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Why is artmaking challenging?

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The idea of self-expression is ingrained deeply in contemporary artmaking – it’s normative to the point of being understood as defining privilege of, but also as core expectation towards artists: to express the personal, so that the group (society) can grasp something universal. This represents an emotional challenge that artists need to face, and ultimately solve: to foster the personal and to make visible their individuality, in a society that tends to reward whatever is predefined, established, normative and uniform.

As the authors of “Art & Fear” highlight, survival evolutionarily required us to be part of a group (“Nature places a simple constraint on those who leave the flock to go their own way: they get eaten.”, p68): to be cast out of a group meant death: no food, no protection, no warmth. To have an opinion, to be a self, always risks opposing the group’s opinion(s) – it risks being cast out of the group. Evolutionarily, having a personal opinion risks death. In some societies, this is still true today. At the same time it’s essential to have an opinion, and to become visible; our works need to be seen to spark resonance, to find collectors.

Self-expression can be scarier than dying, because it is an actuality that you can experience every day.

The evolutionary fear of death (by being cast out of a group) might feel very distant: most of us will not die because of our artmaking. The fear of other people’s opinions is real though; one could argue that visibility might create more stress and anxiety than the abstract idea of death. Becoming visible for what you create is an actual reality that you can face every time you show your work to a friend, exhibit, or simply post about it on social media. This is a weird conundrum: that the normative aspect of artmaking, the artist’s self-expression, is admired by society – but can represent the artist’s deepest fears and challenge: self-expression can be scarier than dying, because it is an actuality that you can experience every day.

The way through is to embrace experimentation – to experiment with self-expression, and investigate which aspects of creation resonate within you – and how: what do specific materials, physical dimensions, aesthetics and semantics mean to you, and to experience your humanity within this experimentation. Not to expect yourself to succeed, but to know and accept that you’ll fail. Over time, this will let you become more courageous, and less precious – which will make you free. This way, your artmaking becomes another tool towards conscious freedom. First for yourself, then for the peers that experience it – then for the world.

Why is artmaking challenging? Because it requires you to confront not just yourself, but also deep evolutionary fears  that arise as consequence of becoming an individual.

What’s the anatomy of creating an artwork? (a deep dive into contemporary artmaking)

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The beginning of artmaking is often marked by a deep curiosity about tools: how does the stroke of a pencil lead to a line; how does the sharpened wood of a pencil smell; how do different textures of paper feel like. Artists need to understand how to use their tools and media, but also what these tools and media mean to them; specifically, this includes increasing their awareness and understanding of the oftentimes complex emotional, haptical and somatic connections they have towards them. Everyone has their own approach towards an artistic medium – no two people use a pencil the same way, see a sculpture exactly with the same focus, have the same emotions or associations towards eg. the texture of a specific kind of paper. Already on the level of material, our takes on the universe differ – which is why improving our sensitivities towards the unique relationships within them matter so much. There cannot be a general way of using tools or artistic media: understanding our individual approach towards them requires introspection; we need to deepen the relationship with ourselves.

From tools to craft

Our curiosity about tools usually leads to (or is accompanied by) a curiosity about craft: how to depict, how to abstract, how to use them towards the goals we desire. Craft is an essence of artmaking, and is entirely personal – it’s your knowledge of the tools you use, and your relationship towards them. Craft is infinite: you cannot “finish” studying these relationships. In addition, craft offers the fantasy of comparison; the false hope that you could compare your abilities to those of others. If it were true, you might be able to become “better” than someone else. These sorts of comparisons are inherent to capitalism, and often seen as a motivational force. Artists can fall into this trap just like anyone else: “If I were better, or the best, then by merely focusing on craft, my work might become visible, and, who knows, collected and accepted”.

Art as transgenerational dialog that benefits from diversity

It doesn’t work like that though, since art isn’t a competition – but a transgenerational dialog benefiting from diversity: your voice is relevant only because of the other voices in the field – past, present and future. Voices and identities and cultures and realities you will never know or comprehend. There’s no goal to reach, but a process to pursue; ultimately, this process can become your goal: not to quit. To keep making art. Whatever increases the chances of your continued artmaking, is good – or even essential. If your focus on craft empowers you, then it’s worthwhile. At the same time, understand (the risky psychological benefits of) craft as a hiding place: you can keep increasing your focus on it, but still never reach the “true territory” of artmaking – because while art has craft as an essential base, it can only ever be a starting point for what art actually is about: meaning.

From craft stagnation to your passions, and your mind

So you focus on craft, because it helps you to focus on artmaking. You keep improving, and experience both progress and stagnation – both being inherent aspects of growth. You will establish plateaus of knowledge where further progress might feel distant. If this leads to your work feeling stale or boring, and you experience yourself repeating the same motions, then it might be a good time to sidestep craft, and consider what to actually do with it – with this deep emotional, haptical and somatic knowledge you established.

You are human before you’re an artist.

You are human before you’re an artist; and as a fellow human with passions, curiosities, joys and fears, there’s something that moves you beside your focus on art and on craft. That “something” is what life is about – and what art is about. While craft can help you transform your vision into reality, it can in itself feel hollow. Knowledge and application of craft often need meaning beside themselves, to transcend emptiness. This is reinforced by contemporary art empowering any mode or depth of craft – the crudest aesthetics are finally understood to be just as relevant as the most refined and elegant: you don’t necessarily ever need to increase craft, to focus on meaning. While craft is essential, it’s also a lie. The only actual craft that artists need, is meta – and about attitude: to increase their understanding of what they want to do. To transcend doubt. To create. Seen this way, the only tool required to artmaking is the artist’s mind.

