First published in Aggregate 2022, Freelands Foundation's publication celebrating the national Artist Programme, a landmark initiative to support emerging artists across the UK.
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A curator once said to me that the more time you spend in the art world, the less it makes sense. A case in point? I often get asked to write about building a sustainable career as an artist, and speaking as a failed artist – painter, since you ask – this strikes me as ironic. But not being one to moan because I have very little to complain about, I want to reflect on my experience as a (failed) artist and curator and think about what it could offer others.
While much has remained the same in the art world over the last decade – namely the addiction to over production made possible by unpaid labour — I think there have been some important changes. The art world has always been an extractive economy, but there’s a feeling that people have had enough. Many of my recent conversations with artists and curators have revolved around ethical issues. While care has become something of a buzzword, its omnipresence is a welcome reminder of just how many people want to (re) build a more accessible and inclusive art world. Below are a few of my own reflections on some of these issues.
Space, time, money and dialogue
Artists typically need four things to make work: space, time, money and dialogue. Hard work, opportunity, inspiration, support and serendipity also help, but these all fall into one of the four categories. I think of these conditions as a kind of fertiliser that helps cultivate a career to keep it growing.
These concepts are relative and I would urge artists to look at each and think: what is enough? How much money do you actually need to make the work you want to make? If you have lots of time and no space, why are you making large-scale sculptures? If you have a large workspace but no dialogue around the work, why aren’t you starting a pizza club and inviting other artists to your studio?
A practice is a constant negotiation between these conditions – full of compromises between what you don't have and what you need. Too much of one can upset the other. Too much money is rarely a good thing for a practice. Similarly, too much time and no deadlines can lead an artist into problems. Think about what resources you do have and trade with others to find a better balance.
You can build a castle or make a garden. A castle is monumental but static, visible but separate. A garden is diffuse and perennial. The former is enclosed, the latter is porous. The logic of the castle is independent, while the garden is interdependent. Be like the garden: build relationships and be an ally. Cultivate interdependence rather than going it alone and creating a moat around yourself. An art practice – like a garden – is a precarious thing that requires the sustenance of collaboration and friendship to be maintained.
You can’t speak to everyone
Who is your art for? If it’s for you, that’s fine, but be clear about who you’re speaking to. Writing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the author Nina Simon wrote: keep things simple, use what you have, understand who your community is and try to understand what they need by listening to them first and then asking them second. Simon was talking to institutions and curators, but I think her reflections can apply to everyone. Who is your community?
Caring is labour and not just a word
No one cares about an artist’s work more than the artist. Make them care. Care for others. Be caring. Care is a form of attention, and looking is the deepest form of care. Pay attention to your peers, look at their art, and they’ll look at yours in return.
The logic of the work
What does the work actually need? Understand the logic of the work. Form and content often get confused, but I like to think of content as what you do and form as how you do you what you do. Content: a painting of a cat drinking a cup of tea. Form: is the work big or small, refined or messy? Is it playful or polemical?
As a curator I’m trying to amplify the logic and form of the work. If the work is messy, then perhaps an elegant white cube environment isn’t the right context. I’ve found that interrogating how the work is produced, displayed and distributed is a good place to consider what you don’t have and understanding what you might need.
‘Do you need to be on social media to build a career?’ is the most common question I get asked. The quick answer is no; remember, the art world existed before social media. There are many other ways to create visibility for yourself.
I remember reading somewhere that the artist Barbara Hepworth only made art for 30 minutes a day for many years because of her family commitments, and Phyllida Barlow’s best time in the studio was in the middle of the night when her children were asleep. The book Daily Rituals is a fantastic resource on the habits of famous writers, musicians and artists. It’s striking how many only worked for a few hours a day on their creative pursuits and, yes, while many of them had family wealth, some didn’t. Work incrementally and accumulatively.
Artist Otobong Nkanga advises her students to put 10% of their income from their work aside as a financial cushion. The writer Stephen King said that every time you edit a draft text you should cut 10%. 1,000 words? You need to lose 100. For every ten applications you make, you may get one positive response. Counting up and down, putting aside, marking out time; art is a numbers game.
You’re not in this alone
In thinking about sustainability, I would suggest that curators, funders, policymakers, collectors, teachers and gallerists need to do the thinking with artists. This is a collective question that requires collective answers.
If you make art, you’re an artist. It’s that simple. Keep making and opportunities will present themselves. As the drag artist Dorian Corey once said: ‘Pay your dues and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.’
Economist Kate Raworth’s theory of the doughnut is a visual framework for thinking about a sustainable economy that considers planetary boundaries and human capacities. It foregrounds mutuality rather than extraction, reframing the production of value and expanding the concept of benefit. Importantly, it counters human addiction to constant growth and expansionism. Nothing in nature grows for ever, so why should our economy?
The concept of the doughnut can be applied to an artist’s practice. Think about the conditions that you need to continue to make the work you want to make. Think about how you can work incrementally and accumulatively to put that into action. Raworth argues that we become the images and metaphors we put into the world.
Artists it’s over to you, make the world we want to inhabit.