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So you wanna be an artist. A successful artist.


So you wanna be an artist. A successful artist. Then these are some rules to live by. Granted, artists are good at breaking rules (and should), and you can take or leave what you like here. But as far as I can tell, the successful artists I know have internalized this stuff.

About you:

  • Admit that you want to be an artist and that you’ll do whatever it takes to be one.
  • Accept that you are not Picasso. You are almost certainly not a genius, as there are fewer than one of these per generation. Make up for it by working your ass off.
  • If you have low or limited energy, avoid relationships that drain it, i.e. marriage and children.
  • Have a studio that’s not in your own home.
  • Take a job only to pay for what you need to be an artist.
  • Retain a healthy sense of absurdity. Accept that you will likely be funded by the buying habits of Republicans (because they have the money).
  • Keep up with news and ideas and art that’s happening in other places. Form some opinions. Be able to talk about it.
  • Spend a lot of time with and around other artists.  Talk. Drink with them. Go to openings with them.
  • Be both supportive and competitive with your peers.
  • Do not wait for a dealer or curator or collector to give you a place to show. Especially these days. Get together with your peers and make it happen.
  • Go to school to get your MFA; you’ll need the connections you make there.
  • Don’t even think about getting a doctorate in studio art. It’s total bullshit and it’s just a way to hide from the real world. Working in the real world is the lifeline to your work.
  • Until you’re so rich and famous that you can check out, you have to live in a community with an art scene, and you have to be a part of it.
  • Exchange studio visits and artwork with other artists as much as you can stand it.
  • Pay attention to the world and people around you.  You’ll need those observations.

About your artwork:

  • Let your audience fill in the blanks. Don’t be so literal.
  • Be investigative rather than self-indulgent.

I don’t want to complicate it by adding anything else.

Okay. Good luck out there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

also by Christina Rees
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44 Responses

  1. Ram 23

    Second article from Glasstire in the last month telling artists what to do. Work your ass off and support your peers are the two best here, but if artists don’t already know that then their out of luck.

  2. tilda hensen

    …avoid relationships that drain like children or a spouse? i hope the author doesn’t plan on committing to anyone. or having children. those extra weights couldn’t possibly add to the content or substance of one’s creative work.

    1. In fairness, the author precedes that excerpt with “If you have low or limited energy…” I have a spouse and kids myself, so I appreciate that she qualifies that bit of advice.

      Dave Hickey has said that an artist ought to live in a state of anxiety b/c anxiety seems to be a great creativity engine. He was referring to life in a big noisy city (and definitely not endorsing having kids), but I can say that parenthood has provided me with all kinds of stress that has fueled my productivity in the studio.

      Still, the bit of advice in question is a sensible one, even if you and I have chosen to leave it.

  3. Chad Davonport

    Was really hoping this was going to be another “I’m taking a crap on your art scene and moving to another town for a salaried position” letter but alas it is simply another slop pile of parental pseudo-wisdom. So . . . I guess it’s just like all the others. Thanks for keeping it true 😉

  4. Good list. I wouldn’t call this pseudo-wisdom. I feel like I see similar tendencies in the more successful of our peers as well. I appreciate the frank comment on MFA programs, which are certainly a major point of contention. I’m not sure I believe in the concept of “genius”, but the point is taken that there are very few successful artists who don’t work their asses off. I think much of the wisdom that resides in these “rules” lay in the concept of investment: in oneself, in one’s work, and in one’s community. Investment means taking some chances and risking failure, and this is an interesting time to be thinking about this kind of risk.

  5. Y. Martinez

    If you create any artistic expression, if you have this spiritual necessity, if you were born with the urge to express yourself and tell thing through images, then, you are an artist. Anything else is bullshit; you don’t have to dress like a “monkey”, pretending to be an elevated intellectual and go to exhibitions talking crap and holding stupidly a glass of wine. Keep on painting, do whatever you want with your life, and forget about the rest of the world, especially critics and “specialist in the field”.

