‘You’re so lucky to be an artist, free to do just what you want.’ It’s a common enough remark, one most artists probably encounter as did I this week. Thinking about it, I quite like how this one sentence is both a manifesto for artistic success and a misunderstanding of how hard that success is to achieve.
Doing just what you want is, by and large, exactly what an artist needs to do to succeed, but let’s not confuse that with an easy ride. The ‘doing just what you want’ in question is not the soft focus dream of late mornings sipping coffee barefoot in a pretty studio. It’s the hard graft of developing a personal viewpoint and using experience, practice, talent and time to turn that vision into a consistent flow of well-considered work.
In this week’s Ask an Artist podcast you’ll hear gallery owner Nick Bentley return to discuss artist/gallery relationships and what galleries look for in their artists. Turns out that education, background and age are cheeringly unimportant. It is the body of work that matters, and that work must show passion, consistency and individuality. It is only by the artist doing just what they want and going their own way that this kind of work is made. But this is the freedom of hard work and focus, not the freedom of a fantasy bohemian lifestyle.
I don’t say this to put anyone off wanting to be an artist. It is a brilliant job and sometimes it does indeed involve sipping coffee in a pretty studio (though bare feet are never a good idea in real studios). But it’s not a job for the fainthearted. Doing just what you want is a great freedom, but holding your nerve and using that freedom to pay the bills – that’s not an easy life.
I have a gamekeeper turned poacher feeling about galleries. I had a similar sort of job working in a picture library in the nineties and the overlap has stood me in good stead when it comes to understanding and working with galleries as an artist.
I used to manage a collection of child development photographs, the work of about ten or so professional photographers. There’s much I could tell you about alternative methods of childbirth and developmental milestones. Instead I’ll tell you that looking after those photographers and managing their work was more than enough labour to entitle our business to the 50% we took from any sales. Hopefully no artist would arrive at a gallery with a big smile and several carrier bags packed with uncut and rapidly unspooling ribbons of film as my photographers often did, but still the workload for any serious gallery is huge and the responsibilities equally demanding. And that’s just the behind the scenes work, not the selling.
My time managing the baby photos taught me not to be sentimental. I needed to send out photos that would sell, not photos I liked. Among the hundreds of babies, it was easy to spot that my son Jim was the winner; clearly the most intelligent and beautiful child on file. That didn’t mean he’d sell for every job.
When I sent my photo selections to clients they were based on sales, not mother-love, and he often didn’t make the cut. Remembering this when a gallery turns me down or returns work unsold helps to remind me that rejection isn’t personal, just a practical decision based on sales and not to take it too much to heart.
We loved our photographers, crazy and demanding creatives that they were. We welcomed their visits, drank tea, shared lunches and took time to truly understand their work and methods. I don’t expect every gallery to supply lunch and tea, but I’ve no time for any who have no time for me. A good gallery never makes an artist feel it’s a favour to take their work and, if they don’t mind, could they use the back entrance and be quick about leaving. Without the artists, there is no gallery and without taking time to understand the artist’s work, selling must be close on impossible. It’s not often I walk away, but I did the day a gallery owner greeted me with ‘love your work darling, now remind me which ones of these are yours?’
On this week’s Ask An Artist podcast we talk all things gallery, don’t forget to subscribe!
So many things in the business of being an artist are left unsaid, rules hidden and guidance lacking. Somehow we all have to find our way through the minefields of pricing, exhibiting, finding a niche, marketing and so on. Most of us blunder through somehow, learning as we go and frankly it’s often the ability to fall repeatedly and still get up and soldier on that makes for a successful artist/maker.
There are times when I think that business has it right with the idea of qualifications, work place training, mentoring schemes and networking meetings: at least you know where you are in the world of the accountant (This view doesn’t tend to make me many friends among my peers, but I do think there are times when you just have to embrace your inner pinstripes). To this end I think we should clutch at every chance we get to take advice and to hear what some of those unspoken rules are.
Last night I attended a meeting at Oxford hosted by the Oxfordshire Crafts Guild to listen to Sarah Wiseman give a talk on how to submit work to a gallery. She owns the excellent and widely respected Sarah Wiseman Gallery in Oxford and she gave advice so helpful and clear that I asked if I could make a few notes for fellow artists.
You’ll find her dos and don’ts on my website in the resources section along with a few bits from my experience of working as an artist. Enjoy…