We all define success differently but I think there is one common element that tells us that we have achieved something, and at the same time can easily becomes a burden that starts to interfere with our art. To define it in one word, it is “recognition”. How do we get there, how do we stay there, and how do we manage the demands that it brings?
First, there’s no getting around the fact that hard work, the strong desire to learn and grow, and the discipline to stick with it, is where it starts. We study and struggle to constantly improve our work because lasting success will only come through producing the very best work that we can and never accepting our last work as our best.
But that is rarely quite enough. When the work is good enough to demand attention, we still have to find ways to have it seen by galleries, collectors, show organizers and all of those who will provide the “recognition” that we seek.
To be sure, there are “overnight successes” but for most of us it requires that we strive for visibility among the clutter. It means that we enter major shows and competitions, attend openings and shows to meet our peers, collectors, and gallery owners, advertise as much as we can afford, seek out higher quality representation, and hopefully we slowly become a presence (at some level) in the art world.
If it all works, at some point in our professional progression there is a subtle change. We gradually stop ASKING to be accepted and start BEING ASKED to participate. Whether it is in the form of invitations to be represented by galleries, or invitations to be a guest artist somewhere, or requests for donations to benefit shows and auctions, gradually the emphasis shifts. In short, it is the recognition that we all seek but it places demands on us that we may be hard pressed to meet.
Let’s take a look at some of these steps and talk a little about what each of them requires but first remember the fundamentals that brought you to your current level and will propel you to the next:
Present only your best work.
We know when a painting is less than we are capable of. If you look at your painting and say “it’s good enough”, chances are that it’s not. Don’t let it out of your studio until you are really satisfied with it. This becomes especially difficult when you are faced with a deadline or when the painting is going into a lesser venue of some sort. Having more demand than supply is a nice place for an artist to be but it can become a trap. If you don’t have time to present your best effort, you are over-committed. You are better off forgoing an opportunity than wasting it with work that might damage your reputation.
Always be professional.
Galleries and show organizers are constantly frustrated by artists who fail to make deadlines or who in a hundred little ways make their job more difficult. Doing your part extends beyond providing the artwork. Fill out entry or consignment forms completely and on time. Provide publicity images or information when asked. Drop off or ship paintings on time. Provide quality framing that will allow them to present your work in the best light.
All of this takes time away from the easel but if you are easy to do business with, you will be remembered and invited back.
Spend your time wisely.
Seek out the major shows and competitions and enter whenever you can. The magazines cover many of the major events and help spread the reputation of the winners at no cost to you. Just being juried into many of these shows provides you with great resume material and the galleries and many collectors do read your resume. While the big national and regional shows are generally quite eclectic, many shows and competitions tend to have a bias to certain styles and subjects. The internet makes it easy to see past winners and help you decide where to best spend your efforts and entry fees.
OK, your work is outstanding and you are easy to work with, you have achieved some level of recognition from your peers, from collectors, and from galleries. Now you can relax and paint! This is when you gradually find that as your reputation spreads as a result of all of your hard work, everyone wants you to work harder.
Your galleries want more work and always want you in all of their open and invitational shows, you receive solicitations from other galleries either to represent you or to invite you to participate in shows, you are solicited for a wide variety of benefit shows or auctions and you are asked to demo and teach. You know that, as in all the arts, the public is fickle and if you are going to remain successful you need to remain visible but you can’t possibly meet all of the demands for your work. What do you do?
First, you have to start to prioritize. While the attention is flattering, you need to decide what opportunities are good for your career and not just good for the one soliciting you. Watch for the shows and competitions that will provide you with the maximum exposure and devote your efforts to them. When you produce a painting that you think is outstanding or in which you have achieved something new, put it aside and wait for the right place to enter or exhibit it. Learn to get the most return for your efforts.
You may need to refuse a lot of “opportunities” but for me, I really try to answer any emails or phone calls I receive. This goes along with what I said earlier about professionalism. It only takes a minute to provide a polite refusal to an email request but it sets you apart from all of those who simply delete the email. At any given level, the art world is a much smaller community than you imagine and building a reputation as polite and professional even when turning something down is worth the effort.
Yet another growing demand is less on your time than on your finances. Even as your reputation expands, you need to regularly remind the art world that you are still there. In the very upper reaches of the market where there are always collectors waiting to snatch up your next painting this may not apply but for most of us struggling to reach that level, advertising is important. The results of advertising are often subtle and hard to gauge but my experience tells me that there are real benefits. I have had galleries tell me that collectors have bought one of my paintings over the phone based only on seeing it in an ad. More recently, my phone number was published in a magazine feature with photos of several of my paintings and I received multiple, direct inquiries about my work and invitations to participate in several shows. Advertising is not cheap but do whatever you can. Often there are special advertising sections associated with the major national and regional shows which offer discounted rates. Ask your galleries to share costs with you. They are going to spend on advertising anyway, why not with you?
Don’t neglect your growth. With growing demands on your production and time, it’s tempting to hide in your studio. If your work is going to keep improving you need to be exposed to the thoughts, ideas, techniques, and critiques of your fellow artists. Seek out opportunities to study with or just paint and spend time with artists you admire. There is always more to learn. You should be supporting your galleries anyway by attending openings and meeting their clients and it is a great way to meet your fellow artists and to develop both personal and professional relationships.
One more thing about being asked to donate work for various charities. We as artists are so fortunate to be able to create something of value that can actually raise money for something worthwhile. It’s so great to be able to give back in this way, but once again we really have to be realistic about what we can do .I think the worst thing is to give “any old painting” that you might think is “not what I do anymore, not so good, etc”, because once again, —it’s out there with your name and reflects on you. So better to gracefully decline if you can’t give something really beautiful.
In summary, the key is to learn to invest your time wisely. With hard work and a little luck, the demands on you will grow proportionately with your success and you need to identify the things that will further your career. Be aware that many “opportunities” are really opportunities for others to benefit by selling your work or by having you associated with their particular endeavor. Some will be good for you and some will be causes you want to support but remember that what we all really have to sell is our time and keep it’s value in mind as you make those decisions.