Ascension Etiquette for Aspiring Art Stars

You're an up-and-coming artist-- bright, talented, you've got vision, skills, ability, mindset, and all other necessary ingredients to make your mark in artland. In other words, you're good... really good. People are noticing, opportunities are presenting themselves, your fan base and following grows daily, and it's looking more and more like you're a serious contender to get somewhere special. But you know what? Life can get pretty precarious out there in the fine art marketplace, especially when you're on a roll and everybody's watching, which means that understanding how the art world works becomes increasingly essential to your ultimate and hopefully inevitable success.

You see, what happens when you become the darling du jour in artland is that all of a sudden you get plagued with attention, not only from those you already know, but you also get rafts of offers, overtures, invitations, advances, attacks, proposals, and seductions from people, websites, social media personalities, press, institutions, galleries, and other entities you often know little or nothing about. Sure, you may recognize some by name, but interacting with them one-on-one up-close-and-personal is a whole different deal, mainly because they've got agendas and you're part of them. So what we're gonna do here is talk about some basic survival strategies in order to minimize miscues and hopefully expedite your upward mobility.

General Guidelines

Rule number one, without question, is to consider every offer. This is especially true if you haven't been around that long and aren't familiar with the artscape. Listen to what everyone has to say, what they want, what they're proposing to give you in return, why you should get involved. Then thank them for their time and for getting in touch. No matter how fast your career is accelerating, hear people out, and give them the attention they deserve. That way, no matter what you decide, you stay on good terms. You never know who you might run into later, and what they may be able to do for you then that they can't do now.

A key aspect of career advancement is getting talked about, and when that talk happens, you want it to be positive. When people say your name, you want them to say it with appreciation. That's the best outcome by far, and it's the kind of word-of-mouth that always works for you, and never against. The art world is small, news travels fast, and you want your news to be good. Even though not every interaction will play out successfully, at least you'll know you tried.

At the same time, you also have to be true to yourself and your artistic vision. Don't worry. There's no conflict in pursuing your goals, not compromising your principles, and being easy to get along with at the same time. Doing so increases the chances that people will be attracted to you whether they agree with you or not. Many will continue to follow your career and support what you're doing. All this bodes well for gradually attracting benefactors, patrons, collectors, galleries, people to invest in your future, and those who are driven to help promising artists in their careers.

In a way, you have to be diplomatic, kind of like a politician. You'll have to deal with downers like jealousy, envy, and people who want to take advantage at various points along the way, but so does everyone. If you have to be nice rather than tell someone what you really think in order to escape from a sticky situation, so what? Keeping cool when confronted will come back to you tenfold in your business and personal interactions.

Cultivate a social persona that you can use to your advantage because most people buy art and relate to artists in social ways. Keep your private life and personal feelings out of your art-dealings as much as possible. The instant you start getting annoyed, angry, or offended, life can get complicated. In other words, don't take things personally. It's just business, plain and simple.

While we're on the topic, people you do business with aren't necessarily your friends. In certain cases you have to tolerate them-- and perhaps they tolerate you too-- if they want what you have and vice versa. For example, if a gallery that represents you introduces you to someone, there's likely a reason for the introduction. If they happen to rub you the wrong way, do what you can to work through it and achieve a successful outcome. You never know who's going to be a buyer or who can do good things for your career, whether you like each other or not.

As for the good people who helped you out along your path to success, never forget them. The best strategy is to honor your past. Ignoring it and only talking about where you are now or where you're going, dissociating yourself from where you've been or who you've known is counterproductive. Acknowledge and respect your past; acknowledge those who gave you an assist, no matter how minor it may seem in retrospect.

