Art & Development

the unreasonable optimist

“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

–Conan O’Brien (by way of M)

Sergio De La Torre
Sergio De La Torre, “(Don Bergfors) Waiting for Gabriel Orozco, San Diego Airport,” from the series “10 Artists, 10 Drivers, 10 Cities,” 2005-07, work in progress, C-Print photograph, 2005-07 (Image source: Emergency Biennial)

Is having a life in the arts like marriage? Psychologist John Gottman has found that a key indicator of successful marriages is not how well you and your partner get along, but how well you make up after a fight. Maybe a more telling indicator for a successful life in the arts is how well you stay engaged when opportunities are lean and rejections rife. Clearly talent and capacity are necessary, but so are resilience and the ability to recover efficiently from disappointments.

I’ve been doing my part in “collecting no’s” — sending out lots of applications to competitions and residencies, and getting an equal amount of rejections. This week, I received the equivalent of a light petting followed by a heavy slap. It was a rejection/commendation combination: I was informed that my application to a residency program was among the top 50 out of 570 applications. That means my application was among the top 8%. Unfortunately, the committee could award only 4 residencies, which comprises less than 1% of all applications. Put another way, only 1 out of 142 applicants were successful.

Those are harsh odds. And yet I have to recover, stay optimistic, and keep trying. I don’t believe that I’m entitled to anything because I’m an artist and artists are special. I don’t believe that art patrons are obligated to make my life easier. I think crybaby artists — who elevate the value of their work over others’ — play into horrible myths that further alienate the public from enjoying and participating in art.

Still, I’d love to see more deserving art recognized. This means there need to be more art opportunities for more artists, rather than the current state of hyper-stratification, which is sort of like the concentration of wealth in this country: there’s the top 6% of biennial-circuit Hirsts, Cattelans, Tirivanijas and the other 94% of us. Like Sergio De La Torre’s brilliant series of performance photographs, “10 Artists, 10 Drivers, 10 Cities” (2005-07, work in progress), there’s a futility and misdirection in waiting for art stars (who never arrive). Life, and art, go on without them.

I don’t want to be rich and famous. I want to be respected, and for the quality of my work to be acknowledged. I want to be just, and to love and be loved. I want to have a lifelong practice. I’ll admit, a detached studio in a French chateau would be sweet, but ultimately I’d be happy with being happy: having a satisfying art practice, the esteem of my work and ideas by rigorous colleagues and institutions equipped to share and archive them, and the time and flexibility to enjoy my family and environs.


What kind of art world would you want to participate in?

It can be easy to feel dis-empowered as an artist. You make your work and hope someone notices. You wait for a powerful gallery, curator or critic to make you a blue-chip artist so you can do biennials nonstop and live happily ever after.

But I don’t think it’s like that. Creative Capital‘s professional development workshop taught me that it’s better to focus my energy on my own agency: on the aspects of my art and life and career that I have power over. I learned that it’s possible and necessary for me to envision and shape an art world that I would like to participate in.

When I became a full-time freelancer, I gained a profound respect for professional practices. Two books were tremendously useful for shaping my principles: Marketing Without Advertising and the Graphic Arts Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook.

Professional practices are about people

Marketing Without Advertising, by Michael Phillips and Salli Rasberry (NOLO Press, Berkeley) is a handbook for small business owners and the self-employed to develop good reputations and encourage customers to recommend their businesses.

I appreciate its anti-advertising spirit, common sense advice and values-based principles:
transparency (Chapter 6: Openness: The Basis of Trust), and
respect in the workplace (Chapter 5: The Treatment of People Around You).

This is obvious, but it bears repeating:

The way you treat employees, suppliers and friends is an important element in gaining and keeping the trust of your customers…. One of the easiest ways for anyone to learn about your business is by talking to your employees. Because your employees’ lives are so intertwined with yours, and because affect them so directly, your treatment of them will almost automatically be communicated to their friends and family, even if inadvertently.

–Phillips & Rasberry, Marketing Without Advertising

The authors also identify common employee complaints, and how an open management style is better than developing important business policies in secrecy, resulting in the perception of arbitrariness of management and low morale.

Sometimes artists are given advice like, “You should be nice because you never know: the gallery intern you treated poorly a few years back might start their own gallery.” I agree with the principle — treat people decently — but not with the rationale — unabashed self-interest. What a travesty when people in the art world need to be reminded to treat people decently.

Agency through knowledge

The Graphic Arts Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook is a must-read for aspiring freelance illustrators or graphic designers. It provides an overview of current market rates, copyright issues, and how to create professional client relationships and fair working conditions. It also includes a useful series of contracts for services and licensing. Its basic principle is this: even though freelancers necessarily compete, it’s better for everyone — clients, freelancers and the industry as a whole — when freelancers operate professionally and have the agency to be treated fairly and create the conditions where our work is respected.

I wish there were a similar book for fine artists. [CARFAC is a great start.]

There are several books on professional practices for artists, but we rarely feel as though we are in positions to hold the institutions that we work with accountable. Few artists have the nerve to press the issue if a gallery refuses to use a contract, much less the leverage to collect debts punctually.

It’s been said that trying to organize an art show is like herding cats. The takeaway is that artists are too independent and flaky to organize. But you could say the same thing about freelancers, whose ranges of professional experiences and industries are equally disparate. The GAG doesn’t assume it will standardize the industry, nevertheless the Handbook provides landmarks for individuals navigating shifting seas and a bit of leverage in client negotiations.

A similar ethical guidelines handbook for artists would help individuals see the bigger picture. We’d feel more invested in the collective good of artists. We wouldn’t let our fear of being seen as temperamental stop us from advocating for being treated with respect and professionalism. We’d see ourselves as partners with agency, rather than lucky souls at the mercy of powerful institutions. We’d see developing these professional relationships not as acts of provocation, but as steps for setting up the conditions for shared successes.


There are, of course, options for collective bargaining. The art workers at the SFMOMA are represented by the Office & Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 3. Unfortunately, some arts institutions are more challenging to unionize than others. A lot of preparators are on-call temporary workers who haven’t got the benefits of salaried employment nor the pull of freelance wages to afford much leverage in when and where to work. (One alternative for itinerant preparators is to join the Freelancers Union, though the nascent organization focuses on insurance provision, and is largely based in New York.)