Art and meaning

Understanding potential domains of your artmaking practice is mostly a mental activity. Interrogating what’s meaningful to you could lead to focusing on your emotions about tools and the media you use (at times, your focus on craft can feel to be the only thing that matters to you), or on specific aspects of your artistic practice. It might also focus on the aspects of life that you care about – which will usually be entirely independent of your art practice. These topics that you care about, and your individual, specific way of caring about them, are as unique as the way you hold your brush, as unique as you see and experience the world. Connecting your artistic practice, your craft, with the topics you care about is one of the most gratifying, personal, and courageous things that artists can do. It’s the difference between reading books and learning to speak, to the courage of phrasing a sentence that speaks your mind. It lets your voice become real. It creates your artistic identity.

To interrogate meaning, you can put your haptic, craft-based tools aside. Instead of creating the next craft-based work, try to see craft (also) as a potential medium of avoidance – an avoidance of vulnerability. While there is vulnerability involved in learning craft (“It’s so embarrassing how I can’t get this thing right”), it is usually way easier on you than creating work that pursues (and physically manifests) your actual passions. To interrogate meaning, consider doing the following:

  1. Interrogate your passions: create a list of topics you’re passionate about. Then
  2. Consider which of these topics you want (or need) to connect to artistically. Then
  3. Think about how to do so: in regards to colors, forms, and potentially also in regards to your previous artworks.

Each of these steps can take days, or could be done within a couple of minutes. The duration of your focus isn’t important – what’s relevant is that you keep returning to this process of interrogation. It’s a process that will accompany you throughout your entire life. It will set you on a path of discovery that will at times be far outside of your comfort zone. It will be scary – but will also offer rewards beyond expectations.

A thought about art and nihilism

Some experience contemporary art as a field without values – as nihilistic. This often is the consequence of contemporary art offering such an unusual openness in regards to the use of materials and media, and the breadth of topics. While some experience this as true freedom, others only see a wasteland that feels hollow and meaningless: can there be meaning, if anything is possible? Of course there can be – meaning isn’t limited, and contemporary art reflects that; artists can use any mode of operation to express their topics.

Yet the more open a field, the more courage can be required to do something specific – and art benefits from being specific, even if the specificity focuses on randomness (to create a truly random work requires highly dedicated specificity). As a field with entirely open values, art is inherently the opposite of nihilistic – something with values cannot be nihilistic.

Understanding your creations (1/2): Create one artwork

The creation of physical works is the phase that follows conceptualization, at least if artmaking would be a linear process – it often isn’t. In such an idealized linear process, the next step would be to actually create work that tries to fulfill the criteria set above. Creating artworks is stereotypically understood to be the core aspect of artmaking. Symbolically speaking, it’s where you begin to exist (as an artist). In actuality, it’s difficult to understand the thresholds of artmaking – conceptualizing an artwork surely also fulfills the criteria of artmaking, even if the processes might only have happened in your mind.

It’s essential to eventually manifest your ideas physically, because it enables you to understand the actuality of your creations, which will often be far from the elegant fantasies you might have had about them. A creation can only be one thing; it is the opposite of infinity. It is the consequence of a multitude of decisions, conscious and subconscious, which accumulated in the creation of this specific artwork. While interpretations of this artwork might be infinite, the specific artwork itself is finite and specifically as it is. This can be a challenge for your ego. It can be humbling: “Out of all potentials, this is what I ended up creating?” It can help to see art as a process of approximation: to ever get closer, throughout your life, to manifesting your vision. This lets each of your creations exist as something “more” than merely being a result: it lets it mark the continuation of your artistic journey – a process that will last as long as you live.

Understanding your creations (2/2): Create more than one artwork

Having created work enables interrogation and analysis. It enables you to ask questions like “How do you feel about it now? How do aesthetics and semantics connect?” To better understand what you think and feel about a piece, consider creating more than just one work, under the same criteria. Where a single piece will be the consequence of random choices, a multitude of works empowers you in judging this “style”  – with style now denoting a mixture of aesthetics and semantics. Understand that this sequence of work doesn’t have to be a “work series”: where a work series often refers to visual repetition, a sequence of works is more open-minded, and includes works that might focus on a specific topic (eg. political paintings). Each of these might exist as a separate visual universe, and focus on a different political topic. To create a work sequence, consider doing the following:

  1. Interrogate the work you want to expand on: how is it defined? What are its essential qualities? It could be the specific use of tools, the physical format, the duration of a piece, the number of protagonists or movements within a performance, the choice and/or saturation of color, a modulation in frequency, the amount of figures or abstractions within a composition. It will likely also include semantic aspects like the chosen topic(s), and how to try to get them across. The essential quality could be entirely semantic, and not care about aesthetics, or it could include details whether eg. depicted figures have their eyes closed, look at (or away from) each other, etc.
    This interrogation can be speculative – you might not yet understand what is essential to defining the work in front of you. Understand this process as another craft to improve over your lifetime, and keep returning to it. It will help you to gradually discover new aspects of your creations.

  2. Create a list of essential qualities: Using the findings of your previous interrogation, create a list of those work qualities that feel the most relevant to you right now. It can be beneficial to limit yourself to 5-10 of these, and create a second list that includes non-essential qualities. Now

  3. Create a specific number of artworks that fulfill these allegedly essential qualities. Having defined a list of essential qualities, you now create work that tries to fulfill them. You can define upfront how many pieces you aim to create (eg. five, seven or twelve artworks), or you simply decide this along the way, as you keep finishing new works.  Actually creating these works will be accompanied by your continuous judgment of whether your interrogation and analysis were “correct”. You will realize that your some things were less important than you thought, while others are ultimately more relevant than you thought.

