Ascension Etiquette for Aspiring Art Stars

Here's the setup-- you're 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... real good. The right people are noticing, the right opportunities presenting themselves, and it's looking more and more like you're a contender to run the proverbial gamut. But you know what? Life can get pretty precarious out there in the realm, especially when you're on a roll and everybody's watching, which means that brushing up on the rules of engagement before you engage becomes increasingly essential to your ultimate and hopefully destined success as an artist.

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, proposals, and seductions from people, press, institutions, galleries, and other entities you 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 dealie bob, mainly 'cuz they've got agendas and you're part of them. So what we're gonna do here is splay out some basic survival strategies in order to minimize miscues and expedite your upward mobility. Ready? Excellent.

General Guidelines

Rule number one, without question, is to conduct yourself in the art world the same way you conduct your life in general-- treat people the way you expect them to treat you. No matter how fast your career is accelerating, be polite, courteous, kind, generous, positive, respectful, attentive, and considerate-- every act involving any of these qualities bodes well for your future. In short, apply all those lessons your parents taught you when you were young about how to behave in public and you're 90% there. It's that simple and no more complicated.

You see, a key aspect of career advancement is getting talked about, and when that talk happens, you want it to be positive, not negative. When people say your name, you want them to say it with reverence and respect. That's the best way to go by far, and it's the kind of word of mouth that works for you, not against you. The art world is small, news travels fast, and you want your news to be good.

So be a nice person and work to make people like you (not everyone will, of course, but at least you'll know you tried). At the same time, continue to believe in yourself and in your vision of making art. Don't worry. There's no conflict in pursuing your vision and being nice at the same time. The upside is that you increase the chances that the right people get attracted to you and support you-- benefactors, patrons, collectors, galleries, people to invest in your future, people who are driven to help artists in their careers.

In a way, you're like a politician. You don't want to have people running around hating you. Go out of your way not to offend-- consider it part of the game. Of course you'll have to deal with downers like jealousy and envy, but that's the way it goes. If you have to bend over every now and again, so what? Conciliatory actions are not the worst thing in the world, and best of all, they come back to you tenfold.

It's in your political (and financial) best interests to cultivate a social persona that you can use to your advantage because most people buy art and buy into artists in social ways. Take your private life and personal feelings out of your art-related interactions as much as possible. The instant you start getting annoyed, angry, or offended, things can get complicated. To repeat, don't take it personally, like you're compromising your artistic integrity (whatever that is) or prostituting yourself to the whims of the status quo. It's business, plain and simple, so lighten up and enjoy the ride.

People you do business with aren't necessarily your friends. They're not people you go home with; they're a fact of the art world and once you're done with them, that's it until next time. In certain cases you have to tolerate them-- and perhaps they tolerate you too. You may think they're wrong or misguided (or know they're wrong or misguided)-- fine. Deal with it. For example, if your gallery introduces you to someone who proceeds to rub you the wrong way, there's likely a reason for the introduction, so do what you can to maximize the outcome. Hold up your end of the conversation; keep 'em happy. You do what works best to get what you want done and that's how the game is played.

And please oh please-- remember the good people who helped you out along your Yellow Brick Road to OZ. The best artists acknowledge their pasts and never forsake them. Ignoring your past and only talking about where you are now or where you're going, dissociating yourself from where you've been and people you've known is counterproductive, especially to those who've known you. Acknowledge and respect your past; acknowledge your good solid relationships. There's plenty of room for everybody to prosper together. The flip side, of course, is artists who are ungrateful to those who assisted them in getting where they are today-- artists who put on airs like they were always great, but that "the people who count" never realized it until now. Two words on this tact: BAD IDEA.

As for those pioneers who took up your cause ahead of the rest, who believed you had a future-- now that you're a luminary, think about maybe giving a little back, like a phone call, a handwritten letter, an inscribed exhibition catalog, even a drawing, whatever. The idea that you're thinking of them, appreciating them, and haven't forgotten them goes further than you can ever imagine. Don't do it to a fault, but show props to those key figures in your evolution as an artist-- they'll never forget you. Best of all, you turn them into lifetime supporters who'll talk you up at every chance they get. It's all about creating goodwill, and respecting your past while looking to the future is one excellent way to create it.

Speaking of maintaining and expanding your fan base, seeing as everything's peachy and you've got a little breathing room, help those less blessed 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 they'll always remember and appreciate, and you can be sure that, one way or another, they'll return the favor.

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 continue to support you regardless. If not for them, you wouldn't be where you are today. It's like kicking out the rungs of the ladder below you once you get to the top-- makes absolutely no sense. You should rejoice every time your art sells for big bucks, whether you own it or not, because that makes every piece you've ever made and every piece you've yet to make that much more valuable. But wait; there's more. If you want to participate in your own personal inflationary spiral, set aside a prime piece or two (or even more) from every body of work you create so that when prices go up, you've got a piece of the action. See how easy that is?

And now for some behaviors to avoid-- being obnoxious, difficult to work with, constantly promoting or talking about yourself, or being disrespectful or condescending to others. Being humble and grateful about your good fortune works far more to your favor than being otherwise. You come up the food chain not because you talk about you or you step on people's heads, but because other people talk about you, about how you or your art has impacted and changed their lives in wondrous and positive ways.

Don't be rude to the people who work for you or on your behalf-- gallery staff, framers, movers, suppliers, or studio assistants. Show respect; get respect. No matter how important you think you are, be courteous. Little things can come back to bite you, like for example, being nice to your dealer, but treating the staff like garbage. You think the staff won't tell the dealer or that the dealer will side with you and not the staff? Think again.

