Sunday, June 06, 2010

School's Out

A chance encounter: I just happened to be in the same place, at the same time, as another artist.
We hadn't met before but I could tell he knew who I was. There was that awkward mix of curiosity and surprise that comes from a real life encounter with someone you've only seen in a photograph. He stared an instant too long, scanning the nuances of features that didn't quite match the image he remembered.
To be friendly, I got us both a coffee. Almost immediately, he launched into a long tirade about art dealers. He was sick of paying them so much. They didn't do anything they said they would. He hated paying their expenses, especially when they took 50% of every sale and often didn't pay him until months after a show. He was sick of it all and didn't know what to do.
I told him to go independent, to do it all himself. He made sighing noises, as if it was all too hard.
I asked if he knew of any non-gallery spaces to hire, as I was thinking of producing a show in Sydney. He only knew of commercial galleries. Then he said he wanted to "pick my brains, too".
I winced, not just at the implication that he had given me something worthwhile in exchange but also because I knew what was coming.
"I want to ask your advice on self-promotion," he said. It was now obvious he already knew who I was and what I'd accomplished. It pissed me off that he was still bothering to pretend not to. It also pissed me off that the only stuff less successful artists think to ask me about is promotion, as if my success is some magic trick that has nothing to do with making good art, that it's all down to some glib schtick rather than a substantial body of art and writings, that it's plain dumb luck.
Still, the impulse to try to help a fellow artist, even a socially inept one, dies hard. I offered to explore with him what he might do, even if I'd given my best advice already. I asked how old he was and how long he had been making art? Did it support him financially? Did he have a website or any other online presence? How often did he exhibit? Finally, I asked him what, exactly, he meant by self promotion.
What his answers boiled down to were that he supported himself through art but didn't earn enough to buy materials. And he didn't exhibit as often as he wanted.
I told him that Australia was only one, small market. He had to get his work in front of more people. He showed me his website. Almost all the information on it was at least eight months out of date. He exhibited only through galleries but the gallery listed on the site no longer represented him. He was a little embarrassed: "Yeah, I know. I meant to update that a few months ago."
"It's pointless having a rarely updated website with inaccurate information," I told him. "No-one will go there. It needs to have more content. Maybe do a blog to drive traffic to it. You have to give people something; otherwise, why would they bother going there at all?"
"Oh," he said. "So, with a blog, how often do you update it? Once a week?".
"No," I replied. "It should be done every day or every other day."
He blanched. "That's a lot of work."
"Yeah." I responded. "But it's a small price to pay for what you're after."
But he didn't want to know. "I don't want to earn a lot," he said. "Just enough to get by."
I rolled my eyes and resisted saying what I thought: I know you want more money. You already said you did. What you really want is an easy answer. You want something that doesn't exist.
"A curator told me that I should auction my work in Europe, to get it out there more," he said.
"You mean make more people aware of your work?" I asked. He nodded. What the fuck does a curator know about the business of art?
I tried to be delicate: "Umm, you've been in one group exhibition there. Your work hasn't been sold at auction anywhere before and there's no proven support for it yet on the secondary market. I don't think the major auction house you mentioned would accept your work. Besides, why you would try to put it in yourself, especially as an attempt for publicity.
"Based on what you've told me, it's unlikely that it would sell, even if it was accepted. And if it doesn't sell, it's on a public record. Auctions signify the strength of your work in the market. People need to be aware of your work before it goes to auction." I couldn't help shaking my head – the function of an auction is not to build awareness for an artist but rather to put a price on it.
Wearying of the conversation, I told him it sounded like he just wanted to play the traditional game of entering competitions and exhibiting with traditional galleries. He told me he'd stopped entering competitions because he never got anywhere and it cost too much. I bit my tongue.
"Maybe you just need to get into a bigger gallery." I said. He'd need more than that.
Of course, he'd been thinking about that. He told me of one he'd like to approach. "I have contacts there already," he boasted.
"Sure." I said, with no enthusiasm. I wanted the conversation to end. "Go for it. Sounds like that's what you want." I added that he shouldn't mention my name to the gallery's owner: "We fell out. He wanted to represent me and was pissed off when I wanted to do a deal on my terms." I laughed.
"Well," the other artist muttered, defensively, "I can see his point. I mean he does have a specific structure."
Suddenly, I felt a surge of anger. Despite whining about every aspect of the traditional gallery system, the artist had used exactly the same words the art dealer had once said to me. Either he'd heard the story before, elsewhere, or this has become the standard, meaningless excuse for the traditional gallery system not to change – because it already has a "specific structure". Hell, that structure was fast becoming redundant. I couldn't think of anything more stupid.
"Oh, fuck off." I said. "I can't believe you said that."
He muttered something about not wanting to burn bridges, that he might need the dealer – even though the dealer had obviously shown no interest in him. I turned away as he made excuses to leave.
"Anyway, it was nice meeting you." he said, as he scurried off.
"Yeah," I lied. "You too." Not. I admonished myself for the insincerity. I really wanted to punch the fucker in the face for adding insult to the injury of wasting my time.
Why was I surprised? I've had the same conversation a hundred times with a hundred different artists. The next time one complains to me, I'll repeat what an unsympathetic Gore Vidal told a student at an American university lecture, after the student complained of the hardships of writing and getting published:
"Fuck off then. Plenty more where you came from."


