How the Art World Works (repost) part one

This was originally posted on my old blog, and I repost it now and then as I add pieces to it. You can read part two here, and part three here. Enjoy!


Self-portrait by John Tenniel. An artist’s life is not much like that.

Here are a few simple rules for understanding the complex world of art, along with some observations relating to museums and artists. These might seem painfully obvious to some, but the obvious is often easily overlooked, and the consequences of that overlooking can be a headache for many.

1) Most artists do not understand how museum curators choose art.

2) Many curators are not aware of rule #1. I ought to extend these rules: most people do not understand how museums function. While that might be exaggerating, it’s not by much.

3a.) Museum Trustees are there as the advance guard of fundraising and art collecting activities, recruiting donors in both areas. Their sole responsibility in the day-to-day operation of a museum comes in hiring the Director. When you see Trustees managing a museum, it is a clear sign that the Board, the institution, or both, is dysfunctional. The exception is when a Trustee is Acting Director during an interregnum, and that depends on the circumstances of the previous Director’s departure.

3b.) Secrecy is bad for museums. Often museum trustees come from business and professional fields in which secrecy is built-in. Lawyers and businessmen work to keep things quiet lest competitors get hold of sensitive information. Unfortunately, this attitude sometimes carries over into museum operations. To continue my thought from 3a, when you see Trustees managing a museum, there’s likely to be a closed-lip mindset that extends to things that have no need to be kept secret. This is catnip to reporters, who can smell scandal whether it exists or not. Trustees and senior museum staff should always have media training, and not give in to the culture of secrecy.

4) Every museum functions under a great many assumptions, which might not be immediately apparent to the visitor or even to the museum’s staff. Over time, assumptions codify into official history, and shape the future development of a museum’s collection and, ultimately, art history as a whole. Some artists devote themselves to challenging these overt and covert assumptions, whether those assumptions are peculiar to museums or to society as a whole – Fred Wilson is an excellent example.

5) While wealthy people are very fond of endowing museum galleries and funds in their name or the names of loved ones, a museum’s greatest need is in the unrestricted endowment, being that part of the institutions finances from which the salaries and the various bills incurred during regular operation are paid. It costs a lot of money to acquire art these days, and even more to insure, conserve and store that art. If, by some chance, you have money to give to a museum, consider putting vanity aside for a change and giving money for general operations. The staff – most of who are underpaid, and have to deal with the effects of funding shortfalls on a daily basis – will thank you for it.

6) Donors can be very protective about their gifts; they attach all sorts of conditions to donations, essentially usurping the roles of museum Director and curator. If you plan to offer art to a museum, do it this way: select a group of works – 10, for example – and let the museum know that they can choose some of the works – up to 5, say – to constitute the gift. This prevents a museum being offered works it really doesn’t want, for whatever reason, and allows the curators to do their job. If you can’t bear to have anything change in terms of your collection, how it is presented, whether or not it can travel, etc., it’s better to start your own museum. Your curators will still be unhappy with the limitations, but, as your employees, they have to answer to you from the start. A gift should be given without strings.

7a) Just because an artist is trendy or well-known doesn’t guarantee that the art is any good. Even museums of long standing fall prey to the ephemeral.

7b) By the same token, museums can often lag in collecting contemporary art. This is not a bad thing, as it sometimes helps institutions avoid the perils of 7a, but it reinforces the idea that museums are a bit behind, a bit fuddy-duddy. Some contemporary art museums get around this by choosing not to have a permanent collection, putting themselves in a middle ground between the gallery and museum worlds. Others simply acknowledge the conservatism inherent in museums as a form of caution and move on. I recommend that museums do the latter.

8) An artist never knows just where art will take him. Picasso was a mystery to everyone, including himself. That’s why predictability is so anathema to artists, even those who work by conceptual formulae; they fear running out of inspiration.

9) There is no one best place in which to learn about art, especially contemporary art. For one thing, contemporary art is always in flux, growing and shedding its skin with dizzying regularity. Books and college courses can educate you more than decently on the past, but the present is a stretch of white water you have to negotiate at your own risk. The art press, magazines, blogs and the like, fall prey to trendiness (discussed somewhat already) and jargon. Even if you do understand what they are waffling on about, by the time you get through the polysyllables you might find that the message wasn’t worth the effort. Good luck.

10) Let’s get even more basic: what is a museum? Simply put, a museum is a conversation between the past and the present. The visitor enters into a thousand dialogues: with the physical and worlds of the artists; with the issues going on in the visitor’s life and the world around them; with memories made and those yet to be made. Seeing a place you have been to in an artwork, experiencing the changes that have befallen it in the intervening years or the emotional coloring the artist has given it can transform your understanding of many things. The educational mandate of a museum is paramount, but it is the internal dialogues that matter most. Some people complain if a museum appears to take a stand on a sociopolitical issue, say in an online posting or a statement from a Director or curator. They seem to feel that museums should take an impartial, uninvolved attitude. But how is that even possible without robbing the art of an essential element, indeed, at times robbing art of its very reason for being? Museums should not be a tomb in which art is buried, severed forever from the world around it.