  6. How did Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Miller, Kerouac, et al, do it without an MFA program?

    Every graduate of an MFW program I’ve ever met writes almost exactly like every other graduate of an MFW program or creative writing program I’ve met. I’ve asked more than a few, “What did they do up there? Put you on a table and rip your heart out?” They’re like clone factories, these programs.

    Programs don’t create artists. Programs create robots. Programs enforce conformity. Programs program. No good writer, and certainly no great writer, ever followed a program.

    My debt is book bills and bar bills. My money lines the pockets of booksellers and bartenders, not university regents and administrators.

  7. Silverman

    -steal a mannerism to be found in New York now. Matthew Brannon suggests photographing books and book covers.

    -always say clever things, but never say what you mean.

    -play down subjectivity or pretend to. never mention words like ‘expression’.

    -if you want the opportunities of an MFA. show up around campus, hang out and go to the bar with all the cool students and professors. don’t bother getting in debt.

    -sell. the market is dominant so let go of the trappings of content.

    -look pretty. it is time to accept that attractive people are successful.

    -hang out with attractive people in public.

    -if you are a young wealthy man or woman, your chances for success are much higher. marry a person lower on the class status than yourself. this is insurance against ruts, take their ideas and manners to borrow whenever you are lacking.

    1. IllNeverTell

      Hilarious that anyone can think that “hanging out” with MFA candidates and their professors, but not actually participating in the MFA program as a student will be at all comparative. AN MFA AND THE EXPERIENCE IS MANDATORY IF YOU ARE SERIOUS. The debt, and the sacrifice are the most important parts of the experience in many ways because that’s where the consequences exist. Usually when so called artists bash MFA programs, or refuse to understand why they are essential for serious studio artists, it is because they resent the fact that they couldn’t get accepted into a good MFA program, or were too scared to even apply. The vast majority of successful studio artists who are represented by the top galleries in any heavily populated region are MFA graduates. That is really the only stat that matters.

      In other words, you can go to the library and read every book like Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting,” without ever spending a dime on college classes, but does anyone really believe this method will work at a similar rate of success than a full commitment as a student in the program? It’s a pipe dream that you will be able to create the same overall environment or be able to mimic the pressure cooker that a quality MFA program provides. The program will force you to morph in many ways, and it will sharpen your edges in ways you could never create on your own. How do I know this for sure….because I tried it before I entered the MFA program.

      Deep seeded jealously and regret exists from those artists that never seized the opportunity to participate in an MFA program, do yourself a favor and don’t listen to those that haven’t “made it” as a represented artist in a top regional gallery, and who never graduated with an MFA in studio art from a quality program. Glasstire is full of amateur artists that think their opinion matters, but we must remember that they are still amateur for a reason.

        1. Zeke Williams

          I think its gotta be that same dude. also I don’t have an MFA and am moderately successful and make most of my living from making art. That said I often wonder where I would be had I pursued a MFA immediately after undergrad instead of ending up in the corporate world for over 14 years.

  8. Silverman

    sorry, I have one more tip.

    Never ever let people see you work, you are meant to be a person of leisure. If you have a side job in the art industry as in a museum or gallery, quit now. Get a job as a plumber or work in I.T.

  9. Christina Rees

    Silverman. Congrats. Another way to be a successful artist is to take something someone else has already started or done and riff on it shamelessly or outright steal it. Call it evocation or homage.

  10. silverman

    I agree Christina, look at Jonathan Monk’s career.
    In the case of blog comments, I would not take it so seriously, although my suggestions are better.

  11. Pingback : Tips for Becoming a Successful Artist | FLUX.

    1. IllNeverTell

      Chuck,
      Finding an Art job does have some networking advantages, and you can immerse yourself in the scene much deeper I’m sure, although considering everything, I wouldn’t recommend. This is because the only leg up you can actually gain for yourself will involve the quality of your work, and the aesthetic you put forth. Nothing else matters, just the work. Listen to a baseball movie for the only advice you will ever need “If you build it, they will come” from the wise Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams.

