How to Navigate the Art World and Crack the Code of a Successful Contemporary Artist
Whether just starting out, starting over, or trying to get ahead, navigating the art world can seem like an intimidating endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be one. Being an active member in the art world involves a fair degree of public relations savvy, reputation building, and brand management which center on some fundamental principles. Use the following 7 keys to help move you along on your creative journey.
The key step in navigating the art world is to show consistency. Progressing professionally as an artist is similar to advancing in any line of work. Showing consistency in your art practice demonstrates a seriousness in your artistic investigations. In other words, it’s a signal to others, i.e. funders, institutions, and galleries, that you can be relied upon as a work partner.
Imagine a CV that shows a work history where the workplace and branch of work changed every couple of months or every year. The longer that trend continues, the more that lack of consistency becomes a red flag for future employers.
Consistency in the art world comes in three forms: style, medium, and theme. Style refers to the aesthetic choices which are made in during the implementation phase of creative production. Style often affects the tone or ‘feeling’ of an artwork. For example, a bold style may use high contrast, while works which meant to show serentity can employ neutral tones and less contrast.
Medium refers to the tool of art production. Oil paint, acrylic paint, digital photography, performance, collage, etc., are all examples of various mediums of art.
Lastly, themes express the ideas and concepts that you explore through your art production. Themes can be personal, impersonal, political, or societal.
At some points, an artist, in an attempt to stimulate his or her creative process, may set one of these three areas of consistency in flux. Some artists take the approach of exploring a theme in multiple mediums. For instance, the theme of ‘love’ can be expressed in photography as well as in video or painting. However, when the theme, medium, or style begins to vary, try to ensure that the other two categories stay consistent.
At the beginning of your art career, in your search for your identity as an artist, you may try out and explore different mediums, styles, and themes but, with time and experience, you will find ways of producing work that stimulate your particular aesthetic tastes and flow out from you more freely. But the sooner you can identify art productions that are meaningful to you and reflect your values as an artist, the more you can build a convincing body of work and reputation that reflect these values.
Be persistent, but not desperate.
One of the growing pains in the life of all artists is confronting rejection. Working in the arts requires submitting highly competitive applications for grants, research, representation, etc.
But, try not to be discouraged if proposals don’t work out, instead take the chance to reexamine how they can be improved for the next project or proposal. If you do receive a rejection for a proposal, it’s legitimate to ask why it wasn’t excepted and try to grow from there.
Try not to keep all your eggs in one basket. Don’t feel shy to reach out to your established contacts and ask for the support you need. You can ask for feedback or inquire about possible cooperation on future projects.
But even without a long list of helpful contacts in the art world, uninvited solicitation through cold calls, emails, and sending of portfolio material in person or by snail mail, will usually get you put aside without review. If you are hoping to get the attention of a particular gallery, try to attend their shows and events, become a participant, and let a relationship develop organically.
Rather than lurching in someone’s orbit hoping to squeeze yourself in the door, see what it is that you can bring to that person or organization. Approach all interactions as mutually beneficial collaborations.
It’s hard not to underestimate what it means to be genuine when navigating the art world. On one hand, being genuine means simply being honest. Don’t lie on your cv. Don’t lie about your references. Don’t lie about your motivations. And, don’t lie about your inspirations.
On the other hand, being genuine also means finding your unique creative voice. It’s OK to be inspired by other artists and artworks, but try to look at works you are inspired by and ask yourself what you would do differently?
Many people mistake creativity and originality for being one in the same thing. Some may say that there is no such thing as an original idea.
In the words of Nas, ‘It’s not what you do, it’s how it’s done.’ Creativity is taking something that exists and bringing something new to the table. That thing that you are bringing, is your particular take and relationship to the subject. The more a subject can be explored from multiple viewpoints, the better we as a collective audience, can understand it.
I know many introverted artists who are naturally driven by an urge to create but are terrified of putting themselves ‘out there’ open to critique and possible rejection. Such artists dream of being discovered and having a gallery or a benefactor that can represent them and speak on their behalf and confuse being an introvert with being eccentric.
