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Every family has a story.
They called her "Grandma Ach" because of her habit of beginning each sentence with a guttural sound of disapproval. “Ach! What is this?”
But her name was Mary Anne.
She was the daughter of German immigrants. Farmers. But Mary Anne was an artist.
Bright, beautiful, and serious, the photos of my great-grandmother remind me of a young Georgia O’Keeffe.
And like Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Anne was devoted to painting. This is what she wanted to do with her life.
But times were very different for women then.
One day a man from a neighboring farm named Adam came to call. He was looking for a wife. His own wife, his beloved Elizabeth, had passed away and Adam needed a woman to raise his three kids and run the farm.
The daughters were called out and Mary Anne, being the most beautiful, was chosen.
She fought back. She didn’t want to get married. She didn’t want to raise children. She was an artist, it was her very soul.
But times were very different for women then.
Mary Anne would live in Elizabeth’s house, next door to Elizabeth’s parents. She raised Elizabeth’s children and each night she lay with a man who continued to mourn Elizabeth.
Over the years, she would give Adam 10 more children. Including my Grandfather.
I don’t know if there was a time that she ever liked kids. My Mom remembers Grandma Ach as hard and disinterested. I remember her too, with her long dark hair and piercing eyes. She fascinated me.
It wasn’t until she was already an old woman that she finally got all of the children out of the house and on their own paths. And the moment the last one left, Mary Anne marched to the store to buy herself canvas and paint.
She was an artist.
But then life played its cruelest joke of all. It took away her sight.
Mary Anne went blind.
Grandma Ach would live a long life, but not a happy one. Because she was never allowed to do the work she felt most called to do.
I look at the choices we have the privilege of making today; about how to spend our time, how to live our lives, what is worth fighting for and who we want to be. We forget how lucky we really are to have such freedom.
So when an artist now whines to me that he wants to make art but just can’t get into the studio, making one excuse or another, or she’s thinking of quitting the art business because it’s just too hard, I tell them “That’s your choice.”
History is full of too many stories like Mary Anne’s, of artists who literally had no opportunity to do what their soul demanded.
“Can’t they see?” I ask myself, as I think of my great-grandmother’s fruitless struggle to be her true self, “Who is really blind?”
Have you ever done something that scared the pants off you?
When I was new to writing, but determined to succeed, a prospective client asked, “Can you write copy for business websites?”
I really, really needed the job and was in no position to say that I’d never done it before. There was no way I could admit that I was a former art dealer who was just starting out as a writer, that I knew absolutely nothing about the traditional business world. Nothing at all!
But though I had no experience, I’m a firm proponent of the “fake it til you make it” philosophy. So I faked it.
Not only was I asked to write a whopping 27 text-heavy pages for a website, but they wanted me to begin the project by meeting with the CEO and CFO - and I was expected to lead the meeting!
I stood in front of that room, full of the company’s top people, and led a 30-minute presentation while having only the vaguest idea of what I was talking about.
I had to speak loudly to mask the sound of my pounding heart. And my knees shook so hard that the pants were almost scared right off me. But the meeting ended with no one discovering my secret.
I got the gig.
Looking back at my employment history, I’ve never taken a job that I felt comfortable accepting. I’ve always learned on my feet.
In fact, that’s how I broke into the art business too – pretending that I knew a lot more than I did, doing the work to learn what I needed to know, and then over-delivering, always exceeding expectations.
As one friend remarked, “You’re a liar, but not a thief.”
I’ve never put an untrue word on my resume and I don’t advise that anyone else does either. Ever. But I don’t believe in letting a little thing like knowledge stop me - because knowledge can always be attained.
The first time I ever taught The Working Artist, not one student suspected that they were my inaugural class. I’m no thief.
So if there’s something that you want to do but are afraid because you don’t have the relevant experience, I challenge you to do it anyway. And yes, I’m talking about being an artist too – so many artists never move forward because of fears about experience or degrees or pedigree.
Lack of self-confidence is the number-one ailment of artists. I constantly hear about challenges with confidence in the work, confidence in making professional connections, confidence in speaking to clients...
This does not serve you.