    On this path of creating work, it’s OK to have doubts. It’s OK for you to wonder whether what you’re doing is actually worth your time. These thoughts and feelings are part of your process of becoming an artist. How you deal with them is part of your personality – both as human and artist. Creating these works is the consequence of something uniquely personal, and thus vulnerable: your topics, your passions, your way of using tools, media and craft – your way of not just seeing, but now also adding to the world.

  4. Judge the new works. You will come to a point where this interrogation-by-creation will feel finished. This enables you to judge the work (and the entire sequence of works), and compare them to the list of essential qualities defined beforehand. How do they compare? What did you learn?

Approaching the creation process like this results in having created something “complete”, something that tends to have strong degrees of self-explanatory power. We are often better able to understand, relate and judge a sequence of works, than single pieces – maybe because the contextual repetition aids our understanding. In addition though, a work sequence enables you to document and/or exhibit it. It can mark the first, or another, chapter in your artistic life.

Each of the works in the sequence will have unique aspects that aren’t shared by the other pieces. You can repeat the interrogation process for each of these works or ideas, resulting in your art not only being fed by your external passions, but also by the work you created thus far. It lets your work archive become a recursive platform of self-interrogation.

To understand what to do artistically, investigate your mind, and you will transcend stagnating on craft.

How do I create an art portfolio, to use for art school or gallery applications?

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A portfolio is a document that tries to capture the spirit of you and your work. It’s like waving hello to a stranger — to someone who usually hasn’t met you before. Your portfolio is the answer to a very specific question: “How can I best guide a stranger into my universe?“. Although seemingly basic, this question can require a lot of sensitivity, and benefits from increasing mastering of your work’s infinite complexities. 

Consider the following key strategies:

  • Understand portfolio creation as a life-long, recurring process. Your portfolio is the reflection of something dynamic: of you and your work. Both offer infinite interpretations and categorizations — as a result, there can not be a final, ultimate version of a portfolio; your ideas about your work will simply keep changing, as part of your growth into the art world, and as a consequence of your personal growth over time. That’s why it makes sense to understand the task of updating (or re-creating) your portfolio as recurring and unending, just like doing dishes: you can never ultimately be done.

  • Understand your portfolio as a service. Services can be executed incredibly well, or rather luke-warm. Some services are functionally complete, but emotionally empty — we easily understand how service qualities differ in everyday encounters, how appreciative or lackluster we are being treated: make sure that your “service of portfolio” doesn’t add to the staleness of the world.
    If your portfolio is a service to introduce strangers to your universe, then it cannot simply be a list of works, with your name on the title page. Instead, it makes sense to ask yourself how to improve your service; to include an artist statement at the beginning, or a narrative CV or even a portrait photo of yourself at the end, as your way of saying “hello” and “goodbye”. It will usually benefit from your works being categorized into work series or artistic media, with an explanation of the series’ contexts accompanying it.

  • Understand your portfolio as a new medium – one of art mediation. You might already be very good at explaining your work to guests in the studio, or might have a proper website highlighting your work. With each medium working differently though, you need to figure out how this “medium of portfolio” can be tamed to best represent your vision; how to both firmly and sensitively guide that unknown stranger into your world. As a new medium, consider analyzing other people’s approaches to their portfolio – and always remember your creative strength: if you are capable of creating art, you will have enough creativity to create an amazing portfolio just as well. Different to art creation though, art mediation requires answers to the question of how to best discuss your work; how not to trivialize or be grandiose about it.
    Your portfolio most often shouldn’t be a vertical list of works – it shouldn’t be understood as a text document with images. Instead, consider seeing it as a presentation (consisting of slides) or a short book, where already the page orientation (portrait or landscape) should be done intentionally.

  • Never delete your portfolio(s). Even if you understand your portfolio as a living, breathing service medium, it can be challenging to understand how to improve its quality. Some changes towards excellence can require drastic changes, which might feel emotionally challenging – because who knows, your existing portfolio might be better than you yet understand.
    A good strategy to solve this is to keep all versions of your portfolio – to not delete your source files. This enables you to always step back to any previous version, and removes worries or preciousness about changes – even in the case of drastic reconstructions. In addition, you might want to create different versions of your portfolio; a curator might benefit from a different contextualization and work selection than an art school or a gallery.

  • Understand the power of minimalism. While your portfolio is a medium and a service, an unexpected ideal for it is to become invisible. Viewers shouldn’t ask themselves questions about the portfolio, but about your work. Your portfolio should enable maximum and exclusive visibility of your vision, and not get bogged down by viewers asking themselves questions like “Why did they use this font?”, “Is this person aware of all the typos in here?”, “Is this layout change intentional?”, etc. Most frequently, artists will want a portfolio that doesn’t “irritate” (neither positively nor negatively) – because although irritation can increase emotional attachment, it can also lessen trust. Instead of the portfolio to irritate, you want to create space for the works within it to do so. Minimalism is a good strategy for this: to reduce anything that takes focus from your vision.