This includes all those fans and followers who recognized your talent ahead of the rest, who believed you had a future, and who plunked down their hard-earned money first. Regardless of how little they may have paid for your art at the time, think about maybe occasionally sending an occasional thank you email or giving a call. Depending on how instrumental they were at the time, maybe send them a handwritten letter, an inscribed exhibition catalog, even a small drawing, whatever. This includes galleries who gave you your early shows. The idea that you're thinking of them, appreciating them, and haven't forgotten goes further than you can imagine. Don't do it to a fault, but show props to those key figures in your evolution as an artist. Not only will they never forget small gestures like this, but you turn them into lifetime supporters who'll talk you up at every chance they get. Acts of goodwill go an awfully long way.

Speaking of maintaining and expanding your fan base, seeing as everything's going well and you've got a little breathing room for a change, help those less fortunate when the opportunity presents itself, especially those artists whose work you really like and respect. How? By collecting it. Not only will you end up with good art to look at besides your own, but you give them encouragement that they'll always remember and appreciate, and you can be sure that, one way or another, they'll return the favor if ever they can.

Another aspect of where you were then versus where you are now, and something to be wary of, is becoming resentful about what you sold stuff for back in the day versus what it's worth now. The way your art goes up in value is based on support people show for you when you're nobody, and who continued to support you regardless. If not for them, you wouldn't be where you are today. Complaining about how little some may have paid is like kicking out the rungs of the ladder you climbed to get to the top-- it makes absolutely no sense. You should rejoice every time your art sells for big bucks, no matter what it may have originally sold for and whether you own it or not, because that makes every other artwork you've ever made and every piece you've yet to make that much more valuable. As an aside, you can always participate in your own personal inflationary spiral. All you have to do is set aside prime examples of your art from time to time so that when prices go up on those kinds of art, you've got a piece of the action.

And now for a couple of pointers on what to avoid. Number one is getting a reputation for being hard to work with. Galleries, collectors, and other art professionals are willing to put up with an awful lot when all goes well, but difficult artists often get cut from the roster the moment things go south. You come up the food chain not because you step on people's heads, but because they enjoy spending time with you, and say great things not only about their relationships, but also how you or your art has impacted and changed their lives in wondrous and positive ways.

Speaking of galleries, be just as nice to the staff as you are with the owner. If you think the staff won't tell the owner or that the owner will side with you and not them, think again.

Isolated obnoxious artists do beat the odds from time to time and go global, it's true, but the chances of that happening are exceptionally slim, even on a good day. As a gallery owner once sarcastically confided, "If an artist is really good and really obnoxious and wants to be famous, then dying young is always an option to fast track their way to stardom; their art will be far easier to deal with than they are."

Now keep in mind that not all artists are blessed with copious social skills, pleasant personalities, and steady temperaments. For those of you who might be lacking in any of these areas, the key is to know your limitations. If personally working the crowds is not something you do well, find others to do it for you. Galleries, consultants, and even good friends come in mighty handy here.

Plenty of artists are uneasy in social settings and anytime you feel that way about an impending or unfamiliar situation, discuss it with your gallery or whoever's responsible for your appearance at such events. Tell them you're not good at openings or whatever, and put together a plan of action in advance-- how long you'll be there, who you'll talk to, the extent of any obligations you want to take on, etc. When the two of you understand each other and the specifics of a given situation, working through it successfully becomes so much easier. And hey-- if you're that much of a problem, be a no show at your openings. Remain a mystery. Your gallery or representative will gladly speak for you.

More Protocol Pointers

Swift sudden attention on you and your art is never easy is to handle, especially if you haven't been at it all that long. Artists who gradually become famous over years instead of days or months tend to be less affected or taken by the glamorous trappings of being in the spotlight, and as a result tend to be better able to deal with it. But regardless of age or experience, understand that one or two successes do not instantly catapult you into the annals of art history. Consistent long-term creation of superior quality work, and getting recognized for it, is what ultimately results in success.

The art world is notorious for loving the next new thing today and leaving it tomorrow. If you happen to get lucky, always remember that you can only be the next new thing once. Accomplishment after accomplishment over the long haul beats 15 minutes of fame approximately 100 percent of the time; never confuse the two. Nothing happens all of a sudden, and nothing continues unless you continue it.

