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The Plight of the Emerging Artist

ART TIMES Jan/Feb, 2004

Two years ago I began my new and wonderful career as a fine artist full of anticipation! Each day I eagerly began work determined to produce the finest art I was capable of and to express myself through my oil paintings. Progress ensued with a fair amount of accomplishment based on a strong desire to succeed, hard work, and, quite frankly, luck.

At some point in time, this emerging artist wanted to expose her work to a larger audience than the passers-by in Central Park who stopped to admire my landscapes. Thus, I began my quest to learn the business of being a fine artist and how to promote my work as an emerging artist.

After reading numerous books ranging from the basic, ‘so you want to be an artist’, and more than a few ‘how to’ books like, ‘how to market yourself and your art,’ I felt I had researched enough and was ready to continue my education in the school of hard knocks! As a business major I approached my goal in a businesslike fashion. I put my marketing degree to work and created a personal "marketing plan."

The action plan for this emerging artist consisted of a list of start-up activities such as creating a résumé, artist statement, business cards, postcards, and producing slides and photos of my work. I garnered all these suggested activities from my research. With the help of the Art Times and other publications as my resources, I identified and compiled a list of target venues in which to show, and researched each for their suitability with the help of the web and personal visits. I was the epitome of organization, follow-through and follow-up.

It wasn’t that I was so naïve as to think that the art world was waiting for me and my work, but I didn’t realize at the time that for an emerging artist the path to showing was not so clear! Certainly, the books I had read hadn’t said how difficult it was for an emerging artist to show. My guess is that providing even a glimpse of such realism might discourage the artist. Undaunted by rejection, I pressed on, remained positive in my approach, targeted my energies and remained focused on the tasks at hand while at the same time growing artistically.

Books and mentors suggested juried art shows run by art clubs and organizations, and various other venues such as local libraries, schools, restaurants and banks. I tried each suggestion with varying degrees of success. Most importantly I learned from each experience and built on that experience becoming more successful with each new attempt.

I soon learned that the juried art shows run by the art clubs and organizations require a substantial amount of work up front – producing good slides, researching the suitability of the show and the receptivity of the jurors to my style of work, contacting the show sponsors and obtaining a prospectus, paying non-refundable entry fees, etc. In my research I had read that no respectable show would charge an artist an entry fee and that artists should boycott shows that did. I haven’t found a club yet that doesn’t charge a fee and call it either what it is or something like an "administration charge" or "processing fee."

Art schools sometimes host art competitions with commercial enterprises. I was delighted with the opportunity to win prize money and have my art displayed in a public space. But they too charge entry fees which I suspect in a large part or in total are used as the prize money to purchase the art and the rights!

While I’m on the subject of art clubs and organizations, I haven’t seen a prospectus yet that discloses the percentage of non-member artists that either were accepted in last year’s show or the percentage provided for in the current show. Word gets around the artist community which clubs to avoid! I suppose if one pays a substantial membership fee to a club or organization one would expect the quid pro quo of showing once or twice a year regardless of the art’s merit.

Naturally, I took advantage of each opportunity at the art school to show my work in the student exhibitions. It was a thrill for me to see the fruits of my labor exhibited amongst my peers. So when a school competition arose that could ultimately lead to a show in a well-known gallery I leapt at the chance. I was dismayed to learn later that my student work was judged alongside that of the instructors. Silly me for my naiveté!

I had much better luck with the other venues! After putting together a portfolio of slides, photos and appropriate marketing material, I began calling and arranging introductory meetings with those in charge of sites that would show off my work to good advantage and place my work in front of a receptive audience. At the very least, each visit required the thank you note, or at best, a follow-up step towards a show.

The direct marketing approach suited me as I received immediate feedback about the possibility of a show, and the cost was the expenditure of time. To be sure, I experienced rejection but not as often as the club show route. I myself rejected a few offers when my red flag went up in terms of situations to avoid. For instance, I avoided venues that insisted on a painting in return for the opportunity to show but the venue would not assume any responsibility for the safety and return of my work. In writing!

Small successes soon led to bigger ones! Who is to say definitively why, since my success rate began to improve at the same time as did my artwork. But the moral to the story is to stay true to your art and to do what you love. Surely success will follow, as each successful artist was once an emerging artist.

(Santo, a New York City-based contemporary realistic oil painter, is spearheading a group show of emerging artists, "The Artists of Studio Seven," to be held in the spring of 2004 at the Samuel J. Wood Library, Cornell University’s Weill Medical College.)

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