How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul

How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul

by Caroll Michels

ISBN: 9780805088489

Publisher Holt Paperbacks

Published in Arts & Photography/Business of Art

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Sample Chapter

In 1978 I began counseling visual and performing artists and writers on career management and development. I set up my own business and called myself an "artist's consultant." Today, I refer to my profession as a "career coach and artist advocate," a job title that better describes the work that I do.

Ranging in age from twenty-one to eighty-five, clients have included painters; sculptors; printmakers; fiber artists; poets; playwrights; novelists; cartoonists; journalists; photographers; craft artists; theater and film directors; film and video artists; performing artists; choreographers; dancers; classical, jazz, and pop musicians and composers; and opera singers. They have included well-known artists, unknown artists, beginning artists, self-taught artists, midlife career changers, artists fresh out of school, and college dropouts. My clients have also included groups of artists, artist couples, arts administrators, curators, gallery dealers, art consultants, critics, arts service organizations, and theater and dance companies. I have assisted a rabbi, a retired executive of Macy's department store, a retired host of a television variety show, a gossip columnist, ex-offenders, corporate executives, physicians, surgeons, architects, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, and editors.

When I first began working with artists, the majority of my clients lived in the New York City area. However, today, through phone consultations I help artists nationwide, as well as those who live in Canada, Europe, Japan, and South America. I also meet with many artists in person in Sarasota, Florida.

I have advised and assisted artists in developing such basic career tools as résumés, artist statements, biographies, and brochures. I have provided information and advice on exhibition, performance, and commission opportunities. I have advised and assisted in the preparation of exhibition proposals, book proposals, and grant proposals, and public relations campaigns. I have advised artists on how to negotiate with art dealers and to prepare for studio visits.

I have also counseled artists on complex and seemingly less tangible career problems such as developing goals and helping artists learn to see themselves in relation to the world at large and as participants in the specific world of art and its various components. I have also counseled artists on handling rejection as well as success and on maintaining momentum and overcoming inertia.

However, the most significant aspect of my work is helping artists to take control of their careers.

Calling myself an artists' consultant and "hanging out a shingle" was not an easy task. For valid and comprehensible reasons, deeprooted skepticism was intrinsic to all arts communities. Initially, it was difficult to reach artists and convince them that what I had to say and offer was worthwhile.

I jumped this major hurdle when a writer from the Village Voice wrote an article about me and why my services were needed and necessary. It was only one journalist's opinion, but the endorsement was set in type, and I was deemed legitimate!

Literally an hour after the Voice article hit the newsstands my life changed drastically. I was swamped with phone calls from artists eager to set up appointments.

Nevertheless, after more than thirty years of counseling artists, I still find it is not uncommon to be questioned about why I am qualified to give artists advice. Some of my specific accomplishments are sprinkled throughout this book, cited to make or emphasize a point or convey an experience. Although I am no longer doing artwork, I have always been proud that I was able to live solely off my earnings as an artist. I exhibited at museums and cultural institutions throughout the United States and in Europe. I established a solid track record for winning grants and corporate contributions. I developed and implemented all of my own public relations and publicity. And I was regularly published in newspapers and periodicals.

Managing my own career was something that no one person taught me. I learned from several individuals, positive and negative encounters, trial-and-error experiences, and personal intuition.

My father was an artist and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. He earned a living as a graphic designer for the U.S. government. Early in his career he also worked as a freelance political cartoonist. In the evenings and on weekends he would design all sorts of "products"—ranging from a line of greeting cards with rather offbeat messages to T-shirts and other paraphernalia with messages that espoused his political point of view. Although he was jubilant about each and every project and would go as far as having everything printed without a marketing plan, he "froze" when it came time to make business contacts and organize sales. Some of the cards and T-shirts were distributed free of charge to friends and relatives, but basically our basement became a huge repository for what might have been.

When he retired, he started painting profusely. And although he read every word in each edition of my book, he never asked me for advice on how to get his watercolors beyond the walls of his house nor did I ever hear him mention that he submitted his work for exhibition consideration.

Only in recent years did I finally make the connection between the work I do with artists and my family background—that I am helping artists achieve what my father was unable to do: enter the marketplace.