Angela Hunt/Hunt Press said...

You have no idea how helpful this was for me to read right now.

Thank you (again) for you unwavering honesty.

Wendy Olsen said...

I love your way of summing things up so damn perfectly!!!!

Anonymous said...

Seems like a good idea to post this blog as a remedy to these Time Thieves. Good for you!

Also great to read that you are sticking at the structured exercise and that it still seems to be working.

Sean Beard.

Michael L Radcliffe said...

Love this post. It's probably a good way for you to avoid conversations like this in the future too - just refer them to this post! :-)

Donna Heart said...

ok - so it's low brow - BUT it's the same things you're talking about. Marketing yoruself - using the net as a tool, taking the front foot rather than the back... getting off one's arse and doing the work to get your art out to as many poeple as possible via the web.
I'm doing the course - and also Gary Vaynerchuck's book "Crush It" although seriously 'american' has heaps of good stuff about using the net for self promotion... I like you - you're raw and it's refreshing... Thanks
I think

abby said...

Enjoyed this post - the total honesty. Everyone wants an easy answer and promoting yourself is hard work but I love the challenge, and after a year of keeping my head down, blogging etc etc and 'getting on with it' - it's starting to pay off. People who whine - drain. I wish I could be more direct with the whiners, but I'm always too nice!

Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

Right on track again. Good story of another artist who would rather make excuses than do the work. So much for trying to be helpful!

Chris Rywalt said...

What bothers me about this post is this bit right here:

It also pissed me off that the only stuff less successful artists think to ask me about is promotion, as if my success is some magic trick that has nothing to do with making good art, that it's all down to some glib schtick rather than a substantial body of art and writings, that it's plain dumb luck.

How can you be so sure your success is not due to glib schtick? It seems to me it's possible it's all based on self-promotion of a fairly obvious package: Attractive female artist making easily-grasped pictures of sexed-up naked women. Why shouldn't less successful artists be asking you about self-promotion when you plaster the word "controversial" all over your many Web presences like a badge of honor?

Hazel Dooney said...

Chris, Because there is also a significant amount of artworks in various media as well as a body of writing that argues otherwise. You might not like any of it but it is there, nonetheless.

Chris Rywalt said...

I didn't say anything about my liking the body of work or not liking it. The fact that you have a significant amount of works in various media doesn't really say anything about how good they are, either. What I'm wondering about is your basis for saying your success has something to do with making good art. Are you saying there's a lot of writing telling you your art is good?

Hazel Dooney said...

Chris, your latest comments, which really don't address anything I've written but instead open up new seams of pettiness, highlight again why I've made i a policy not to 'argue' here. You can make up your own mind about my work and me. I don't have to debate your conclusions. Besides, whatever I say is unlikely to change your mind. It certainly won't change how I formulate my ideas or make and market my art.

Lisa Klow said...

Everytime I read your posts on this topic I think something like this: "Hey, Hazel! Can you just, like, you know - manage my art career for me?" You are right to tell them to fuck off. Your new line should be: Not my problem!

Maria Brophy said...

Hazel, I loved this story because I have similar conversations with artists. I often give out advice to artists, but find that most aren't willing to invest in their careers. Often I bite my tongue and give out advice that I know is "too much work" for most people.

What I want to tell them is: If you're lazy, you won't be successful. At anything.

Being successful in art is more work than most people are willing to put in. It's not just creating the paintings, but the promotions and website updating and dealing with contracts, and so on.

I was so frustrated recently when an artist asked: How do I get my art in a gallery? And I suggested "Have your own shows. It's worked for us." I took time to write out how he could go about it - it took about 20 minutes of my time.
His e-mail back: "What you're suggesting is too much money and too much work."

I wanted to respond back with a big "F-off"...instead I hit delete.

Anonymous said...

I think that some artists' works are more commercial, more easily sold than other artists. It often has little to do with how good or not they are. Has anyone seen the movie "Exit Through the Gift Shop" made by Banksy. I saw it yesterday and the animal which is the contemporary art market is unmasked spectacularly.


joshua lance said...

Love this post, it's great of you of how you explained this conversation in detail, with the low-brow humor I enjoy too. Even though I'm not as financially successful as you, I still have people at these outdoor art fairs asking me all kinds of promotional questions. I know time wasters when I see them too, because I'm still learning my trade and business. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Its courage he's lacking. He wants to move out of the system but doesn't have the guts. If you want to get somewhere you need to button up & get doing something scary, its the only way. You can choose *how* scary, but if you do nothing thats what u end up with. (I go the half-scary... i work 2 jobs: one real & one more real. And no galleries except on my terms.. been ripped off already thanks)

Good on you Hazel, enjoy your blog.

Nic Hohn said...

Just what I needed to artist with guts to say just how it is.

Phil Willis said...


Thanks for the sage words.

Just what I needed to hear right now.

No-one wants to hear the difficult answer of "work hard", but funnily enough, once you know "the secret" it's not as difficult as people imagine.