    It’s important to understand that minimalism doesn’t mean to “show little”. Instead, use minimalism to offer a maximalist emotional connection to you and your vision. Minimalist doesn’t mean “show a lot of thumbnail-sized artworks”, but will usually mean to show less works, but maybe in fuller size. If your portfolio is a title page with your name, followed by a pure list of artworks, then this might be minimalistic – but does it properly and optimally lead a stranger into your world? Finding your ideal balance between minimalism and portfolio-as-a-service can be challenging. A key ingredient in minimalism is to operate intentionally: to increase your sensitivities about any decision or micro-decision that goes into the creation process.

    You can ask yourself questions like these: Is my layout consistent? Does my portfolio really need page numbers? Does my name have to be listed on every page? Does my contact information (mails and social media links) need the title “Contact information”? Do my social media links need small icons ahead of them? Does my document need multiple fonts – and do these fonts need to be fancy? AM I SURE THAT ALL-CAPS FONTS ARE A SENSITIVE CHOICE? Are my images always at the same position within a page? Is it important to include all works of a series? Am I sure my portfolio should have colorful background images? Do I serve my vision if my portrait photo is too fanciful?
  • Make your portfolio self-contained. Some online application processes require your portfolio and CV to be separate files, or require you to enter your exhibition history and artist statement into online forms. Nevertheless, understand the power of creating a self-contained portfolio: something that offers a complete arc, from beginning to end.
    As such, a portfolio has to be a file, not a collection of files: a portfolio cannot be a directory with images, plus a text file with an artist statement – because this approach doesn’t let you influence the direction a viewer takes into the content.
    A self-contained portfolio (that is a medium and a service) might not have to include your complete exhibition history – the correct place for this is your CV. But your self-contained portfolio should likely include an introductory artist statement, and a narrative CV listing your most noteworthy achievements (specific exhibitions, residencies or art collections).

  • Understand the power of mood makers. While your portfolio will usually benefit from minimalism, it can make sense to include images that promote the atmosphere of your work – to transcend the sterility of your work existing in a digital file. Mood makers can be rare full-screen images of your studio or work environment, of your tools or setup, or a close-up of your work – or even exhibition views (although these could better exist in a separate chapter of your portfolio).

While these strategies will help you get deeper into the medium of portfolios, you ultimately have to trust your own feelings about your decision making process. As with everything we do, we first and foremost need to listen to our gut: if your vision requires an entirely maximalist approach, then you need to for it. If your vision requires you to be unintentional about your portfolio creation process, then you might be on to something powerfully relevant. Enjoy the ride!

What kind of intention is required of artists?

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Intentions offer the impression of agency – but art processes can also thrive on chaos. The main intention that artists will require is the one to stay curious, and determined to establish their personal processes to continue making art.

Art is often thought to require intention, but that’s not necessarily true. We want to live in a world influenced by our intentions, since this gives us the impression of agency – of power and control over the world. Reality doesn’t necessarily confirm this though: randomness can influence the world just as much. You often can’t influence beyond your initial leanings and affinities. Work, network, business and personal development thrive on both intention and randomness. Art might be their love child. Life brims with their synchronicities.

Unintended situations and mistakes can set the stage for intentional further steps. Order and chaos constantly overlap and expand each other. Your grasp of the situation, your sensitivity and empathy are the best possible navigation tools. Especially when thinking of art as a process to express contemporaneity, and witnessing the many unintended aspects of life surrounding us, the “best” art might actually be the result of unintended choices: you can create sloppy work if you’re sloppy or lazy – and might expertly express something relevant about the Zeitgeist. Since the arts don’t feature monolithic, fixed quality judgments, you can use processes as sloppily or exacting as you want, without resulting in works that are inherently better or worse than the rest. There simply isn’t a connection between a work’s creation process, and whether it will appear “good” or “bad” to others. What ultimately matters is whether your practice is authentic to you. Instead of intention, focus your authenticity – intently.

Work, network, business and personal development thrive on both intention and randomness. Art might be their love child.

What’s ultimately required of you is the curiosity and determination, the intention to carve your own work processes, and thus a (mental, emotional, physical) space that suits you – even though it might feel like a niche, it is still yours, and thus essential. If it enables you to establish processes and collaborations that feel good enough to continue going, then with luck and business dedication, and a sound understanding of what success means to you, this success might actually follow. Along the way, unexpected situations will arise: conversations with people who care about your work; job opportunities and collaboration requests; these might influence your idea of success, and create an ever-more holistic version of it.

But this all is based on a rather humble idea: that artists need to work on establishing a life that enables them to continue making art.

What are gallery representations, and why would I want them?

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A gallery representation is the name for the closest collaboration between a gallery and an artist. This collaboration will feature economic and emotional aspects, and, like all human interactions, will change over time. Galleries can represent multiple artists, and artists can be represented by multiple galleries.

Most artists want to be represented by a gallery for economic, networking and branding purposes: a gallery might take care of business aspects (client acquisition, networking, sales, etc), enabling the artist to focus more intensely on artmaking.  A gallery will be interested in highlighting its represented artists to its audience and network, facilitating contact to otherwise potentially inaccessible gatekeepers – and thus furthering their artists’ career way beyond implementing exhibitions and generating sales. Independently of exhibitions and sales, an artist might benefit already by simply being associated with a gallery: the art world’s abundance of artists stands in such contrast to the scarcity of galleries, that the status of being represented will by some be understood as a seal of quality.

Collaborating without Representation

Representation is not required for any of the above things to happen though – a gallery does not need to represent artists to collaborate with them. Solo or group shows, and even book publications or art fair participations can be realized just as well without it – and to some artists and galleries, this will be the better, more pragmatic approach: it focuses on the now, instead of on the long-term. It can be seen as a strong sign to collaborate based on real actions, instead of projecting hopes into the unknown future. Some galleries will work closer, more professionally and more successfully with their unrepresented artists, than others who proudly name represented artists on their website; whether a gallery uses representations can also be seen as a marketing decision: it makes a gallery sound more desirable, independently of whether it lives up to these desires.