Another caution about receiving tons of publicity all at once is the temptation to believe your own hype (good or bad), or worse yet, to act on it. Think about this for a moment. Let's say someone writes an article about either you or your art or both. You know what that is? It's one person's opinion on one day about one instance in one publication. So don't let it go to your head. As they used to say back in the day when we had newspapers, "Today's news is tomorrow's fish wrap." Save taking your press seriously for when a distinct trend emerges and you start getting regular coverage, articles, profiles, and reviews. In the meantime, be happy they spell your name right.

Suppose you've been making art for say a couple of years-- not that long-- and now suddenly you're hot. You're being wooed from all directions; seems like everybody wants something. What happens to a number of artists in this situation is that they try to do it all-- take on too much too fast, expand the operation, hire assistants, say yes to every proposal that comes their way.

Think twice about accepting commissions or offers you have no experience with no matter how fantastic they sound. Don't spread yourself too thin. Don't try to prove you're a Renaissance artist who can do anything. Continue to make the art you love making, and not necessarily what others would love you to make. Creating art you love is what got you here. When things go well, you get all kinds of invitations and opportunities to step outside your comfort zone. Best advice? Accept only those offers you know you can handle, and handle well. Stay on point with your original message and vision, and stick to your strengths. Continuing to evolve in your career is absolutely fine as long as you do it on your own terms.

Be receptive to anyone with an established reputation who wants to offer some advice or share their experience. Rather than question their motives, take it as a gift and hear them out. You don't have to do everything they tell you, but you at least owe it to yourself to consider their wisdom.

This one might sound a little odd, but go easy on the charity auctions-- the better known you get, the more nonprofits will want you to donate something, and best procedure here is to pick choose a few favorites. You see, by giving something to everybody, not only do you risk diluting the value of your work, but you also begin to give people the impression that they can buy you on the cheap. And don't believe for an instant that donating or selling at charity auctions makes you more famous. Not true-- it only makes you more generous. A better idea might be to sell particular works through your galleries, then take the cash and donate it directly to those organizations you want to support. Targeted donations here and there are great, but not to everybody all the time.

One critical aspect of advancing in your career is the prospect of changing galleries-- always a delicate situation. The key is never to burn bridges while at the same time, communicating your needs in ways owners can understand and appreciate. There's no need to make drama out of it. Be tactful as you move on, negotiate equitable dissolutions, and whatever you do, don't hurt people. You never know-- you may have to take a step back one day if things don't play out the way you think they will. And be especially careful about going with a particular gallery just because you think they're better than where you've been. Longterm relationships that work are what count in this business. Getting a reputation as an artist who's always looking beyond whatever gallery they're with now, or who has no qualms about jumping ship will ultimately work against you.

As for packing your bags and moving to a major international art center, make sure your career is on good solid ground first, and that you have a good fighting chance to survive. A suggested minimum war chest would be to have at least six months living expenses in the bank and ready to deploy in case of emergency. Artists occasionally move from one place to another too fast only to realize that life is a lot more difficult and expensive than they imagined, especially if the spotlight stops shining. Remember-- one or two successes does not make a career; take each step slowly and deliberately, especially big ones like leaving your current home behind.

Last but certainly not least, continue making art and lots of it-- be possessed, be prolific. You can't just make enough for a show, get some press, and then to go off on some indeterminate sabbatical. You have to be out there and on it all the time. Nobody cares about yesterday's successes; they want to know what's happening now. Do whatever you can to stay ahead of the game and be prepared for whatever opportunities might come your way. Keep your eye on the future and the rest, as they say, will be history.


I'd like to thank Catharine Clark, Robert Berman, Jack Hanley, Steven Wolf, and Darryl Smith for their generous assistance with this article.


(sculpture by Casey Gray)

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