11) Most art is bad. There’s nothing wrong with this; even Picasso flubbed a few. This becomes a problem when the artist’s ambitions outweigh other considerations. I’m not referring to the simple scribbles of a child or something tossed off in a moment; I’m referring to art made for a larger audience, art which aspires to the capital A. There are many artists who achieve some measure of success on a small scale, local or regional, but never grow beyond that and do not understand why museums haven’t shown interest (see rule #1). Of course it is unacceptable to embrace mediocrity. Every artist hopes and works for greater things, whether it is on a personal or professional level, but the former must always be paramount. People who make art solely for commercial reasons are, in my book, not artists at all – and I do not refer to illustrators. Illustration has been the bread-and-butter of many fine artists. Don’t denigrate illustration solely because it draws from some other source for material.

There is an element of relativism here – actually, rather a lot of relativism. An artist who is good on a local level might be considered mediocre or poor on a national level. The world of the museum artist is a different one from that of the small-town artist. It makes little sense – especially as the borders are permeable – but there it is. If your work is being ignored on a higher level, do not let jealousy consume you; rather, keep growing your art and put the future into the hands of the future. You can only do so much; the rest is beyond your grasp and must come from without.

Some advice specifically for artists:

12) Do what you don’t like. An artist has two vital resources, imagination and skills. Building the latter is what enables an artist to express the former. If you don’t like to draw, then draw. If your work is strictly abstract, try life drawing. Having techniques at hand enable you to turn to whatever is needed to make a piece of art succeed. If the idea is there but it requires a skill you don’t have, what then? Learn photography if you’re not a photographer, learn to crochet if you’re not a yarnbomber. Learn to play the piano. Stay a student, even when you have become a teacher. In connection with that…

13) Imitate, and then innovate. There is a school of thought that says looking at other artist’s works too often can contaminate your own imagination. Perhaps it is true, especially if your imagination is weak to begin with. But we live in a society that is saturated with images. They are inescapable. The idea of contamination has become a moot point. This is why copying is an important learning tool. I don’t mean quoting in the postmodern sense. It’s an exercise in understanding how artists arrive at conclusions. Perhaps making your own minimalist sculpture won’t teach you much about miminalism, but it could teach you something, which leads me to…

14) Read, but not too much. The second form of imitation is learning how an artist thinks. This is very hard to do. There are many books on art, and a plethora of magazines and blogs, but they are mostly concerned with art from the historian’s point of view, or the spectator’s. Most art magazines are written with curators, critics, and art lovers in mind. They can only scratch the surface of what it means to be making art – for a start, they focus primarily on already completed works, in which the possibilities have been narrowed down to certainties. You can do without 99% of the art writing produced; don’t hesitate to do so when you feel like it.

15) Learn the system, even if you hate it. As I wrote, most artists don’t know how a museum or commercial gallery functions. Understanding this can help you make decisions about future steps in your career. Not every artist is cut out for a solo show at MoMA; some artists don’t even want one. But how such a thing happens (it’s not just who you know) can at least remove one obstacle. Yes, money plays far too large a part, and there is an intelligentsia that renders much of the art world class-bound. These barriers are overcome by artists regularly – just not that many artists. Rail against it, slander it, but if you know how it works you can also plan how to work against it.

16) Accept that you don’t control what other people think of your work. Perhaps they are philistines, or are only attracted to what someone else has already deemed “cool” or “cutting edge.” Or it might be that your work is just not their thing. Buddhists learn to let go of desire; cultivate this. In regards to interpretation, let that go, too. If they see rose petals where you were intending pure abstraction, why argue so long as they like it?

17) View success in personal, not professional, terms. Ultimately the artist is the arbiter of some aspects of success. Weekend painters who never intend to sell anything can be just as happy in their work as a world famous artist. An appreciative audience is all well and good, but a little dollop of selfishness is (in this case) not amiss. Believe in yourself and work toward your goals; whether the rest follows or not is not always relevant. Defining success is hard enough without making one such definition your life’s goal.

18) Forget auction results. Money is a world of its own, frightening, arcane, and not worth your time. Do you feel jealous when some big-name artist pulls in millions for work you consider dull/tasteless/crude/etc.? Jealousy might be the issue – or you might be right. Do not let your beliefs be swayed by the business end of art. If you’re producing illustrations for a book or magazine, of course there is collaboration to consider; if you are a so-called “fine artist,” then you stand apart (or above) the requirements of compromise. And last, be prepared to abandon those beliefs when you feel it is in your best interest. Don’t let money corrupt you, but don’t turn away from it if you can deal with it on your terms.

Part 2 of this essay, which is more like an essay and less like a checklist, will be along soon. Part 3, dealing more with commercial galleries, will appear sometime after that.


3 thoughts on “How the Art World Works (repost) part one

  1. Pingback: How the Art World Works, part 3: galleries | Art Matters

  2. Pingback: How the Art World Works, part 2 | Art Matters

  3. Pingback: A few notes on admissions | Art Matters

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