      Also, I believe it’s good to escape the art scene at times. The jaded, liberal, jealous art scene is full of poisons for creativity or positive thinking. I only spend small doses of time in the art scene, and it keeps me from wanting to take an acid shower to wash off all of the negativity that can become attached to you when conversing with these folks too much. Sometimes it’s better to be the lone wolf, on the hunt with an unwavering focus. There are no shortcuts people, the work will lead the way always.

  12. IllNeverTell

    “- If you have low or limited energy, avoid relationships that drain it, i.e. marriage and children.
    – Have a studio that’s not in your own home.
    – Take a job only to pay for what you need to be an artist.”

    These three bullet points are garbage. Don’t listen to them. You don’t have to give up major parts of being a human being in the world to be a successful artist. You don’t have to be poor, only scraping by each month. Being financially stable, and not taking on additional rent by having a studio outside of your residence is actually a smarter plan. You can have a kid, a wife/husband, make a normal amount of money, and have a studio in your home. All three of these things are very healthy in the long term as a human being, and remember artists are human beings after all.

  13. Katie Mulholland

    I like these. I used to bother my undergrad professors for any advice on how to get from life-point A to point B & juggle kids/teaching/finances, etc & all of them used to just blankly stare back at me or worse, grimace & tell me “figure it out, kid”. They couldn’t have given me better advice.

    I’d like to add:
    1. Fuck the box. Any preconceived notion of how you think life post undergrad/grad/relationships/etc… just dash that baby out of existence in your brain. It’s important to keep an open mind… things only get weirder.

    2. MFAs are silly. In the real world, no one cares. Especially not your peers. So if you do get an MFA, do it for no one but yourself or for the love of teaching. Ultimately, it is you & only you who makes the choices & meets the people that carve your destiny.

    3. Be adaptive. Life throws some pretty serious wrenches. The struggle gets pretty cozy after a while.

    4. Attention/fame is fleeting. So don’t expect it or depend on it unless you are fine with being hooked up to a steady drip of misery, anti psychotics, & scotch. There’s going to be long periods of time where people get bored with you. Or you get bored with you. So figure out how to get off somewhere on the act of making work. Often it will be one of the few things in life keeping you sane.

    5. Know the things you are willing to sacrifice & what you are not. Remember them. Every once in a while one will catch on fire or get lost on it’s way home from the bar. It’s ok. Just remember them.

    6. Everyone has an opinion they take for gospel. Everyone. Get used to it.

  14. Paul Slocum

    Good advice, but an MFA??!! If you care more about teaching art than making art, then go for it. None of the successful artists I work with have an MFA. I think it’s a waste of time in the vast majority of cases. You shouldn’t need an MFA for “connections”

    1. Christina Rees

      This piece has been recirculating lately. It was published back in 2011. At this point, Paul, I’m starting to agree with you on the MFA front.

    2. Michael Morris

      I’ll add a mixed response to this. Getting an MFA, for me, was a vital step in the quality of my work, my thinking, and many successful artists I know have also gone through this rite. Is it that way for everyone? Not necessarily so. Plenty of people I know make great art and are successful without an MFA. Do I feel financially crippled by the debt I accrued? Totally. Does teaching support my life and my practice as a result of getting an MFA? Totally. It’s a mixed bag.

      I think of the MFA as the warp zone pipe at the end of the second stage in Super Mario Brothers. It gets you further faster, but you still might get stuck in world 8.

      1. Rightzedfred

        Christina has been against getting an MFA in all of her opinions lately and it should be stated that she has never participated as an MFA candidate, nor graduated with an MFA. How much can she really know about the program and the benefits? She may talk to people and get a quick glimpse of it maybe, but not a real look.

        I see the top regional MFA programs very similar to capitalism, some prosper greatly, and some are left to pick up the scraps. This is important to understand going in. It is not a perfect world, you might end up making and selling art, or you may fade into obscurity and student debt hell after your 33 months in the program. Yet, if you graduate, you will always have the ability to make informed work and hope for the best while you teach some classes. Luck could always strike later, and for many it does.

