Help Desk

Help Desk: Starting Again

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

Your counselor, hard at work.

My question has to do with getting back into the swing. I am a painter/installation artist who showed frequently for a few years after grad school with a small amount of critical notice whose opportunities dried up quickly. My work changes form frequently, and I have really been out of the loop for about five years now. I have been making work with regularity but have not attempted to “get back out there.” My show opportunities had always followed a this-begets-that path and now I have little idea of how/who to approach in order to try and show again. Any advice?

This is a good question, one that in many ways gets to the heart of what it means to choose art as a profession. The reason that art is not for the timid is because your work can be put on hold for any number of reasons and your general career trajectory is not likely to be an ever-increasing incline but a squiggle of ups and downs. It’s like a board game played out over the duration of your life: good review? Go forward one square. Studio building for sale? Pick a card. Sold out show? Advance to an institutional-gallery catalog. Had a baby? Wait two turns. It’s important to remember that the winner is the one who keeps plugging along, believing in what she does.

This week’s patron saint is Carl Jung, who claimed that certain images can have psychological effects.

But back the advice part: the first thing I want you to do is to go through your old CV and make a list of anyone who you’ve met who has been supportive. This includes old teachers or mentors, dealers who’ve sold your work and gallerists who put your paintings in group shows, critics that included you in favorable reviews, etc. Write down absolutely everyone you can think of, line by line, and then go back over the list and put a star next to anyone who was friendly and approachable. Next, write a nice email to the first ten of these starred people. Be honest. Say you’re getting back in touch because you’ve been out of the loop for a while and you’re ready to dive back in. Explain that you’ve been working the whole time, but not showing your work, and you’d like to get some feedback. If it’s an old mentor you’re writing to, express how valuable their help has been in the past. If it’s a gallerist you’re writing to, remind them of the date and title of the show you were in at their gallery and thank them again for their prior support. Include a link to your newest work on your website. Ask them to come for studio visits. In the studio, if they seem engaged and receptive, ask if they can think of a place that might be interested in showing the work.

If you don’t have a good list of prior contacts, start researching the local galleries, nonprofits and alternative spaces. You can look online at their past and current shows and/or the work of the artists they represent to see if your work might be a good fit. Take a trip to the gallery in person, look at the work and the prices and see if your work is a match. Call to see if they accept submissions if that information isn’t on their website. Most galleries don’t look at unsolicited submissions anymore, so perhaps this isn’t your best way back into the fray, but you will find some that are open to new artists and your research on the others will put you in a good position when you do start getting your work out there again.

Another option is to start browsing the call-for-entries listings, like the ones that the College Art Association and post. A note of caution here: juried shows fall under the “caveat emptor” part of life. Look at websites, google the juror(s), and set a budget for entry fees and then stick to it. Only apply to juried shows that really fit your work. Obviously, if the title of the show is “The Art of the Teapot” don’t bet that they’ll take one of your paintings–but they will take your $35, so due diligence applies here.

All of these strategies in concert should give you a bit of a psychological lift, and sometimes it’s just a matter of pushing the ball to get it rolling again. Good luck!

I am a mid-career artist that needs a jump start. What suggestions might you have for me?

Unless you’re in the position of Glenn Ligon, mid-career might feel like the mid-winter of the mind: you made it through summer and fall, but will it ever be spring again? Our recent unseasonable weather notwithstanding, robins and willow buds seem a long way off.

You might feel like you need an epiphany, a ray of sunshine like a column of creative energy beaming straight from heaven into your hypothalamus. And you are poised to have one, but first you have to bear with my purple metaphors and hippy advice.

Start by priming your subconscious. You can take the long walks/hot baths/bottle-of-wine approach, or you can do what I do and watch a lot of British crime dramas on Netflix for three days. Either way, give yourself three days to do whatever it is you’re going to do and don’t do anything else. Why three? Because everything good comes in threes. If you’re going to start mucking around in your subconscious then everything you do must support the idea that you are moving toward an end result that you will find satisfying.

Next, get out the old pencil and paper, and make a list of everything you love in art. I mean really love, not just “like” on Facebook. This list can be embarrassing or grandiose or fairly inarticulate and muddy, but it doesn’t matter because you don’t have to show it to anyone. Then make a list of your goals. What do you want to happen next in your career? From the banal (revamp website) to the ambitious (a retrospective at LACMA), write it down, and then write down the steps that it will take for you to accomplish each one.

At mid-career, you’ve built yourself an imaginative empire, a Disneyland of the mind. To you it might feel like another boring trip around the ‘hood, but to the rest of us it’s a wonderland. Try to see your ideas with fresh eyes. Dig out and dust off your old sketchbooks going back at least three years, make yourself a cup of coffee, and read through them. Think about the work that you made as a result of these notes, and also the work that you didn’t make. What were you thinking about at the time, and where did that thinking lead? Are there themes that came up over and over? What did you jot down and then abandon, and why? Were there materials that you wanted to experiment with but never had the time? You might want to dog-ear some pages, or copy some old writings into your new sketchbook for safekeeping. Make a note of anything that still resonates.

Now for the hard part: don’t force it, but for heaven’s sake don’t go back to the television, either. If your “what’s next” epiphany hasn’t come yet, or if it’s the kind that starts quietly before building to a crescendo, go back into the studio and at least tidy up. You need to put your hands on your tools, and you need to be ready to work. If there’s something off your list of goals that you can put in motion, then pick up the phone or send that email. Then start dealing with some of those ideas from the old sketchbooks. Look at the list of things you love in art and see where the two overlap. It may not feel like it right now, but to quote from Raising Arizona, you’re in the “fabled catbird seat.” You have a developed body of work behind you, a lot of hard-earned wisdom, and probably some very useful contacts. Go in the studio and hit the steel with the flint. Before you know it the whole place will be on fire.