Help Desk

Help Desk: Breaking into Arts Journalism

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.

I love writing and I love art. I have been teaching for ten years, and now I am looking to break into journalism and the arts. Should I head back to uni and do a journalism course or attempt all of the competitions possible in order to build a portfolio? Please help.

The Krasnals. Dream Factory, 2008; oil on canvas.

The Krasnals. Dream Factory, 2008; oil on canvas.

Given the costs, it’s difficult to advise anyone except the independently wealthy to go back to school for a post-post-secondary education—even in the UK, where universities can only charge up to £9,000 per year. (In the U.S., of course, annual tuition for a public-school graduate program averages around $30,000.) Of course, you could certainly make an argument for returning to school for the networking, but banking on meeting the “right” people—and impressing them favorably—doesn’t always pay off. Instead, since you’re a teacher and you already know how to design and execute an academic plan, you could DIY an education. If you have discipline and ambition, consider embarking on a self-designed scheme to create a practice as an arts writer.

The basic components of a university arts-journalism curriculum would be classes in art history and theory, assignments in reading and writing, and feedback on your work. You can build these elements on your own, and some will come easier than others. Most accessible are the materials: online classes (some for free), videos from conferences, and podcasts devoted to art history, theory, and visual culture studies. In fact, there’s so much information that you might start to feel like a tiny hiker at the base of the Pyrenees, but don’t get buried in an avalanche of knowledge or your life will be all research and no writing. I suggest that you seek out some syllabi that can guide you toward canonical and/or useful texts—I conducted a basic Google search for “art theory syllabus” and turned up some great results. Find ten syllabi from trustworthy sources and see where they overlap; start with those books and articles. Identify other materials that sound interesting, and make an outline and a schedule. Leave yourself some flexibility to follow up on new leads; if you read an excellent text, check out its bibliography. If you’re working from anthologies and excerpts, it’s usually worth your while to obtain some of the original documents.

A good writer is, foremost, a good reader. Yes, you’ll be reading essays on art history and theory, but don’t skip the shorter contemporary texts. Make it a habit to read at least one exhibition review from a respected publication every day. It doesn’t matter what kind of work is in the review, or where the exhibition is—the point is to read enough to start picking out unique voices, isolating description from analysis, identifying strong arguments versus weak ones, etc., since this short-form writing is probably the type you’ll be doing, at least at the start. In brief, you should be reading examples of the kind of writing that you want to do.

Look, look, look. You have to view artwork in person, and that will mean some travel if you’re not currently living in a metropolitan area with a strong art scene. You might not find every exhibition to be thrilling; no matter: what you want here is practice in looking, in thinking, and in verbalizing your thoughts. Write down what you see and what you feel. The Museum of Modern Art has a very simple Visual Thinking Curriculum that trains students to use evidence-based reasoning to interpret artworks. The VTC researchers came up with some very basic questions one should ask oneself: What’s going on in this picture [sculpture/performance/etc.]? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can you find? Even after eight years of working as a published critic, a clatter of associations reverberates in my brain every time I enter an exhibition; I find myself returning to these questions as a way to quiet the noise.

The most difficult part of administering a self-study program is getting feedback. Consider starting a book club so you can discuss the texts you’re reading. If you’re the outgoing type, you might try to find a mentor, someone who is a little further on in his or her career and can help guide you. You might also form a writing group that gets together (in person or online) at least once a month to workshop each other’s essays and reviews. You’re going to need peers to help you evaluate your work if you’re to advance your practice.

As for “all the competitions” and building a collection of published writing, I think you’d do better to find art blogs and publications that accept pitches* or that consider unsolicited submissions (some examples are our own Shotgun Reviews program and On-Verge). Read the submission guidelines carefully and learn how to pitch an editor. Once you do get a foot in the door, stick to the word count, meet the deadlines, and adhere to the publication’s guidelines and preferences—in short, even if you aren’t yet a polished writer, you can make yourself stand out by being reliable. You might not find a paying gig right away (or every time), but you’ll be able to build your portfolio and hone your skills as a writer without paying application fees. Good luck!

*Someone please send me a question about pitching art journals.