There can be good reasons for a gallery to shun from representations, eg. if it understands its limited ability to consistently and sustainably push an artist’s career. The difference between representing and non-representing galleries doesn’t per se come in quality, but rather in the implicit expectations about what is potentially going to happen in the future. Having up-front discussions with a representing gallery doesn’t require them to deliver on their promises: some artists would have benefited greatly from more open collaborations.

Discussing the Deal

Gallery representations are so much an industry-standard that they can sound like a fixed, pre-defined package. In actuality, being represented by a gallery doesn’t define the collaboration in any way – it signals that a deal has been struck, but doesn’t explain that deal. The specifics of a collaboration therefore need to be negotiated: which countries are covered by the representation, what commission percentage the gallery expects in case of sales (does this apply only to sales generated by the gallery, or also to those generated by the artist?), how often a solo exhibition will happen, how many (and potentially: which) art fairs a gallery will attend with you, how many artworks they will show there and what sort of price range or format these works are expected to be in, whether the artist can sell digital prints of their work, etc. Exhibition frequency, communication modes, economic transparency, cost absorption, frequency and scope of strategic planning meetings are just the tip of this iceberg.

Discussing Values

In addition to discussing potential collaboration topics, it’s important to understand each other’s values: with whom is each party considering making business? What about their grit or courage, their opinions and attitudes about mental health, emotional and economic support – and any other topics showing their approach to business and life? The degree to which each of your values match will define the collaboration in powerful ways, to each other’s benefit or detriment.

Where a pure discussion of values can be hollow, blending it with actual business-questions will help form a solid mutual understanding: is a gallery aiming for the highest number of sales, or to reach the “best”, most premium collectors for a piece (accepting that some artworks will remain unsold even though allegedly “low-status” collectors would want to buy)? Does a gallery want to associate themselves only with artists that focus entirely on their artmaking, or does it appreciate (or shun) artists that have numerous passions besides their artmaking?

Contracts and their Limits

The business aspects of these discussions are ideally put into writing, and form the basis of the collaboration agreement, to be signed by both parties. In reality, the art world often discusses contracts for emerging artists as confining, and its non-existence as beneficial to a more dynamic way of collaborating: this is cynical and most often to the artist’s detriment; rare is the gallery that sticks to the discussed deal after it has been unable to generate enough sales within the first couple years of collaborating. Most galleries will simply silently lower the artist’s solo exhibition frequency and art fair participation.

The existence of a written collaboration agreement can be seen as similar to signing a prenup: it’s impossible to derive the relationship quality from it, but obviously defines certain rational standards and expectations. Nevertheless, many aspects of a collaboration cannot realistically be put into a contract: each other’s attitude and proactivity, general professionalism and competences; the degree of emotional and mental support, how often and under which spirit to meet and strategize, which parts of a network will be opened up and offered to the artist: the atmosphere and goodwill between people are always subject to change over time, and will ultimately be governed more by reality than by contracts or promises. This is why your ever-growing intuition, empathy and life experience will often not just lead to better deals, but will also help you to distance yourself from those business relations that wouldn’t match your ideals and realities. A sound goal is for both parties to understand who they’re dealing with before they start to collaborate, and thus before problems could emerge. Problems are still bound to appear in any relationship, but hopefully of the kind that do not show total value mismatches.

Business Growth for Artists

As with any deal, understanding and discussing representation specifics is very different to the artist’s ordinary studio challenges. Already because of this, artists are usually at a disadvantage when trying to find proper arguments to support their demands, and to treat this as the personal growth challenge that it usually is. This is made harder by scarcity of galleries, resulting in a representation offer to sound like a gift from the gods. Don’t treat it that way: instead interrogate, discuss it with your peers, understand your demands – and formulate them in a way respectful to your potential business partner – and yourself.

Since gallery representations are rare to emerging artists, they are often talked about as end goals. This isn’t true though – they should rather be seen as another (albeit potentially extremely potent) strategy towards heightened visibility and market reach – with the art world offering enough options for unrepresented artists. As with everything, each artist has their preferences: some will favor the open, unbound life apart from representations, where they are their lives’ sole business masters (and mostly get to keep all of a sales’ money); others will want and benefit from someone with more experience and a preexisting sales network.

How do galleries operate?

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Laypeople see galleries as spaces that sell art. This is a limited view, since galleries don’t need to have a physical showroom or address, and aren’t limited to generating sales. There are many ways to discuss them, already because there is such a diversity in the venues/projects using this title. The most general way to describe them is as projects that highlight and aim to sell art – quite often (but not always) as profit-oriented companies. Their specific choices in doing these tasks differ wildly, and essentially define a gallery – and its standing in the art world. If your art is an expression of yourself, the gallery’s style, their mode of operation, certainly is an expression of the gallery owner and/or director.

Galleries usually collaborate with specific artists in order to promote their work – which ideally results in an artist’s heightened visibility, stronger brand and increased price level. Helping artists out like that isn’t ordinarily why a gallery does their business, but a strategy that the gallery chooses to improve their own economic situation. While some galleries make it very obvious that their space is meant to sell artworks, others aim for high aesthetic standards – resulting in the diversity in artist representations, work selections and installation setups between galleries. These differences matter a lot, because they both define a gallery’s position in the art world, as well as showcasing their intent; they are public, visible signs available for everyone to “read” and understand a gallery. If you’re unhappy about how a gallery represents itself (their name, space, location, website, choice of artists – their choice of style), it’s likely that you won’t be happy to collaborate and associate yourself with them.