If you find yourself professionally paralyzed, this is what you do: You research thoroughly, you over-prepare, you practice, practice some more until you’re doing the very best you can. And then you fake it.
You can be a liar about your confidence, but never a thief with the goods you deliver.
It happened again.
An artist wrote to me about a project she was offered, excited by the opportunity.
She wasn’t going to be paid, mind you, but it would be “good exposure.”
Ah good exposure! The two words that make every artist cringe.
I get it. Trust me, I still do things for good exposure. And I find it just as difficult to pay my bills with exposure as you do.
Exposure is a tricky thing. We all want it, but we don’t want to give ourselves away in the process of getting it.
So should artists do things for exposure?
Well, it depends.
If you want to get eyes on work and the venue's appropriate, then why not? Just make sure that the work is going to be taken care of, that all of the relevant information is available, and that you have a clear understanding of terms should something sell.
And dare to look deeper than that. Is there anything else in that situation that might benefit you? Something other than money?
- Do you have books that could be sold or calendars or small prints?
- Could your bio be added to the business’ website with a link to your own?
- Could the organization promote you on their social media channels?
- Perhaps if it’s for an event, you can ask for the attendees’ names so that can build your mailing list? (with their permission, of course)
I’ve hung artists’ work at coffee shops, restaurants, and doctors’ offices a few times. I always made sure to go the extra mile.
- I formed relationships with the staff and educated them about the art. I even promised them a small private kickback should they make the sale.
- I held an Opening Party, and always made it a point to have my meetings at that location.
If the work was going to be more of a permanent display, or if I didn’t see a whole lot of art buyers going through the space, I suggested a trade instead. The venue could own the work and in exchange I received credit towards their goods and services. Win! Win!
But I digress.
Because this particular artist wrote that the exposure she was promised was lacking. She was given certain assurances that were not delivered.
How, she asked, could she complain without sounding difficult?
Ah! The fear of sounding difficult!
Funny thing about difficult.
I’ve worked with hundreds of artists in my career. And some of them were what you might call difficult.
But there’s two different types of difficult.
- There’s the egotistical, pain-in-the-ass difficult. This is the artist who leaves her good manners at home and acts as if everyone else is an indentured servant.
- And then there’s the artist who’s not afraid to be an advocate for her work. She respects herself and takes her job seriously, always maintaining the highest standards.
Do you see the difference?
I’ll tell you what I told the artist who wrote me with her quandary: when you speak up for yourself, when you push back, no matter how nicely you do it, there's always a chance you'll be labeled difficult.
Because for some reason, those who don't take their work seriously are easily threatened by those of us who do. It's easy for them to label us as "difficult."
But that’s the risk we take.
In my experience, the most successful artists are successful because they’re adamant about protecting their work. They bring 110% to the job and their standards are high.
So how do you protect yourself without getting a bad reputation?
It's like this:
- You're always professional and courteous, never angry nor defensive nor accusatory. You meet deadlines, budgets and you exceed expectations. You value what you do and value those who help you do it.
- You stop taking on projects where it’s not specified – in writing – exactly what you expect in return. And you advocate for your work when you feel it's in a compromising situation.
I wonder what would happen if we replaced the word difficult with the word strong?
Because when it comes to your work and your career, being strong will get you where you want to go every time.
And that is nothing to be afraid of.
Last weekend I learned an awful lot about the professional life of artists. I attended a conference that focused on arts graduates and how they’re faring in this changing economy.
What I learned may surprise you.
The conference itself was called 3 Million Stories, so titled for the 3 million art and design students in the USA. But the information itself extended well beyond art school graduates and spoke to all working artists.
I learned that work is purpose.
A job is just that, a job. A career comes with income and status.
But what about a calling? Artists feel called to do the work they do.
I learned that the point of attaining a fine arts degree doesn’t always have to be vocational. Education is a worthy goal in itself.
I learned to understand that the economy is not a morality play.
Artists, like teachers and nurses, may serve others with work that has impact, but that doesn’t mean they get paid a fair wage for their effort.
But though their salaries may be a challenge, I also learned that artists are happy.
In fact, of all the different professions that have been surveyed, ARTISTS report being happiest of all.
