How to Be a Professional Unprofessional Artist
By Mirabelle Jones
A while back, a white male art critic who I was close to at the time wrote a piece for a major arts publication called “How to Be an Unprofessional Artist.” The piece was a poetic glorification of the unprofessional artist- the kind of artist who doesn’t do the right things or make the right decisions, but who is an artist regardless of the social and financial currency that title represents. While it remains a beautifully written piece, it unintentionally smothers the concerns of less privileged artists such as queer, POC, disabled and low-income artists who often don’t have the means nor leisure to be satisfied with just “dabbling” in their work. In light of recent discussions about the privileges and prevalence of white male artists in response to the #MeToo movement, I wanted to provide an alternate article which keeps the experiences of “othered” artists in mind. The following are some thoughts on how to survive in an art world where you will experience additional challenges due to racism, ableism, homophobia, classism, ageism and sexism.
Understand the Conversation You Want to Have
Exhibiting artwork is equivalent to entering a dialogue. Choosing where and when to exhibit your work based on what conversations you’d like to participate in will help you feel safe and supported in order to build yourself up in an artist community. Some will advise you to show your work wherever you can, but that it isn’t an easy option if you don’t have the resources to support that decision or if you’re worried about you / your work feeling alienated. Remember your work is an extension of yourself. You wouldn’t want to introduce yourself by telling someone everything about you, but you might tell them certain things to give the right impression. In the same way, you should build your body of work in a way that every piece seems connected. Avoid the impulse to share everything you make. It’ll drain you and detract from your stronger pieces.
It always surprises me when I meet an artist who is so passionate about exhibiting their work but when I ask them to show it to me they admit they have nothing to show. While I’m completely in favor of the idea of “the living artist,” it makes it very difficult to convince a curator to show your work if you haven’t made work that is ready for exhibition. As hard as it can be to find the time and energy to do so, put what you can into building up that portfolio. Be ready to show the work you’re most proud of when someone asks. This can be as simple as having a unique Instagram account for your artwork, or a full website of your work.
Document Document Document
Next to making work, documentation is the most important part of making it as an artist. In fact, I’ve seen plenty of half-baked artwork be successful on account of beautiful documentation. For every piece you make, take photos, videos, and write down the details: where, when, who, what, why in case you forget (and you will). I like to write a short journal entry after each piece in case I’m asked what it was like to produce it later. This material will help you build your portfolio, be useful in interviews and publications, and might even end up being exhibited. Learn how to document your own work in a pinch (photography, video, web development, graphic design, writing) but also surround yourself with friends and professionals who have these skills. Pay them if and when you can. If you can’t pay them be upfront about it and see if they are still interested. If they’re not, be understanding that these individuals get asked this pretty much non-stop. And we all gotta eat.
It’s becoming increasingly more common for artists to rely on social media accounts instead of web portfolios for sharing their work. Web portfolios are still viewed as the more legitimate format by arts organizations, and so I recommend having one. At the same time, having an Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Youtube channel, Pinterest, Dribbble, Behance, and / or Facebook account for your artwork can help others follow and share your work. To avoid having to post on all of these platforms individually, I recommend setting up an IFTTT account. Something to look out for with social media accounts is that the more accounts you have, the more likely it will be that your work will be shared without proper attribution. To make this easier, I recommend watermarking your images and / or including metadata. If you’re worried about your work being used improperly, you can do a reverse image search to find out who is using images of your artwork and where, then politely ask the person to credit you or remove the image.
Residencies & Calls for Entry
Residencies are often overlooked as an option by artists who haven’t shown their work or didn’t go to art school. While having that history will help, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good candidate. You could be just what they’re looking for based on your portfolio and artist’s statement. There are residencies which require you to pay for housing, studio access, materials, etc. as well as those which provide you a stipend. While stipends are preferable, paid residencies might be worth considering as they can grant you access to materials or studio space as well as access to a community of artists. Depending on your standard costs, they might also give you a break in your expenses. Calls for entry and the sites which list them range in their authenticity. Do your research to make sure calls are worth your time both in applying and (if accepted) participating. It’s good practice to get used to completing applications, so try to enter shows and apply for residencies regularly. Keep records of your applications so you don’t have to rewrite everything from scratch each time. I recommend the following sites:
Many opportunities will come from people you build relationships with. If you can, go to shows and make connections with artists who are working in the communities you’d like to be a part of. If you’re too shy for this or have other reasons prohibiting you, try reaching out to others on social media. I’ve had a surprising number of opportunities float my way just from meeting other artists online and sharing work back and forth.