This book contains information and advice derived from all of my experiences when I was working as an artist, as well as those of my clients, and most certainly some subliminal messages that I received from my childhood and adolescent years. I have offered perceptions, observations, and advice that would have been invaluable to me when I first started to make a career as an artist.

What artists need most is objective advice, but what they usually receive is reinforcement of a myth of what it is like to be an artist. All too often artists are characterized as underdogs, and accordingly this image is reinforced throughout their careers. I can't promise that all of my advice is objective, since my personal experiences come into play, but the original incentive to write this book came from realizing how much underdog philosophy was being published under the guise of "nuts and bolts" career management. Much of the reading material published in the 1970s and 1980s flatly stated that the way the art world operates will always remain the same, and it is naive to try to change it. Other publications were more subtle, but the tone was patronizing: "Yes, artists, you might be creative, talented, and have a lot to give to the world, but there are 'others' who really know what is going on, others who know best."

A book published in 1970 used the sexist title The Artist's Guide to His Market. Although the title of subsequent editions was changed to The Artist's Guide to the Art Market, the author advised that it would be unrealistic for artists to believe that they can earn a living through art sales.1

Although, in the 2000s, books on career management for artists are more plentiful and some publications emit tones that are more optimistic and empowering, the attitudes displayed by artists and many members of the art world continue to reek of the master/slave and victim/victimizer mentality.

This book addresses artists' roles in advancing and bettering their lot, taking control of their careers, learning to market their work, learning to exercise self-motivation, and approaching and managing their careers as other professionals deal with theirs. In other words, artists should apply many of the same techniques that other selfemployed professionals use to make their careers work.

You will rarely find the word talent used in the forthcoming pages. The belief that an artist has talent is a subjective judgment, and there is no guarantee that a talented artist will be successful or that a successful artist is talented. When I use the words success and successful, I am referring to the relative level of achievement within a specific category, not the inherent talent of an artist.

Measuring my success as an artists' career coach is very similar to measuring my success as an artist. In both professions I have achieved immediate success, long-range success, and no success. I have received direct feedback, indirect feedback, and no feedback. I have felt successful in my work when my clients have followed up and used the leads, information, and advice that have enabled some of them to win grants from foundations and government agencies, fellowships to artist-in-residence programs in the United States and abroad, and invitations to exhibit and perform. Clients have received press coverage and have had their work published. In some instances I have been successful in providing information and advice that was put to immediate use, and in other cases it has taken several years to see any new development.

Although many of the examples and anecdotes I use to illustrate or make a point involve visual artists, performing artists and writers will also be able to identify with many of the situations. All artists in all disciplines will get something out of this book.

This book will not provide all of the answers an artist is seeking, nor does it contain everything an artist needs to know about the art world. However, it fills in the gaps that have been omitted, overlooked, or ignored in other publications; it elaborates on subjects that have been inadequately covered and challenges some basic notions about what an artist's career is all about. It contains advice, opinions, and impressions that will not be particularly palatable to members of the art world—including artists, the media, funding agencies, patrons, art dealers, administrators, curators, and critics—because it also explores the ills and injustices of the art world and sheds some light on who is responsible.

The art world is in dire need of reforms and structural changes. These changes will not happen overnight, but they will happen if more and more artists take control of their careers, reject the image of artists as sufferers, and refrain from practicing a dog-eat-dog philosophy when it comes to competing with other artists.

Some time ago I shared these views with a client who has been seeing me since I began counseling artists. He had been represented by a dealer for more than three years, during which time his work substantially increased in sales and in value.

From the beginning of their relationship, much against my judgment, the artist refused to have a written contract with the dealer drawn up. However, the artist accepted and acted upon my advice to learn to market his work, independent of the annual one-person show he received at the gallery. Eventually, he became highly skilled in initiating new contacts and following up on old ones. Both initiatives resulted in many sales.

When the dealer saw what was happening, she added some new stipulations to their oral agreement, which originally set forth a specified commission on all work sold through the gallery. She began charging "special commissions" for special circumstances, circumstances in which she was not directly involved either in initiating a sale or in doing the legwork or paperwork to make it happen. The artist, who was afraid to challenge the dealer because he felt that it would jeopardize their relationship, acceded to her demands.