It seems there is no correlation between income and job satisfaction.
I was surprised to learn that a staggering 70% of Americans say they feel disengaged from their work – it’s just a job they do.
Yet 82% of arts graduates report feeling “very engaged” with their work. Because it’s a calling, they do it with a sense of purpose.
I learned that artists don’t realize how valuable their skills are in today’s world.
In survey after survey of the top CEO’s, it’s CREATIVITY that’s always ranked as the number one skill necessary for success.
But do you think they’re teaching creativity at business schools? No, I’m pretty sure they’re not.
SNAAP (Strategic National Arts Alumni Project) is the organization that’s been surveying art school graduates across the United States. This is the largest survey done of any profession and the results dispel the myths we’ve all been fed.
Art school graduates are not bitter, nor are they unemployed. They’re using their creativity thankyouverymuch, and are serving as today’s leaders of the Creative Class.
Out of 100,000 art graduates surveyed, a whopping 90% say they would make the same investment in art school again.
And get this - 74% of art school graduates work in their field today, compared to only 56% of graduates in other fields such as accounting and biology.
And this will make you happy: less than 1% of art school graduates become waiters.
Apparently, the stories we’ve been fed about our uncertain prospects are not true.
I’m not saying that you have to go to art school in order to succeed. But I know for a fact that if you want to work as an artist, the opportunities exist.
Filmmaker Spike Lee spoke one night at the conference. He said, “When you have a job that you love, it’s not a job anymore.”
However, he warned, “There’s no such thing as an overnight success. You gotta bust your ass.”
That’s the truth of it.
But the numbers don’t lie. This is a wonderful time to be an artist.
And yes, it’s scary. It’s hard work. And it’s sometimes challenging to make a decent wage.
But honestly, would you really choose anything else?
Through my work, I meet a lot of artists. And the question I get asked most frequently is, "Crista, what's the best way to inventory my art?"
Until recently, I searched high and low for a resource I could share. Excel spreadsheets suck. Everything else seemed too complex, too expensive, or too clumsy. Then I found something I could recommend.
Download my free eBook and learn how you can best keep track of your art inventory, whether you choose to invest in an online system or go it alone.
Say what you will about Millennials, this generation makes my heart sing for the future of the planet.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked with hundreds of university art students all over the world. I’ve found them to be generous, thoughtful, and earnest with a deep concern for the greater good.
I happen to think that this generation will save the world.
But they suffer. We cripple them with outmoded expectations, with diagnoses and labels. They struggle to see how remarkable they really are.
But then don’t we all?
Whenever I speak to art students I get asked a lot of questions. What strikes me is how familiar the questions are. I guess all creatives battle the same doubts.
Am I too old? Too young? Too poor? Too fat? Too thin? Do I have the talent to make it?
Basically, the question is “Am I enough?” And too many of us waste our lives waiting for somebody else to respond.
The answer lies in your choice, in your decision to silence those doubts and move forward announcing to the world, “I AM ENOUGH!” No matter what.
Like most of us, art students also worry that they don’t have it all figured out yet.
I understand. I always wished I could have been born a child prodigy instead of someone with so many seemingly unrelated interests.
But the truth is, that’s the beauty of it. All of those interests make you and your work more… interesting.
“You don’t have to have it all figured out right now,” I tell them. Maybe you’ll never have it all figured out. Stop putting that pressure on yourself.
Real artists never stop learning because curiosity is the hallmark of a creative person. So give yourself permission to continue to follow those things that move you and trust that they’re taking you to where you need to go.
It’s not just art students who are haunted by the question “What should I do?” Artists of all ages still struggle with that one.
But it’s the wrong question.
Instead of asking what you want to do, ask yourself "Who do I want to be?" What do I want to leave behind? How is the world going to be a more beautiful place for me having been here?
If you follow these questions with an open heart and open mind, you'll be led on a remarkable journey.
Remember, your job isn't too find yourself on that journey. Your job is create yourself, one beautiful step at a time.
Adam Cook is an emerging artist in Beaumont, TX. He drew constantly as a child, but at age ten picked up a guitar and for the next several years, art took a backseat to music. In 2013, however, he had an urge to “pick up a brush and make a mark” and soon turned to painting full time.