You Don’t Have to Catch Every Star and Put It in the Sky
I am going to guess that you have about a bazillion ideas and maybe it’s hard to decide what to work on at any given moment. If you can’t make a decision on one or two finite, achievable projects, you will never make anything at all, and that’s a problem. I keep a Rolodex of ideas just in case I’m having a dull moment and need to pull a project. I choose projects based on:
• How excited am I about this? (This will give me the motivation I need to complete them).
- How relevant is it that I (specifically) do this project? What uniquely qualifies me to make this work? Why is it important that I make it vs. some other artist? Do I want to make it or do I want to just see it exist in the world?
- What materials do I have on hand?
- How relevant is it that I do this project NOW? Does it build on my previous work? Does it relate to contemporary work or issues?
Thar Be Bigots
Chances are you are going to hear some bigoted bs come out of the mouth of at least someone in the art world. I encourage you to try to be as level-headed as you comfortably and genuinely can when pushing back. I don’t say this for their benefit. I say it for yours. If I went all in with every curator, gallery owner, or fellow artist who said something like this, it would derail me from producing my own work. Now this isn’t to say you shouldn’t respond to bigoted statements (I recommend a “what do you mean by that?” to allow them to dig their own hole). But you should also pick your battles. You don’t owe those people your time or energy. Consider telling others who might have more sway what was said. Having conversations with whoever has leverage might accomplish more than if you were to directly respond to the bigot in question.
Feed and House Thyself
If you’re a low income artist, acknowledge that the struggle is real and things will be more difficult for you (to put it mildly) than for other artists who have the income and time to spend on things like studio space, art supplies, grad school, art handlers, residencies, etc. Being an artist is EXPENSIVE. Try to resist the urge as much as possible to purchase things like art supplies over, say, food and rent. There is no shame in doing whatever you need to do in order to survive. Ignore the bootstrapping from folks who are more privileged. Their reality is not your reality. Don’t compare yourself to other artists who have more money and time. They aren’t in your shoes, and the comparison is probably just going to make you depressed as hell. Devote as much of your time to your work as is reasonable without putting yourself out. This may be, for starters, very little time. Acknowledge that you are putting in what you can and that makes you just as devoted (if not more so) as any other artist who has more time and money to spare on producing their work.
$$$ MONEY $$$
If your goal is to make money through your art, you have picked a really terrible investment. That said, as you develop a solid portfolio you should start to look into some options to at least supplement your income with your artwork. Artwork is work and it should eventually offer you some return. While there may be no guaranteed way to make money off your work, here are some suggestions as to how to at least conserve money:
There are lots of places to apply for grants (http://www.artinsight.org/grants.html is a good place to start). There are also many types of grants:
- federal, state and local grants
- grants for individual artists (that’d be you)
- grants for non-profit organizations
- emergency grants
- emerging artist grants (typically for artists under 30- ageist, I know)
- grants focusing on a particular issue (i.e. water conservation, immigration, etc.)
- grants for artists of a certain background or identity (queer artists grants for example)
Specific grants are easier to get than grants without much criteria, so try to narrow down your searches. A good search might be something like “queer Los Angeles writer grant.” When applying for grants, try to be as realistic and coherent as you can about why you need funding and how much you need. Many grants require a breakdown of your costs and assessment of your needs. Make sure your portfolio demonstrates that you’re qualified to do the work you’re proposing. If it doesn’t, update it and include in your application anything supplemental that will add to your case. CAD models, quality sketches, prototypes, proof of concepts, and photos of similar work that you’ve produced go a long way, as does a well-written description. Grant reviewers have told me that they throw out any application with basic grammatical or spelling errors so get a proofreader. Try to find small grants ($500 — $1000) that suit your needs to begin with before applying for larger grants.
