When I started this project I knew exactly the type of artist I wanted to interview. While there are many ways to be a practicing artist and many ways to make a living as an artist, there is a particular slice of the artist’s life I want to look at. Before I go any further, let me first present my criteria with my reasoning for each:
Visual artists who have been (mostly) self-supporting for at least 10 years.
I want to talk to the artists who make a living selling their art and have done so for at least 10 year(ish).10 years is generally considered a time when you enter mid-career. It demonstrates a solid commitment to one’s career. After 10 years people are generally able to look back on their careers with some objectivity and can spot and discuss their successes and failures. People have also weathered many highs and lows at this point. I use the term “mostly” because I don’t want to disqualify someone because they had to take a job for 6 months during the great recession - or some other reason along those lines.
I know there are many great artists out there who don’t make a living with their work - even if they try. But a big piece of what I want to discuss with artists is what it takes to make a living selling your work in the early 21st century. Sacrifices. Experiences. Successes and failures. What are some of the unique challenges of running a business that hinges on a person’s ability to maintain creativity?
Visual artists who do not rely fully on an agent or representation
I don’t want to disqualify someone because a rep might help them get into a few galleries. Or an agent helps them sell a few pieces occasionally. But I want to talk to artists who are mostly responsible for the selling, marketing, communication, and promotion of their work. These are huge tasks for independent artists and often the most challenging. I’m interested in interviewing artists about all of the things that go along with promoting their work.
Are not faculty at a college or university
Having worked at an art school for 6 years and in higher education for 11 years I know that being a part of a college or university places you in a particular network. Opportunities for showing and making work expand greatly. Collaboration. Promotion. Publishing opportunities. There’s more of all of this. I want to talk to people who are outside of academia and have had to make their way outside of that network.
In my interview with Christa Assad I feel like she addressed not only the difference between being inside versus outside of academia, but also the attitude that I think pervades academia across probably all disciplines:
...I remember thinking ‘oh that’s so funny that they’re not in academia, poor things.’ And now I realize that I’m not in academia and I don’t really miss it one bit. But I did used to have a bit of a haughty attitude about education, I’ll just say. And I thought you’d be a fool not to be in that system because there’s so much support and culture and things going on. And it’s an interesting system but there’s just not as much time to be yourself and make your work and go to yoga and garden and I don’t know… it’s kinda fun to be outside of all of that pressure.
While many of my interviews will be with artists from LA and the Bay Area, I am particularly interested in interviewing artist who live in rural areas.
This is not a criteria, but I do have a particular interest in interviewing people who live and work in rural areas. Cities provide all kinds of opportunities that small town sometimes cannot. Cities can often provide instant networks for artists. Rural area I imagine being a bit more of a challenge.
Having clear criteria helps me create a project that has meaning and integrity; the researcher/listener who will hopefully one day use these interviews will have a clear understanding of who was interviewed and why. Additionally, if you read about the background on my project you will find stories of me working for artists and my experiences witnessing the development of my sister’s career as a working artist. It is because of these experiences that I know the independent, self-supporting working artist so well. Because I know that type of artist, I know what to ask.
I have gotten into some especially interesting conversations regarding my criteria with art school faculty. I expected to have more pushback about not wanting to talk to faculty. But that wasn’t it, that’s not what gets people going - instead it’s my criteria for artists being self-supporting. I had one art school faculty member (from an unnamed east coast art school) ask doubtfully, “that kinds of artist exists?” I was dumbfounded by the question. I’m not all that surprised when people outside of the art world question the ability of artists to make a living, but a faculty member, from an art school, is questioning whether or not artists exist who can support themselves with their art?
It makes me wonder why kind of message art school kids are getting from their faculty?
I expect that it’s something like this: That it’s hard. So hard that it’s not possible for most. That you must suffer and work a crappy job (or some kind of day job) to fund your artistic pursuits. And more importantly, you’re a sell-out if you’ve figured out a way to to find some financial success.
In my interview with Sara Paloma, who went to school for art, she commented on her experiences early on about feeling this way about selling her work to make a living:
Up until [seeing other artists sell their work] I used being an artist as an excuse to not make money, like it was just this expectation...the ‘starving artist,’ I am an artist so therefore...of course I don’t sell my work.
I’m not saying it’s an easy life and that successful artists don’t bust their asses. In fact my sister has a saying, “a starving artist is a lazy artist.” But maybe we can change the message a bit being an to something like this: There are a lot of ways to make a living as an artist and it is possible for you to find the way that will fit best for you. And we are going to help you figure that out. Maybe then the self-supporting artist wouldn’t be such an anomaly.
I was encouraged by a conversation I had with Tom Lawson, Dean of the School of Art at CalArts. As I shared my criteria for artists with him, he nodded his head in agreement. When I shared my belief that an artist has to treat the selling and marketing of their work as a business to be successful Tom added that they have to do that to simply survive. The conversation gave me some hope.
There is likely fodder her for a whole other post on this topic and I’m feeling a tangent coming on, so I’ll just leave it here. I hope people see this project as a celebration of artists and a way to honor the hard work they do to make beautiful things for us to enjoy. More importantly, maybe it will challenge notion of the "starving artist" and maybe the further I get into this project the less I'll hear: That type of artist actually exists??!!