Gallery Diversity

Galleries differ in how they present work, support production costs, how they think about and relate to art, how they communicate and collaborate with artists, in their ability to discuss art (with you or clients), in their ability to network, and in their business relations – how well they know which art critics, curators, museum directors, fellow galleries and other gatekeepers. All of these parameters (and more) ultimately result in the galleries’ standing – which is why emerging galleries can quickly become as important as established ones. A gallery doesn’t need a long history to be part of the contemporary discourse: it needs attention and care, business savviness and a strong means to generate revenue in order to get there. While ivory-tower-artists exist (focusing only on themselves, ignoring the world outside), the same is true for gallerists: individuals that pursue their path while ignoring industry standards and peer advice. While these might be excited about reinventing the wheel, they often don’t have enough inside knowledge and experience to actually change anything. They don’t listen, and aren’t listened to by their colleagues. After a short time, success usually turns out not to be on their side. They either change or close their business, frustrated about their ideas not being appreciated. These individuals can be harmful to emerging artists, since their lack of care for industry standards tends to results in unkept promises, missing works, insurances, contracts or invoices. Their sensitivity is about their own needs more than about understanding the system, and their emotional investment of the wrong kind: collaborate at your own peril.

Gallery Realities

Many galleries can’t sustain their business solely from selling the work they exhibit. This isn’t necessarily a problem – similar to artists, galleries usually​ have alternative, often intransparent ways of making ends meet: investors, family money, or by dealing with expensive artworks of artists they don’t represent (maybe deceased, most always well-known and established). These funding differences strongly influence a galleries’ capacity to kickstart careers, and are why galleries in high-price territories are at an advantage: they have deeper pockets to fund productions, to participate at the world’s top art fairs, and thus to highlight artists to an international audience of gatekeepers. Yet although an artist’s standing is strongly defined by their representation, being represented by a gallery doesn’t guarantee success. It nevertheless influences an artist’s public perception and aura, and opens doors that mostly remain unseen to unrepresented artists – or those represented by galleries with lesser networks. Although art itself is an open-quality system, the art market is not: it’s a platform that trades art objects as commodities, with some traders having tremendously more power and money than others. While it’s possible to reach “the top” even without collaborating with “the right” galleries, it’s extremely unlikely. The art market isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy though: the financial background of a gallery influences their daily operations, but it can’t guarantee success.

Galleries most always take fifty percent of any piece they sell, and sometimes more. Depending on the representation agreement, they will also get that commission for any piece you sell. This means that the first time you start a representation collaboration, will henceforth decrease how much you earn with each sale – which is why you have to see this as an investment: a gallery might be able to generate sales continuously, and might be able to highlight you and your work in ways that multiply your visibility to collections, museums, and gatekeepers. It can strengthen your brand by publishing catalogs, promoting you (and your work) to become visible to further galleries and bring you to art fairs, etc. But then again, it might not: to understand the terms of your investment, you need to get a deep insight into how galleries work, and how they differ; simply reading a collaboration agreement might not be sufficient. You need to get more experienced.

It’s essential to understand that while galleries manage artists, they are not an artist’s manager. They get high commissions in case of sales, but aren’t paid by the artist the way an actual manager would be: an artist’s manager would follow the artist’s directions. Galleries don’t work that way: they collaborate with artists in order to maximize each other’s benefits, but are their own bosses. The difference can seem small at times, but is always relevant and noticeable. Independently of promises and pleasantries, most any collaboration with galleries is subject to one basic, untranscendable fact: there are endlessly more artists than galleries. A gallery can not make an artist collaborate with them, yet has the incredibly stronger position for the gallery scarcity that faces artist abundance. As a result, collaborating with galleries is most always also a power play.

What is a gallery?

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In its basic form, a fine art gallery is a store that sells art objects. Galleries do so in a myriad of ways, differing in the specifics of which artists, discourses and aesthetics they associate themselves with – as well as the mostly-invisible, highly personal  network of people attached to them. Independently of their intention and reality, most galleries have an image that conveys distance, avantgarde and elitism: galleries might be stores, but few people enter them, buy there, or understand what they’re actually doing. To laypeople, galleries share aspects of churches: offering silence, adoration and mystery, as well as unknown rituals and unspoken rules. Like churches, they allege to be open to everyone, but in actuality are so only for those agreeing with their ideology; in the case of galleries, the ideology is art.

Galleries are gatekeepers to art, similar to museums. Yet where museums focus on researching, archiving and exhibiting, galleries focus on exhibiting and selling: the overlap is there, but not too big. The gatekeeping and showcasing aspects are also fulfilled by art documentaries or books, which are decidedly more accessible – but don’t offer people the experience of sharing a physical space with art objects. For experiencing physical objects, this difference can be existential.

Beginning artists often idealize galleries as a major (or even only) hope to get their work physically experienced by the world. The ideal gallery would not only be a premium gatekeeper, but also take care of all business operations, leaving the ideal artist to purely focus on their artmaking processes – without having to worry about non-artmaking tasks like pricing, networking, marketing, diversification, etc. Reality is more complex and challenging, but also offers more opportunities for the artist’s personal growth. Gallery-artist relationships come in immense diversity, with only a few overall, recurring aspects; some galleries don’t even aim to generate sales, but exist as pet projects created for often incomprehensible, but nevertheless real purposes. Galleries rarely take over their artist’s business operations – and neither should they.