Of course you can be a brilliant artist and a complete jerk-- that's perfectly OK. But don't expect to get famous in your lifetime. Even if you're with a good gallery, any dealer will tell you that they don't have to work with artists they don't like. Sure, a gallery might love your work so much they're willing to tolerate your bullshit, but the moment there's a snag in the game plan, they'll turn you out-- believe it. Dealers have little or no allegiance to artists who give them a hard time.

Isolated obnoxious artists do beat the odds on occasion and go global, it's true, but the chances of that happening are consummately slim, even on a good day. A talented obnoxious artist may well have an ardent fan base among their immediate peers-- and they often do-- but if they're so nauseating that no one in any position of influence or authority can stand to be around them, their fate is basically a foregone conclusion. As one dealer once 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."

Then again, if you're a "bad boy (or girl)" of the art world and have been that way ever since you were nobody, your devotees will tend to accept that inevitability. As you make your ascent, however, the downside is that new converts may regard you as overcompensating for inadequacies, or as having not yet come to grips with yourself. It's a trade-off you'll likely have to make. Whatever you do, don't manufacture an arrogant attitude to go along with your latest work or your newfound notoriety or whatever relative pinnacle you're at (or perceive yourself as being at). Act how you act, not how you think you should act. Additionally, the risk of consciously deciding to act a certain way, especially if it's negative, is that you condemn yourself to having to act that way for the remainder of your days-- because that's what your audience will come to expect. The best way to go-- be you (and be nice).

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, for example, your trusty dealer will be more than happy to stand in for you. Why? It's in both your best interests. As they say in the trade, if you're not good at schmoozing, don't schmooze; awkward schmoozing is worse than no schmoozing at all.

Plenty of artists are uneasy in social settings and anytime you feel that way about an impending or unfamiliar situation, discuss it with your dealer or whoever's responsible for your appearance at such events. Tell them you're not good at openings or whatever, and then 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, and so on. Be clear. Be honest. Be clear. Craft a strategy, decide how to play it, decide how far you feel comfortable going, and then work together to get through the hard parts. Being up front is always best; once 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 dealer will take up the slack.

More Protocol Pointers

Swift sudden attention on you and your art is never easy is to handle, especially if you haven't been making art all that long. Artists who become famous later in life tend to be less affected or taken by the glamorous trappings of being in the spotlight, and as a result tend to be better balanced about it, but regardless of age or experience, understand that one or two high points do not instantly catapult you into the annals of art history. Consistent long-term production of superior quality work is what eventually eternally ensconces you in whatever endgame is on your radar. The exposure has to start somewhere, of course, and sometimes it starts big, but this is only the beginning, not the end.

The art world is notorious for loving the next new thing, and today, the next new thing may be you, but remember-- you can only be the next new thing once. Accomplishment after accomplishment over the long haul trumps 15 minutes of fame approximately 100 percent of the time; never confuse the two. Your name has to be out there constantly. Nothing happens all of a sudden, and nothing continues unless you continue it.

A corollary caution to receiving unexpectedly intense publicity is the impulse 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 particular day about one particular instance in one particular publication. So don't get all bloated about it. As they used to say back in the day when we had newspapers, "Today's news is tomorrow's fish wrap." Maybe take your press seriously after you've had several hundred articles or reviews and a distinct trend has emerged, but in the meantime, be happy they spell your name right, and not much more.

OK. 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 everything. The downside risk in doing this is that their art starts to look different than the art that got them there in the first place. For instance, they try to make everything look more important or tackle large-scale pieces that aren't necessarily typical of what they've produced to this point, and in general, veer off track. The solution? You've got to keep your obligations manageable and under control. Accept only those offers you know you can handle, and handle well, and avoid unfamiliar projects you have no idea if or how you'll be able to pull off.

Don't change your look too fast. You'll be tempted. Don't take jobs 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 man or woman who can do anything. Take it slow and deliberately; you've got plenty of time. Most importantly, continue to make what you've been making. That's what got you here; that's what they want to see. Be aware that you'll have all kinds of opportunities to step outside your comfort zone-- digital art, plastic toys, skateboard decks, collaborations, a mural for a building, works in experimental materials, illustration for a magazine cover, and Lord only knows what else. Best advice? Stay on point with your original message and vision. Diversity is great, but avoid getting into too much too different too fast. Continuing to fine tune and solidify your process is what ascendancy is all about.

And if a dealer (or other art world notable) who knows more than you, who has substantial experience in the business, or who has an established reputation, wants to offer some advice or recommendations, consider it a gift. Don't think they're working against you. Whether they're sending you off from your past or welcoming you to your future, listen to what they say and think about it. Those in the know rarely give advice to artists with the intent to inhibit their careers or their progress. You don't have to do everything they tell you, but you owe it to yourself to at least 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 in this regard is to pick and choose. 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 ascendancy, of course, is the prospect of changing galleries-- always a delicate situation. The key here is not to burn bridges while at the same time, communicating your needs in ways people can understand and respect. Treat everyone involved fairly and with dignity; they realize things are different now. 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 if things don't play out the way you're thinking they will. And be especially careful about going with a particular gallery just because you think they're better than where you've been. The longevity of relationships counts in this business and getting a reputation as a user 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 like New York or London or Berlin, make sure you're reasonably solid in your newly chosen geographical realm first (as well as in the one you're leaving-- you just might want to come back). A suggested minimum war chest would be to have 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 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 way 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 news, how cute you are, what you wear, or who you shook hands with. It's all about the art. The old adage sums it best: No matter where you go, there you are. And you better be there and be ready. Keep your eye on that one 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.

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