I pointed out to the artist that, apart from money, a principle was at stake, and that each time an artist compromises a principle, his or her career and the status of artists in general, now and in the future, are set back another notch.

I advised the artist to confront the dealer with a proposal that was more equitable. If the artist must give the dealer a commission on every work sold, even if the sale did not originate with the gallery, the dealer should give the artist something in return, such as a monthly advance against future sales. I pointed out that if the artist had a written contract, chances are the dealer would never have tried to impose an arbitrary commission formula. I also pointed out that the artist had adequately proved his market value and selling power to the dealer, who was deriving steady revenue from the sale of the artist's work, a situation that the dealer would not want to give up easily. It had not occurred to the artist that he had bargaining power.

Such occurrences are common in the art world—unnecessary dilemmas and frustrations created by middlepeople who have usurped power from artists and by artists who allow their power to be usurped.

Artists, by the fact they are artists, have power. Artists provide thousands of nonartists with jobs! Examples of nonartists who depend on artists for jobs include dealers; gallery staffs; curators; museum staffs; arts administrators; critics and journalists; corporate art consultants and advisors; federal, state, and municipal employees; teachers; framers; accountants; lawyers; and art suppliers.

Yet more nonartists than artists make a living from art, and nonartists make more money from art than artists! This inequity exists, as do many others, because artists, the "employers," individually and collectively have not yet recognized their power. Another problem among artists is a diffusion of power. Although there are more artists than ever before, as the community of artists multiplies, it simultaneously divides into different factions, movements, self-interest groups, and trends. There are artists who segregate themselves into pockets of racial, sexual, and ethnic identity. Everyone is vying for the same bone; no one wants to share it.

On the other hand, some aspects of the art world are in good shape and are getting better all the time. Much headway has been made in art law, legislation, and artists' rights.

More colleges and universities are providing fine-art students with career development information through courses, seminars, and workshops. And more art dealers and arts administrators are entering the art world with degrees in arts administration, and they are better prepared than many of their predecessors with the marketing and business aspects of art. They are also, one hopes, more sensitive to the needs of artists and the public's understanding of art.

If I didn't believe that there is a lot of room in the art world for many artists to make a decent living, I certainly never would have started a consulting service or written a book about art-career management. There is ample opportunity for artists, even within the still imperfect art world.

Most of the structural changes in the art world will come about only through artist pressure, artist initiative, and artist participation. While the prospects of radically changing the art world might seem overwhelming to any one artist, one of the most important contributions that any artist can make is to restructure and take control of his or her own career. The following chapters will elaborate on why this is important and provide options, suggestions, and advice on how to make it happen.

Keep in mind that it took me several years to build a career as an artist. It also took a lot of time to learn, master, and apply the skills that are described in this book. I mention this to help readers counteract sensations of being overwhelmed by all of the suggestions and information that are provided in the forthcoming chapters. My career did not develop overnight; it was a slow but constant buildup. I absorbed information that I needed to know at the time when I needed to know it. When I listened to my inner voice, I moved forward; when I didn't, I stumbled.

In this edition a new chapter has been added titled "Art Marketing and the Internet," and because the Internet is impacting artists' careers in many ways, reference to the Internet is also dispersed throughout the book.

The addresses of organizations, programs, publications, software, audiovisual components, and Web sites referred to in the text are listed in the appendix of resources at the back of the book.

An adjunct to the appendix of resources is a Web site that I created, the Artist Help Network ( It was launched in conjunction with the fifth edition of this book and is a free resource service to help artists take control of their careers. The Web site contains most of the contacts listed in the sixth edition's appendix of resources. Readers can use the Web site to receive updated contact information and listings of new resources that have come to my attention. The Artist Help Network is a work in progress with new information being added on an ongoing basis.

For readers who wish to contact me, I have included my address, phone and fax numbers, email address, and Web site addresses (see "About the Author" at the end of the book).

Excerpted from How to Survice and Prosper as an Artist by CAROLL MICHELS Copyright © 1983, 1988, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2009 by Caroll Michels Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company. 

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.


Excerpted from "How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul" by Caroll Michels. Copyright © 0 by Caroll Michels. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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