Saturday, October 10, 2009

On career advice for young painters, beginning well enough, but ending badly

The video above gives an idea that many people have about the life of an artist. I think many kids enter art school with those ideas too. Art school may attract students who are like that, but the artists I know are extremely hardworking. They work like any one who has a small business, because that's what being an artist is, small business.

A working artist has all the functions of any other business,such as accounting and management of inventory, communication with suppliers on one end, and vendors (dealers) on the other. They have thick income tax forms that have to be done by an accountant. They have to track their costs so as to turn a profit at the end of the process.

I think it is very rare that a love of running a business and painting occur in the same individual. I am sure it happens, but for most artists I know the business end is the part they like least. I have owned galleries and done a lot of self promotion and advertising.I did it because it was necessary, and I would still be waiting for some one else to do it if I hadn't.

I sometimes hear "would be" artists say that they want an agent. I don't know anybody who has an agent. It doesn't work that way. I guess you could say a gallery is your agent, but they expect to deal with you, they are certainly not interested in cutting a third party into every transaction. So you can't wait for an agent to discover you.If you want to be in the art business you have to do business.

I wrote a series of posts some time ago on the art business waltz, you may want to go back into my archives and read them if you have any curiosity on how the artist does business.For some reason Blogger has given me two separate archives marked art business. I can't seem to amalgamate the two so there they remain. Twins. One for each eye.

I get e-mails rather frequently from art students asking my advice on their training. I always tell them if they would be willing to teach, or do graphic art they should. Artist should be the career of last resort. If you have the ability to be anything else, I think you should. Here is a story of Ives Gammell telling me that.

After I had studied with Ives for a while my parents came to visit me in Boston. They lived in Minnesota, so I hadn't seen them since I got to the Fenway studios. I arranged for them to meet Gammell. He gave a time for me to bring them to his apartment on Beacon street. My elegant mother arrived in a mink and a nice wool suit from Bonwit Teller or somewhere and carried herself, as always, like the queen of England, as played by Scarlett O'Hara. When we got there he asked me to wait in the small living room and he took my parents into another room to speak to them. I sat and admired a lovely little Alfred Stevens of a woman in a beautiful gown that was impossibly well painted, that he had hung in the room. After a few moments the door flew open and my mother briskly floated out, and said to me , "Come we me must be going", she was obviously angry.I said goodbye to Ives hurriedly and followed my parents out the door. When we got down to the street below my mother said that Ives had told her that he saw nothing that led him to believe I had the makings of a painter. He said I was a bright young man and reminded her of Calvin Coolidge (?)or maybe Woodrow Wilson I don't remember which, and that they should send me to law school so I might have a future. I am certain my mother tore into him verbally, she was not a woman you would want to trifle with.

I am sure Ives really felt I had zero potential, but he later said something that led me to see how he thought about advising young men on painting careers ( he advised young women,not at all). He said that if he discouraged a young person from trying to be a painter he would spare them a life of disappointment, endless work and failure, because they didn't have IT.If they did have IT, nothing he could say or do would discourage them from becoming a painter.

I can't imagine being so blunt or perhaps even remorselessly nasty to a student but Ives felt that it was a reasonable act, and he was justified in his treatment of me, He said nothing to me up front that he was going to unload that on my parents, he deliberately sprang it on us, with out any warning or foreshadowing. Since my father was helping me financially so I could eat while I studied, it was an act that was at best inconsiderate. But I showed up and studied with him again the next day, and never mentioned it. Because I had IT. I have now told hundreds of you the story. Serves him right.


Carlos Ranna said...

Nice post, as always. I´ll need to read this one again tomorrow...

BTW, you have two art business tag, because on of then has a dot in the end....


Unknown said...

That is an amazing story. I suppose like you said, he felt it was justifiable to discourage if possible. But still... it was cruel.
I did, however, greatly enjoy the description of your mom. Perhaps you get your spunk from her.
I don't expect to ever be an "artist". But I have no choice but to paint. Apparently, it is coded in my DNA and I can't help it.