        Nothing is guaranteed, just like life. Some make it to the top tier with their art work, and some do not. Some even stop making work all together after the program. I suppose those graduates have their reasons for quitting the pursuit, and bitterness runs deep because they feel slighted by the program or the art market. Sometimes the market isn’t fair, and those with great work are ignored for seemingly no valid reason. The only sure thing is that the art market is the wild west, and it is tricky to succeed no matter what.

        In graduate school, it is a focus or fold situation, where you are rolling the dice with all aspects of your life, all the while knowing it is not the safest route. An MFA program is not for everyone, and that is the way it should be. You should be so artistically gifted that an MFA program is the obvious choice, for many this is not the truth of their situation. You have to posses a natural drive, and if you do not enjoy competitiveness, then you will not thrive. You need a thick skin, and the ability to quickly regenerate and grow back stronger from any mental blows that you receive the first year of grad school when criticism and confidence are lowest. That is when you figure it out usually, when you are seemingly striped of all the creature comforts and then things get raw. Often times you have to survive on very little money, while juggling surprises in your private life and accruing debt day after day. If you walk into this reality knowingly, you’d better have a turbo mode you can access mentally, ….oh and real top tier potential. Not to mention the desire for longevity with your craft. This is a life decision, one that should start off your foray into becoming a serous artist, and continue until you are one day a pile of dust in the wind. See it’s simple.

        1. Paul Slocum

          I’m overstating it a bit, but it’s pretty striking how none of the top tier artists I’ve worked with have MFAs. They all built their own network of artists for studio visits and eventually were connected to people they’d want to have as teachers anyway.

          Yet at the next tier down (which is still relatively successful) almost everybody has MFAs. At this level artists may sell $25k worth of work in a NY gallery, but after accounting for production costs and time, they’re still arguably hobbyists (like me).

          I don’t really think MFAs are a total waste of time, but it’s clear that a lot of people acquire the same thing by applying that time and money outside of school or in undergrad. I can’t remember the exact statistic, but I’ve read that less than half of blue chip artists have MFAs.

          1. Michael Morris

            I’m going to speculate a bit and guess that the reason some of those more successful artists don’t have MFAs is because they belong to a certain class of extremely motivated and energetic people who are able to be autodidacts that might even be held back by an MFA. I imagine those type of people are destined to be successful artists because of that starting point. I think many of us may need the MFA to help us catch up to those folks.

            As to the blue chip artists, I think that may be a generational thing. MFA programs exploded in the last few decades, as we all know, and it’s worth having these conversations since it’s still a relatively new phenomenon.

            But I think it really just comes down to the work. I’ve seen the work of many artists advance exponentially after their masters experience when compared to what they where making before (including some artists who worked with Christina’s gallery, though I get that this is subjective to some degree…)

  15. Idkwhyicare

    why wouldn’t you want a free studio for a few years and a stipend to make work with?
    That’s why I got my mfa. Don’t wanna teach at all.
    All education is problematic. But we are all riding out some version of some shitty structure put in place long ago.
    I had three people I talked to in grad school. And all the rest that “didn’t get it” I just didn’t talk to.
    Students forget that they have control of their own education.
    Options: work a dead end job and make art in your bedroom at your parents house, OR move to a different state, meet new people, and get paid to make art.
    If you pay to go to grad school, make sure you go to Harvard or something so the investment will at least give you that rich people attention.
    My opinion isn’t that grad school is good, it’s that everything sucks so why not take advantage of it.

    1. Becky Eddy Phillips

      You are so right about that! Why did I get an MFA? Because I had work to do, dammit! A concept in place! A Franklin Furnace Fund! An MFA for free. I majored in Sculpture only because I needed to make a sculpture for performance. My MFA gave me much. Most importantly a focus on an imminent vision.

  16. Al

    Great advice Christina. Got my masters at UD years ago; tuition waiver and a stipend. Worth every penny.
    I’m proud to have the degree. The two years were a great respite from the real world. The main thing I learned was that only myself is/was responsible for my work, my career and/or the validity or significance of all the effort. Suspension of disbelief gets me through the low times.

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