The Infinity of Galleries

Galleries are businesses run by, collaborating with, and selling to individuals; on the surface, they are about showing and selling art works – yet first and foremost, they are platforms for human interactions. As such they are subject to the many facets and layers of interpersonal possibilities: trust, friendship, joy; misunderstandings, guilt, betrayal; power through collaboration, failure of communication, etc. A gallery can be seen as a multiplicity, an open, ever-changing network defined by the various individuals connected to it – an ecosystem consisting of owners, employees, curators and fellow artists; collectors, art critics and magazine or art fair staff. Many of the nodes and connections in this network aren’t visible (and are often intended to stay obscure), but cumulatively define the galleries’ market access, and their standing in the art world. The better you understand them, the more realistically will you be able to judge a gallery.

Galleries come in endless variety – the word itself doesn’t explain whether a project is for-profit, has a physical space, collaborates internationally, attends art fairs, or whether it is even actually capable of (or interested in) generating sales. The art world offers all sorts of galleries, including those that do not collaborate with living artists, instead aiming to sell works by deceased artists. These distinctions are relevant because it means that artists cannot simply look for “a gallery” when looking for “a gallery” – instead, they need to find one that matches their business expectations and realities. Judging galleries is its own challenge, which becomes easier the better an artist understands their own (and the galleries’) realities and fantasies.

When discussing galleries in the context of emerging artists, it’s sensible to discuss them as businesses that collaborate with artists. The collaboration specifics can differ tremendously between galleries, but already even between artists of the same gallery – artists might want (and get) significantly different things from their gallery, with some being able to negotiate way better or worse than others. Ideally, a gallery-artist relationship is the result of an ongoing dialog, where expectations and synergies are developed respectfully and transparently: exhibition frequency, communication modes, economic transparency, cost absorption, frequency of planning meetings, the degree of strategic planning, etc. This infinity of potential topics is why an artist’s curiosity and care about economic aspects matter so much when collaborating with a gallery: without it, how could an artist get the best deal possible?

The Dream

Potent galleries with strong international networks of gatekeepers can showcase artists to a global audience; they can influence art writers and art fair curators to shine a light on them to a degree impossible for galleries with less influence. The art world isn’t meritocratic, but network-based: an artist’s options are not solely the consequence of their oeuvre, but strongly depend on and differ with the galleries they are associated with. While artists (with or without galleries) can manage to showcase their work abroad, such an “international exhibition” itself doesn’t denote economic success. Successfully connecting an artist with the world outside the gallery’s original geography is what the art market is all about: to reach (and generate) a large audience willing to invest into an artist’s work. This sort of market demand multiplies an artist’s economic value, and is most artist’s fantasy. It’s rarely a reality, with galleries often simply not having the network, curiosity or longevity to push an artist beyond their existing collectors and gatekeepers. Economic success is rare; if it does happen, it comes with real consequences: the requirement to produce, a dependency on the galleries’ network, etc. – not every artist will want this.

Understand that art processes are always there for you, no matter the distance you feel towards them

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This handbook has one key takeaway that sums up all chapters into one piece of advice. It applies independently of your life situation, your business challenges and the various frustrations that accompany an artist’s life. Here goes: Understand that art processes are always there for you, no matter the distance you feel towards them.

Remember that making art will heal you in tiny bits, even though your work might not be exhibited and often not be bought, even though it might be misunderstood, misrepresented, misused and more. Nevertheless, making art will heal you because when you disregard all the noise that defines the various art worlds, your art practice helps you focus your mind, helps you create a flow, helps you manifest and work through troublesome (and joyful) times. It helps you by offering meaning to yourself and others.

Understand that art processes are always there for you, no matter the distance you feel towards them

Your art processes are always there for you, no matter the distance you feel towards them. It doesn’t matter how much time you can invest into artmaking – whether it’s only fifteen minutes a day, or sometimes even less. It is there for you if you “only” manage to squeeze in half an afternoon per week, and even if you haven’t been in touch with art making for half a year. As long as you ponder getting back into making art, your voice and strength is all there, in its full potential. In you.

It’s OK to get lost outside of the process. If this is the case for you: embrace yourself, and see the relevance of your current journey. Understand that “living your life” never stands opposed to making art – to the contrary: it complements it. Embrace whatever life you’re leading right now, trusting that when the time comes, the depth and diversity of your recent experiences will enhance your work in ways yet unseen.

In this way, your artistic processes are safe spaces to get back to whenever you’re ready. They’re available to you even after weeks, months or years of distance. Don’t feel guilty, lost or a failure for living apart from artmaking: art isn’t guilt, but possibility and challenge. Whenever you’re ready again, continue your artmaking journey. It isn’t the results that matter – artmaking is so much more than physical creation. Instead, what matters is your traversing the artist’s path, your path. Eventually, it will lead you back to your material, your tools, and to the creation of yet another piece.

Enjoy life.

What’s the anatomy of art school entrance exams?

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Art is an open platform for any expression – it’s a multitude that doesn’t pursue one monolithic quality ideal only. Consequently, it’s not possible to be “better” or “the best” in art. Although the art market offers rankings, art per se does not – how could someone compare (and objectively rank) the diversity of human expression?