His girlfriend calls him an “art machine” because he’s always producing, but Adam knew he needed to learn the business side of art. He didn’t just want to make art, he wanted to sell his art. He admires Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work and his ability to sell his work. “He had a million bucks by the time he was twenty-six, I better get on it. I want to make a living doing this.”
About The Working Artist, Adam says, “Selling art is so big and exciting for me. I latched onto everything Crista said. It’s like I was given the tools I needed at the right time.”
He knew it was important to nurture his relationships with the people who were interested in buying his work. “The Working Artist really helped me to have the right tools to be courteous, to be personable, and to take care of those relationships.”
He’s also benefitted from the time management focus he learned in The Working Artist. “One thing I’ve definitely changed is my time management. It may be a no-brainer, but I got a calendar and a planner and started writing things down. It’s helped me keep on top of myself. I don’t want to miss a deadline on a commission. It’s just crucial, crucial, crucial.”
Whereas before he just worked and worked with no direction, with the knowledge he gained from taking The Working Artist he’s now able to take more control of his brand, to organize his time and meet deadlines, and stay on top of his obligations to the people buying his work.
“I have to take care of my clients,” says Adam. “I’m not just an art machine, I enjoy getting to know my collectors and that whole experience is part of my brand. I am my brand.”
He’s busier than ever both making and selling his work, using his website and social meda to reach customers, as well as local arts shows in Texas. Next up, he and his artist girlfriend will be hosting an Open Studio event, complete with special invitations, a chef and a V.I.P. reception. “We’re really making it an experience for people.”
The Working Artist gave this emerging artist the tools he needed to make the leap to being a full-time artist. “This is what I solely do now.”
It was the last day of the College Art Association conference in Washington DC and I was beat.
I’d spent weeks preparing for it. And then 4 long days either in meetings or chasing more meetings. I’d attended sessions, made new contacts, and talked to dozens of artists about their practice.
It was a fabulous time, and a very successful conference. I’d learned that I’m not the only one concerned about the professional prospects of graduating art students. That many others are working behind the scenes to improve the plight of those of us who live from our creativity.
But it was exhausting. And I was afraid to admit that if I heard the word “art” one more time, I might just weep.
24 hours until my flight home.
My soul cried out for help. I needed to be saved from my very own work ethic.
I needed to be saved from that voice that begged me to keep going, even though I felt drained. The voice that urged me to visit just one more gallery, one more art museum, schedule one more meeting.
NO! I just couldn’t do it.
But then I found myself wondering, “What would be … FUN?”
I’d heard that there were simulated roller coasters in the basement of the Smithsonian Museum. I couldn't resist. So off I went to join 2700 twelve-year olds on the rides.
We’d no sooner finish screaming our way through one ride and then race back in line to do it all over again. I laughed myself silly, oblivious to the stares of the staff. The kids too, eyed me suspiciously at first, but soon respected me as one of their own.
I rode those coasters until the museum closed.
I was still smiling as I made my way back to the hotel, using my camera to chase the golden light and soft shadows that the setting sun cast over the DC streets. It was magical to be engaging with my own creativity again.
Back at the hotel, I asked myself once more, “What would be fun?”
I ran a bath using ALL of the bubbles, like the whole bottle. And then I luxuriated in the decadence with a wee bottle from the mini bar.
The next morning was all mine too. “What SHOULD I do?” is the question I always ask automatically upon waking.
But that voice had already been silenced. And my imagination ran riot with all the fun things one could do in Washington DC on a Sunday morning.
So I made my way to an African Gospel church and introduced myself at the door. They greeted me warmly, walked me to a pew front and center, where they treated me as an honored guest.
Never mind that I’m not a member of their faith, nor any faith. Never mind that I was the only white face in a sea of black. Never mind that my blue jeans clashed with their finery. Never mind that I can’t carry a tune nor keep a beat.
For the next 2½ hours, I danced.
I sang. I swayed. I prayed and threw my arms up in the air shouting AMEN!