In many of these cases, an artist’s seclusion will lead to their exclusion. There are simply too many creative people out there, and no one will come looking for you or come knocking at your door. However, just as there are countless masses of artists, there are also masses who share an affinity for the kind of artwork you do, and sharing your work and your process can be helpful for both yourself and your following.
In addition to promoting your own work, try to use social media to meet and interact with like-minded creatives. Let your online activity flow in both directions, by showing and receiving support.
Like it or not social media is a big part of a professional art career. Self-marketing through websites and social media are no longer an option but a given. In addition, regular online video meetings, are moving into our day-to-day routine, and online networking can be your biggest professional asset.
Keep in touch with people who show you support, keep collectors, colleagues, and collaborators updated on what you are working on, and keep yourself accessible for future contacts.
Contrary to popular displays of narcissim in the art world, your art is really not about you. Success when navigating the art world depends on your audience’s ability to relate to your work and vision. The game is all about creating a space for interaction.
Artwork is a mode of expression, and communication consists of the message, the messenger, and the intended recipient, and all three of these components are equally important.
Being able to express oneself creatively is a gift, with this gift comes an obligation to speak on behalf of a group, represent others like yourself, or participate in a greater social dialogue.
Speaking first hand, I know it’s crucial to examine where your creative urge is stemming from. Does your work feed your ego, or does your ego feed your work? Let’s be honest, it’s really hard to take ego out of the equation, art comes through the filter of your persona.
But In my experience, it is always good practice to keep your inner narcissist in check and ask yourself: am I using art to feel better about myself or am i using myself and personal experience for the greater good? This greater good can be simply to use art to connect with others. Likewise, your artistic practice can also be directly used help raise awareness to a cause, to understand a problem more deeply, or to convey hope in the face of adversity.
Overcrowding your work or your presentation can lead to your message getting lost. Let your presentation be sleek and professional. Whether on your website or promotional material, sometimes less is more.
Think about a gallery space and consider how much white wall is needed to sufficiently frame a piece of work. The more white space around a piece of art, the more attention it commands.
While the use of this kind of design seems contrived and conformist, not using a minimal layout can indirectly signal to a viewer of your website, and by proxy your artwork, is unrefined or not in line with expectations of the art world.
Many website designs use minimal templates to display an artist’s portfolio. To see some good examples of contemporary artists’ websites click here.
The ‘Artworld’ is seeking participants who speak the same language. Keeping your promotional material minimal and being as direct as possible on written bios and artists’ statements, help identify you as a potential collaborative partner.
While you are encouraged to be open about your intentions and influences, try to let the outcome of your artistic process speak for itself. Allowing room for each person to relate to your work individually will allow the work, in general, to be better received.
At the beginning of your professional art career, you may be inclined to accept any and all invitations for exhibitions and work that come your way. After all, building your career involves building experience and your circle of contacts. However, soon after declaring yourself as an artist, you may quickly recognize the need to say no to certain projects and find a niche to allow yourself and your work to stand out.
This process of branding includes having a concept of how you want to live, work, and sell as an artist. To determine this professional concept in the art world you may need to ask yourself a series of questions and make selective decisions that support your concept.
Are you over or under-reaching? Are you more interested in exposure or selling? In group exhibitions consider if your work matches the professional aims of the other participants. Is it a show for new, emerging artists, or established artists? Are you interested in selling locally or internationally? Is your work priced correctly? Does your participation reflect where you see yourself currently in your career?
Also necessary is defining your personal values. How do your projects reflect your artistic aims? Does the gallery or the institutions you work with reflect your core values? Who funds the gallery or organizations you work with, and how does their mission statement align with your own?
Being selective may help you find a niche that can provide specific opportunities with less competition as with general open calls or government-funded cultural projects. More importantly, your artist CV will begin to reflect your artistic career similarly to how your actual portfolio does.
Conclusion: Navigating the Art World with Ease
Knowing how to manage your public relations as an artist is essential when pursuing any artistic field. Unwritten in the book of operating in various art scenes are codes on how to publically interact and make yourself professionally available.
The biggest takeaway is to recognize that making art is about creating connections, mentally and socially. Following this guide to navigating the art world will be sure to help put your right foot forward on the path.