Something to keep in mind when choosing to exhibit: Is this the kind of gallery you want to associate your work with? Do they sell work that exploits women or POC? What kind of visitors or collectors does this gallery attract? Would they be likely to support the kind of work you do? Are there other reasons you think your work will sell there? Keep in mind that the gallery will usually keep a percentage (typically between 30% — 60%) of the sale price when pricing your work and also do some research about what usually sells in the gallery (including mediums, artists, aesthetics, price points). In general, don’t do “pay to play” shows unless you have very good reasons for believing it will benefit you immediately in terms of resources (such as studio or wall space) or in the long run (building up your portfolio).
If you need money for a specific project you believe in and think others will believe in it too (especially if it’s a project for a cause, a multiple, or a large-scale public installation), crowdsourcing is a good place to get funding. Consider the following:
- What rewards you will offer if any
- A realistic breakdown of your costs
- Assistance with making an awesome video
- Good sketches / models that visualize your idea
- A press release to send to blogs and online “news” sources who might promote your idea
From what I’ve observed the artists who do well on Patreon either already have a pretty sizable following or present their work in person and publish regularly on sites where they can redirect to their Patreon (such as Instagram or Youtube).
If your work incorporates some product — hardware or software, specific brand of paint or other medium — consider forming a relationship with the manufacturer or brand to see if they’d be willing to sponsor you. This might not be an option until you have a fairly big following on social media or some serious achievements on your resume to backup your validity as an artist-investment or unless the company thinks your idea is impressive / potentially viral and it jives with their promotional plans for the product. Again, this is where impressive documentation comes into play. Also keep your eye out and your arms open to non-corporate sponsors: people with disposable income who believe in you and your work.
Always insure anything you ship, especially if it is fragile. I cannot tell you the percentage of work I’ve lost due to damages while in transit. This won’t make you money, but it will keep you from losing it. USPS usually gives you a certain amount of insurance with Priority or Express Mail. You can ask them to add additional insurance for a fee. Many galleries will also insure your work while it is in their possession. Make sure to ask about this and carefully read anything you sign pertaining to damages and insurance.
You should weigh the pros and cons of filing as an artist. One big pro is you can write off expenses such as art supplies, a percentage of the meals you have with other artists (provided you talk about work), travel expenses, studio costs, exhibition costs, residencies, etc. What you can write off or if you can file will vary by country and state so check in with other artists or tax assistants. If you choose to file, keep careful notes of related expenses. A spreadsheet where you break down costs according to how they are filed will make deductions simple. If you get your art supplies at the same places consistently, you can also do an end of the year search for that retailer in your online statement to find out how much you spent. One of the big cons to filing as a professional artist is that you’ll be on the state franchise board and IRS’s books as a self-employed artist which means if you do make money off your work you’re legally required to file it and contribute a sizable % of your profits to our growing war fund.
PRODUCTS, PRINTS & PROMOTION
If it seems appropriate, consider turning some of your art into purchasable items: clothes, art books, pins, prints, etc. Kitsch is kitschy, but turning your artwork into a product will get your work out there and provide you some income. It also makes your work accessible to low income individuals and visible outside the gallery. You can use sites like RedBubble or Etsy to sell your work. Make sure to promote your work in the form of press releases (I’ll do a subsequent post on how to write one of these) and social media blasts.
In closing, I want to say thank you to all the low income, disabled, queer, POC, elder and women-identified artists who keep kicking ass despite additional pressures. Know that your feelings about privilege in the art world reflect a reality. Don’t let anyone gaslight you, try to tear you down, or tell you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Meritocracy is a myth. Art in the mainstream art world is a currency (purchased and traded like any stock). Take care of yourself throughout your practice. Don’t take shit. Don’t stop fighting. We need you.