And as the choir belted out their hymns, and as the congregation rocked, and as the preacher whipped us into a frenzy with his sermon, the woman next to me shouted, “Sister, I ask you - are you saved?”
And I cried out, “HALLELUJAH! I am now!”
So now, I ask YOU a question.
What could you do, right now, today, that would be FUN?
I was speaking to a group of university students. As I finished, a young woman approached the stage.
“May I ask you a question?”
Of course! I asked if she was an artist. I inquired about her work and her practice.
“But the question I have isn’t about me. It’s about my boyfriend. He’s an artist too. We’ve decided to promote his career first and then once he can support us, we’ll focus on mine.”
She then proceeded to ask me questions about how to best market his work. And I just wanted to put my arms around her and weep.
Because this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this story.
Listen, it’s not just girls. We’ve all been there. In one way or another, we’ve all given our power away. Made someone or something more important than our work, forgetting that our work isn’t just what we do – it’s who we are.
But women are the most guilty culprits. And we simply must stop doing this to ourselves.
Furthermore, we’ve got to stop accepting it in our culture.
Now I’m going to talk about gender and you’re going to roll your eyes. But bear with me for a minute, because this affects all of us.
I believe that one of the biggest reasons that art is important is because it represents the culture it lives in.
Think about it. Art is how we say “I was here” both as individuals and as a society.
Throughout my career, I’ve found that there are more females in the art school classrooms than males. And that number just seems to be growing.
But that number is not represented in the galleries, museums, and collections. It’s considerably more difficult for a woman to succeed in the art world than a man. (And don’t even get me started on the difficulties faced by artists of color!)
Today, the exhibition history of our most important institutions is shameful.
Don’t believe me? Look at these numbers.
Last year, the Guggenheim Museum gave only one solo show to a woman. The Metropolitan Museum gave only one solo show to a woman. The Whitney gave only one solo show to a woman. And New York’s much more enlightened Museum of Modern Art graciously gave two.
Of all the solo exhibitions at Paris' Centre Pompidou since 2007, only 16% went to women. In the UK, the Hayward Gallery boasted only 22% of solo exhibitions dedicated to female artists over the past 7 years. Tate Modern has granted women artists solo exhibitions only 25% of the time. And last year’s Venice Biennale came in at 33%.
Art should include everybody’s voice. Otherwise, as the Guerrilla Girls say, “It’s not the history of art but the history of power.”
That young artist who was willing to subjugate her voice for that of her boyfriend took on the same student loan debt as he, she toiled and worked to develop her craft as hard as he. But she’s agreed to set that aside so that his voice can be heard first.
Do you trust that she’ll ever have the opportunity to stand in her own light? And what about us as a culture? What are we waiting for?
If you look at the walls of the Modern Art section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’ll find 4% of the artists represented there are women. But 76% of the nudes are female.
Why must a woman be naked to get into a museum?
Summer Lydick is a Working Artist.
After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in drawing and a Master of Arts in painting, Summer continued her work in fine art while developing The Painted Wall, a decorative painting business. There, she created large-scale public and private murals and plaster finishes for homes and corporate offices.
Summer began as an abstract painter, but has found her true voice in her current work, which centers on the “spiritual simplicity of the mandala.”
Summer found The Working Artist at just the right time in her career. She and her partner, also a painter, were both just beginning to stretch their wings as career artists when they discovered the course. “Crista came swooping in with the answers we needed at just the right time.”
Through taking The Working Artist, Summer was able to clearly see the steps she needed to take to become a successful working artist. “Every morning is like Christmas morning now! We wake up so FIRED up about our possibilities as artists.”
The Working Artist helped her see that her work is her brand. “We’re artists! We make art! We have a unique product to sell, so now we’re salesmen. And suddenly the business of art is like any other business model.”
In addition to building her website, and participating in local and regional art exhibitions in Texas, Summer is focused on building her inventory. And she recently created a pop-up exhibition of her work in conjunction with a public reading by author Elizabeth Gilbert in Miami.
Because of the lessons she learned through The Working Artist, Summer understands that possibilities are all around her. “It’s SO EASY now to see the big picture!”
Check out Summer’s work at http://www.summerlydick.com/