Yet art schools try to do exactly that when choosing who gets through the admission procedure. Understand that the art’s open value dynamics make it impossible to select someone according to objective quality criteria. At the same time, the decision making process isn’t usually random: a jury looks at the submitted work, and tries to understand what might fit them, and who might be a valuable candidate for a multi-year long collaboration. How do they do this? If candidates can’t aim to create the “objectively best art” in order to get accepted by art school, what can you ever do to increase your chances of getting in? How can you beat a system (the admission test) whose core values (art) don’t allow for a ranking?

Consider the following general approach:

  1. Increasingly foster processes to create works that align with your vision and competencies, while at the same time 
  2. Improving your understanding of the environments you apply to: what schools, staff and classes might understand and appreciate your attitude and work. Use this to
  3. Create a portfolio that matches these two conditions in the best way currently possible to you; a portfolio that enables the jury to understand why your work is the right fit for them.

While the first point shows the importance of self-expression and authenticity, the other two highlight the importance of understanding and accommodating to the art school you apply to. While you can exclusively focus on your work, your chances can be increased by also focusing on the institution you apply for: their mission, curriculum, and various staff individual’s ideas about art.

At the same time, your chances of acceptance are often lowered tremendously if you

  • Apply at a place that doesn’t focus or understand your style of work, or
  • Don’t manage to create the most concise version of the work possible to you at the moment, or
  • Don’t manage to properly (re)present your work to the jury.

Consider reading “How do I get into art school?” for specific strategies to implement this approach.

How do I research an art school, to understand whether I fit in?

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Every art school stands for a specific way of seeing the world. To understand whether a specific school aligns with your values and artistic practices, consider the following strategies:

1. Discuss schools with your network

Once you reach out to your friends, you will often realize that some of them know (or know of) people associated with art schools: students, graduates, staff, etc. Reach out to them and discuss your curiosities and hopes, and see what insights they can offer about the institution(s) you are interested in.

2. Research the art school online

  • Research the staff: An art school usually consists of classes, which are usually led by a professor (and assistants). Understanding their backgrounds, personalities and values can help you understand whether working there might be a good idea. This empowers you because the question of “Will I get accepted?” will be transformed into an array of deeply personal judgements: What do I think about them? Do I like their way of offering feedback to their students? Is their general attitude beneficial to me?
    It’s usually straight-forward to find out who teaches what topics, and who leads which classes. You can use search engines, YouTube or podcast indices.

  • Research the curriculum: Art schools usually have their curricula online; they tell you what lectures there will be, how many hours will be invested in what topics, and what sort of choices students are given. Understanding an art school’s curriculum is empowering because it lets you judge their offer.

3. Research the art school in person

Researching the staff online is a good way to get a general idea about an art school. For a way deeper ground view, consider personally visiting the school; not once, but continuously. This is challenging (or impossible) when the institute is in another city, state or country; yet it’s important to understand the power of connecting locally. Understand that this isn’t about you showing your work, but about listening in and increasing your understanding of the art school:

  • Visit public art school events: Every art school will have a newsletter and website to inform you about their public offerings: book presentations, roundtables, etc. Visiting these events lets you learn about art, but can also become a platform to connect, and thus to network. It enables random encounters with strangers, helping you get in touch with like-minded individuals. You might get to know a student who then tells you about their experience and opinion of the school. You might get to know a graduate who tells you insights about the staff, or the schedule of a classes’ meetings.

  • Visit the open studio days: Nearly every art school has yearly open studio days. It’s a perfect opportunity to understand the building’s layout – where are the studios, workshops, cafeteria etc. It’s a great way to see the work that gets produced, and to get to know students and staff.

In addition to these public events, art schools have various deeper layers that might allow for visits by strangers (you). Understand that while it’s most always allowed to enter public schools or institutions, this is usually not true at all for private ones! Once you know you are welcome, consider the following options:

  • Visit the school’s work and social areas: Most art schools offer work areas for their students – individual or group studios, and workshops (for operating on wood, metal, to edit videos or develop photos, etc). While these areas are used to focus on work, and thus not ever a good fit for socializing, it can still pay off to visit them since students are there, enabling the chance of random encounters.
    In addition to work areas, most school’s will have cafeterias, libraries and more public areas. The more courageous and open-minded you are in meeting new people, the more discussions and conversations you will have, further informing you about the school. Visiting these areas is usually possible any day of the week.

  • Visit regular class meetings: Art schools often group their students into specific classes (according to the various media and topics), to discuss work and organizational topics with the staff. The schedule of these meetings is rarely published, but can be found out by visiting the school’s work or social areas, or visiting public events.
    Once you know when a class meets, go there and respectfully ask whether you can be a silent guest. Do not expect to be given entrance – some classes are safe spaces, which makes unannounced visitors unwanted. Yet by being there in person, and being accepting of a potential rejection to drop in, you might have the right energy to ask whether you can drop by another time – next week or month. While it sounds easier to simply send off an email to ask about this, this often results in non-answers or a rejection. Showing up in person offers will usually show a way stronger interest and urgency; but make sure you aren’t pushy.

    The reason to visit class meetings is not to show your work. It’s to listen and understand the classes’ atmosphere and group dynamics. This enables you to judge whether they might be a good fit to you, which gives you agency, and a unique authority over the situation: you can’t make them accept you, but you will, upon closer inspection, realize that not every class and professor is as shiny as you expected.

Try to understand which of these strategies resonate with you, to then implement them in a way that suits you. Some of these can be outside of your current comfort zone – if so, investigate whether it makes sense to get beyond that comfort zone. Discuss a plan of action with friends and supporters: can someone accompany you? Can you find an accountability buddy for your research phase? Good luck!