Gregory Becker said...

You have to love Father Guido.
I cant believe that happened. That would have really shook me up.
Ultimately nothing challenges me more or is more satisfying in terms of the work of my hands than my artistic pursuits.
I have never done any work that I actually loved except the work I've found in the visual arts.
What more could I want?

Philip Koch said...

"...spare them a life of disappointment, endless work and failure.."What you describe must have been the feelings Gammell himself struggled with.
What Gammell did strikes me as manipulative even though he may have persuaded himself he was doing the right thing. Speaking directly to you about his concern would have been much better in my opinion.

With my students at MICA I see a curious thing- I try to give them at least some warning that the life of any artist is difficult. Nothing but nothing causes them to glaze over as quickly. I also lay out a few suggestions for steps they can take to make their career go a little easier in the future but again their interest level plummets.

At the same point in my own life I wasn't more aware than my present students. I had zero inquisitiveness in such questions when I was a college sophomore. My bills and tuition were paid in full by my parents. Looking back I realize now I was extremely fortunate.The challenge of growing up and leaving home had put so much on my plate. If there was a way to bury my head in the sand a little longer about the reception I would face as an artist after school, well that was ok with me. said...

It's true, Stapleton. Even YOU can't discourage me from painting.
Enjoy my lunch while I eat your dinner.(my lunch today is my home made gruyere grilled cheese with tomato and sauteed garlicy Swiss chard.) You can come to lunch anytime.

DennyHollandStudio said...


I was attending the San Francisco Art Institute when that Father Guido spot came out- we all thought it was funny and a bit on the truth. And you're right, there's the students who get up at noon and waste the day and then there are those who start early and are truly dedicated, hard working students of art. I remember I took a "business of art" class at SFAI and it was a joke. Everything I learned about business I learned on my own by reading books and the good old trial by fire approach. Nothing speaks like real life experience. Now at 50, I'm painting full time and leading a comfortable life off my art.

Thank you for another insightful post.

willek said...

Quite a story about Ives. I am amazed at your ability to continue with that kind of BS in the back of your mind. I continually have moments of self doubt and I hear that many of us do. What was it that kept you going? Were you perpetually seeing improvement in your work? Getting affirmation from those who you thought highly of? Did you mention the conversation to others and get their take? Your mother seemed to have do doubt about your abilities. That must have been a positive thing.

Stapleton Kearns said...

hey thanks, I see that little dot now!
I can fix it too, if I can find the time.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think it was cruel, but he also gave his time, remember h taught for free. So I have to say it was complicated.,

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is the only thing that I find perpetually interesting.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I had to sell my art to survive by about the time I was in my mid twenties. My parents gave me a little stipend, but it wasn't really enough to live on. In retrospect that was probably a smart thing to do.I didn't sell much or often,but I tried to sell it as best as I could.

I wonder how you could make learning about the art biz more interesting to them?

Stapleton Kearns said...


That's gourmet food. I am going to steal your milk money and let you eat your Swiss, charred.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Did you feel like the art school prepared you for the art business? I know they did not prepare me, although I didn't hang out there very long.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't think I was getting any affirmation and I don't remember thinking that I was singled out for rough handling. I think Ives did that sort of thing a lot. I stayed because I wanted to learn and I knew of nowhere else I could find the same teaching.Doesn't everyone's mother think they are talented?

willek said...

All of us kids believe our parents, that is why we have them. We believe what they tell us in to advanced adulthood and we believe what they have told us even after they are gone. We believe it even if what they tell us is positive, or if it is negative. That can make a big difference, so I am told.

Err, and I did not realize that Ives did this for FREE! That does give him a little slack...a little.

Marian Fortunati said...

I'm glad you believed (and still believe) in yourself.

I think there were a lot of teachers like that at one point... at least there are a lot of stories about teachers like that.