A still from Art School Confidential. CLASSIC movie about artists and the art world. Please see this if you haven’t yet.
I thought it was worth taking time on here to mention a topic that might be a bit controversial, but is something that most (if not all) of us can relate to. Have you ever looked at a work of art and thought anything along the lines of,
“Damn, a 3 year old could do that.”
Or, “That’s not really art!”
Or even, “My work is way better than this!”
“How is their work worth THAT much?”
“Why is their work in a gallery?”
Well, I’ll attempt to address some of that in the best way that I can based on what I’ve learned and observed over the last few years. I’m definitely not an expert, nor am I an art history buff or anything like that, but I’m happy to enter the discussion with what I do know.
I think the first point I have to make is to keep in mind that art is subjective and comes in an infinite number of forms. Not everyone’s definition of what is good will match up. That’s ok. Personally I think the only type of “bad” art is insincere art. If an artist lacks authenticity in whatever they’re doing, then it’s not worth my time to experience. No matter the execution, or whether I like the way it looks or not, above all I’d like to know that an artist truly stands behind their work and their message. Even if the message is, “I like to take nice-looking photos,” I’d rather have that than look at work that even the artist doesn’t consciously care about.
Another thing to keep in mind is that everyone’s path is different. Some people are lucky enough to be born into close proximity of the art world so their rise won’t be the same as someone who has to start from scratch with making connections and getting their work seen. Also, some artists don’t want to go the traditional gallery route so their idea of how to achieve success will trend towards a more independent mindset. Gallery showings (traditional and non-traditional) add credibility, but it’s not necessarily the only definition of what success is for artists anymore. You can consistently show in galleries and not sell much work, while someone else may not show much in traditional venues but make a killing on Etsy. It depends on what your endgame is.
So here are a few reasons that I hope can help explain why sometimes certain artwork gets shown and praised, while art that would be viewed as “real art” by other viewers may not get as much shine:
They Know How to Network
So they say it’s “all in who you know”, right? Well, these artists most likely took the time to do that and put themselves in the right scenes. They’ve learned how to approach the right people and promote themselves. A lot of creative types struggle with engaging strangers and are more introverted in certain social situations. I’m inconsistent about that too so I know how tough it can be sometimes. Please know that you’re not alone! However, even the most awkward or shy of us all can still find a way to make sure they’re visible and make new connections. If you continue to talk yourself out of those opportunities you’re only making it easier for everyone else while you remain unseen. An easy way to start getting out there is by attending art show receptions. Add yourself to the email lists of local galleries or join online groups of art communities in your area so you can stay in the loop of when and where things are happening. At art show receptions, usually the most important people will be in attendance – the artist(s) in the show, gallery curators and/or directors, other local artists, potential buyers and art lovers. So many possibilities in one space, and usually there’s free wine and refreshments! I’ve found that if you really don’t know what to say to someone, a very easy opener is to ask someone admiring the same piece as you, “So what do you think of this piece/show?” You can’t go wrong and most of the time it leads to a productive dialogue.
Perhaps this seems like an obvious point, but you’d be surprised at how many artists could stand to clean up in this area. Aside from skill, the smaller habits that go unnoticed by most people can go a long way. This is where having a little bit of business savvy can help separate you from the pack that embodies the flakey artist stereotypes. Professional artists commit to deadlines. Professional artists have a substantial body of work, or are actively building it. Professional artists have websites or mobile portfolios on hand (I have a folder in my cellphone gallery with some pictures of my work). They invest in themselves by taking classes or workshops, purchasing quality supplies, having professional-looking business cards and hi-res photographs of their work. Professional artists prioritize their time effectively, making sacrifices as needed. This means that sometimes you may have to lose sleep or pass up on social activities. A professional artist possesses a work ethic that debunks the typical artist image. If you’re like me and work a full-time job, you already know that all of the tasks that go into the pursuit of a fine art career can feel like a part-time job. Because it is a job! When you work for yourself and are your own brand, you have to take yourself seriously or no one else will. Unless (or until!) you become one of the artists that can sell your art mostly on your name alone, having strong professional habits is definitely one way that a lot of artists get booked. Those artists make it easy for establishments to want to work with them because they have their ducks in a row.
Most artists that can book spots in shows have a really good story or vision to share with their audience. To be able to express that in a compelling way is an essential skill to have as you progress in your career. It doesn’t even have to be a unique vision, which I think is a common misconception. It’s not always about dreaming up some grand, new idea. A lot of times it’s more about what YOU have to say and how you present it. It’s also valid, and provocative, to allow viewers to form their own interpretation of a piece of art or body of work. Whether you choose to be more upfront about your message or leave it up to the viewer, people need to attach some kind of meaning to the art. Some artists are really good at telling an interesting story. At times, that can be the only difference between one artist getting put on versus another. Having a well-developed and concise artist statement, an “elevator speech” for those impromptu inquiries in random conversations, even a short caption when you post your work on social media or your website offer a little bit of a peek into who you are as an artist. These things are just more ways of hooking people in beyond what they see, whether your goal is to achieve more engagement or sell more work.
Maybe it should go without saying, but yes, sometimes it comes down to the dollar dollar bills y’all. Most of the traditional venues that display art (i.e. galleries) take a portion of your sales and that percentage can vary from place to place. The criteria by which they judge artwork varies as well. Sometimes it depends on the trends in the market. Sometimes it’s about fitting the type of artwork that falls in line with the gallery’s mission. There are a myriad of factors that are considered. But you best believe that they wouldn’t accept artwork unless they were confident that they would be able to make money from it! Maybe that sounds a bit soulless, but it’s part of the business. If none of us wanted to profit off of what we were doing, then we would never charge for our art or creative services. It’s true that nowadays one doesn’t have to wait to get into a gallery to get their work seen, but booking gallery slots and selling work adds a lot of credibility and that may never change in the art world.
These were just a few reasons that I was able to come up with through lots of reading and from my own experiences. I’m very curious to hear what you think about all of it. If you’ve shown work before, what factors do you think helped you the most? Do you still find yourself frustrated by some of the artwork you see displayed in galleries and other venues?