the smart people around me, who make me always want to be a better artist.
Ultimately, the key to running my studio relatively successfully has been my ability to interweave all these realms of art; to be nimble, to recognize the strengths and talents of the people working with and for me, and never associate myself with those who say that something cannot be done.
Every day, I feel so fortunate to be able to go into my studio and make art.
Despite … leaving New York…, I make more art and am happier than I’ve ever been. … I’m creatively stimulated almost all the time, which is an amazing place to be.
I am living exactly the life I wanted to live…. I feel very lucky to be part of this community….
[Working seven days a week] is not a sacrifice. I enjoy my artist life and need and want to be in the studio. It is a reward not a task.
—Blane de St. Croix
being in your studio should be its own reward. And if it’s not, then you might want to reconsider what your goals are. If it is, you’re going to be happy no matter what happens to you.
*Cynics may wonder what practical advice the Yale-MFA-owning, NYC-based author can offer. But I found the NYC-based essays counterweighted with non-NYC contributions that frankly covered the advantages and non-impacts of their locations. MFAs were a non-issue; practical concerns like making ends meet, were dedicated more attention.